Pat Skerry is a nice, scrappy guy who went to a small school, struggled through years of being an assistant coach and then got a job as the head coach of the Towson University men's basketball team.
What happened next was the storybook second season of Skerry's tenure at Towson. The 2012-13 team finished 18-13 and tied for second place in the Colonial Athletic Association, engineering the biggest one-year turnaround in Division I men's hoops history in the process.
Skerry's rise up the coaching ranks eclipsed bad memories from his first season as a Division I head coach. And what a first year it was. With six returning players from a 4-26 squad, the 2011-12 Tigers set a record for futility. On top of that, the previous team's collective GPA was so low that the NCAA banned Towson from postseason games -- a possibility that seemed like a mirage at the time.
"Were there regrets?" said Skerry, 43, a green-eyed, round-faced guy with a voice like a goose. "Absolutely. The games could be excruciating. I couldn't coach the guys up enough to squeeze out some more wins. When we played on the road, I'd head right to the hotel room -- no staff meetings, no talking, nothing. I felt like I'd just been to an execution."
It made it easier knowing that his best players were transfers sitting on the bench or players who were finishing up at junior college or in high school before becoming Tigers. Skerry's persistent style of salesmanship helped him land talented kids from outside Maryland. Recruits' lack of knowledge about the school's recent hoops history -- it hadn't had a winning season since 1995-96 -- didn't hurt.
"I didn't even know Towson was in Maryland until I got my plane ticket," said Jerome Hairston, a Cheyenne, Wyo., native who was ranked near the top 100 nationally as a high school senior in North Carolina.
Skerry plucked him away from dozens of other schools, including a couple from the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"He had a genuine spirit that I liked," Hairston said. "A lot of coaches tell you what you want to hear, but Coach came to me and said, 'We're building something.' There's nothing more interesting to me than being part of something that's building."
Skerry's embrace of an up-tempo offense with a lot of transition play -- not to mention immediate playing time -- didn't hurt his wooing of top-flight players, either.
"I picked up the Princeton style of play at Georgetown pretty quickly," said Jerrelle Benimon, who became the team's star and the CAA Player of the Year last season after transferring. "But I got bored with that and with not playing. I knew they were building here and getting a new arena. It looked like a nice situation."
The 2012-13 team won 14 of its last 19 games, but was denied a chance to do more, including winning the CAA tournament, because of those grade-based sanctions.
"Once you finally break through, there's a belief you can get things done," Skerry said. "Our chemistry is very good, and we'll be deeper."
That feeling of being able to get things done is even more evident this season, Skerry said. The team's grades are improved, Towson just opened its new building -- the airy, bright and spacious SECU Arena -- and the CAA announced that its men's basketball tournament would be held at the Baltimore Arena from 2014-16.
"Everybody knows about how good Towson is," said Jimmy Patsos, the savior of another local men's program that had all but died, Loyola University, and now the head men's coach at Siena College. "Everybody knows about Benimon. Towson's not sneaking up on anybody this year."
Several hardwood pundits have chosen Towson as the 2013-14 favorite to win the CAA. Towson, for once, has some hoops credibility, and also the expectations that come with it.
"Oh, it's great, great pressure," Skerry said. "Pressure's part of the deal. It's what you sign up for. There's pressure because you want it all to mean something."
But does that mean that Skerry has what it takes for Towson to live up to what has become -- quickly and amazingly -- a winning reputation? And if he does, will he hang around long enough for Baltimore to get to know him?
The story of the peripatetic Skerry begins in Medford, Mass., a suburb a few miles north of Boston -- an analogy for what Towson is to Baltimore, if only by geography. Medford is a hockey town, like many in the frozen Northeast, and Skerry had little choice but to skate.
He played on traveling hockey teams when he was 11 and 12 with Joe and Dave Sacco, brothers who later played in the NHL, with Joe becoming a coach after a long career on the ice. The team racked up a 72-2 record in three different leagues.
"I was just along for the ride," Skerry said. "I'd sit in front of the net and score some goals. The Saccos were the stars."
The oldest of three brothers, Skerry suffered through the divorce of his parents when he was in middle school. He found some solace in basketball, as well as a new home of sorts.
"I really liked the team aspect of basketball," he said. "I was always excited to make a good pass. I fell in love with it, and haven't had a real job since."
After being the last cut from the frosh team at Boston College High School, Skerry transferred to Malden Catholic, closer to home, and started on the varsity team as a sophomore. Like many who have gone on to become head coaches, Skerry was a brainy player and didn't stand out much.
His college coach, Bob Sheldon, who has been the head men's basketball coach at Division III Tufts University for 25 years, said he remembered first seeing Skerry play as a high school senior in Boston, when Sheldon was an assistant at Clark University, a Division III school in Worcester, Mass.
"I liked Pat then as a person, but Clark had better recruits," Sheldon said. "He didn't play in a very strong league."
Clark turned down Skerry, a 5-foot-9-in-sneakers lefty fireplug who was more bulldog than athlete.
He ended up at Tufts, a strong academic college near his home. His mother worked there as coordinator of programs. Skerry, with no scholarship offers, could catch a break on tuition because of it.
"My dad told me I could go anywhere I wanted for college, as long as I paid for it," Skerry said. "I went to Tufts."
Soon after accepting a head coaching spot at the school, Sheldon encountered Skerry, who was then a short, nervy kid with a gym rat's passion for the game. Skerry was the first high school player to walk into the new coach's campus office.
"His face dropped -- he couldn't have been happy to see me there [after the snub by Clark]," Sheldon said. "But I really came to like him -- his enthusiasm, the fact that he had the guts to come and talk with me as a high school senior."
Skerry was a pass-first, mindful point guard.
"It took him all of one half of his first game to beat out a senior for the starting spot," Sheldon said. "He was a leader. He knew how to run a team."
The little Napoleon gained a nickname -- The General -- which Sheldon said came largely from the signs Skerry and his mother hung around the gym.
"That might have something to do with the legend," Sheldon quipped.
Skerry was also tough as nails. Once, he took a charge and got kneed in the face, losing a front tooth. He stopped, picked up the tooth, threw it toward Sheldon and kept playing.
"I didn't bother picking it up," Sheldon said. "The next day, he comes in and asks if we'll pay [for his dental work]."
From 1988-92, Skerry compiled 634 career assists, a total that still ranks as Tufts' program record. He graduated with a bachelor's in psychology, but had no plans then to pursue another degree (he has since earned a master's in education from Tufts) or take on a career.
His said his mother had found him a job doing menial work at an international education firm in Cambridge, Mass. On his first Friday of gainful employment, he bought a Massachusetts lottery ticket and won $470. Instead of heading into the office for the day, he drove to New Hampshire, where his father and brothers were vacationing, to tell them he couldn't hack the work.
"My dad told me he thought I'd last a month at it," Skerry said.
After that, he called Sheldon and devised ways to find a job in basketball, Skerry said. At the same time, he began collecting licenses for bartending, real estate, refereeing (basketball and soccer) and substitute teaching. Side jobs kept him afloat after he accepted one of the several offers he had: Tufts hired him as a volunteer assistant.
"I made all of $300 coaching that year," he said.
He helped coach his two younger brothers at Tufts, then moved on to Stonehill College for one year, and then to D-III Curry College, near Boston, where he became the second-youngest head coach in the nation. Two years later, he was again on the move, taking a 60 percent pay cut to get on a Division I track as an assistant at Northeastern University.
From there, he took the first steps of a 13-year run when he served under head coaches, who sometimes tried his faith.
"It's natural to have those moments," he said. "You have those dog days. Yeesh -- I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't coach."
With the exception of the Northeastern move, all of his subsequent job changes -- from William & Mary to the College of Charleston to Rhode Island to Providence to Pittsburgh -- earned him a spot in a better conference and progressively more money. He gathered a reputation as a strong teaching coach, especially with guards, and as a relentless recruiter, helping to bring Vincent Council, the all-time career assists leader in Big East history, and frontcourt strongman Kadeem Batts to Providence.
Being a Pittsburgh assistant was the key that turned the lock for Skerry's coaching aspirations, he said.
"I got the job [at Towson] because I was at Pitt," said Skerry, whose annual salary is $300,000. "It's like a machine there, so I knew we'd have to do things differently here. A lot of people told me, 'Don't take it -- you can do better.' But as a small-college guy, I thought that if I ever got an opportunity, it would have to be at a place that needed to be cleaned up."
Pittsburgh men's basketball coach Jamie Dixon gave Towson a valuable, pro-Skerry recommendation. It was an easy one to offer, Dixon said.
"[Skerry] has no baggage, comes from a great academic background and has a sharp coaching mind," Dixon said. "When I heard about that job, I thought, 'There's nowhere to go but up.' There was an arena on the way, and recruitable players five or 10 minutes away in several directions. I thought this could be a great opportunity."
Now that George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth and Old Dominion have defected from the CAA, the Towson job has gotten better, Dixon said.
"Towson has gone from a bottom-of-the-league job to a top-of-the-league one," Dixon said. "There aren't many jobs like that out there."
Weekday afternoons are Skerry's favorite time of the day, he said.
"I really love practice," Skerry said. "I love to watch players learn and improve."
His players, taught the Pittsburgh way of grinding it out on defense, show each other no mercy. They take turns being forcibly mauled to the floor after getting in a ball handler's way or while fighting for a rebound. There's no star system. Even Benimon, the team's would-be untouchable, gets roughed up.
"We hit each other harder in practice than we do other teams," Hairston said. "We're real competitive with each other. It prepares us for all we might go through during games."
At one practice, Mike Burwell, a transfer from South Florida, crashed to the floor after a teammate snuffed his shot at its apex. He lay there in obvious pain as student trainers attended to him. The rest of the team moved to the opposite basket to keep working -- seemingly oblivious -- while the trainers scraped a wincing Burwell back up. The injury was not serious, but Burwell missed the next night's exhibition against Mansfield, an 85-65 win Oct. 30.
"I like contact," Skerry said. "I like having that hit-first mentality. No matter what happens or who we play, our guys will never be scared."
With Temple, Villanova and Kansas scheduled early this year, that's a good thing.
Skerry honks and goads his players to do better -- "What did I give you a scholarship for?" is one of his favorite elbow jabs -- as they run some Pittsburgh-style offensive sets or go through drills on post defense. In between team sessions, assistants run drills that work on individual skills, such as ballhandling, passing and shooting.
The tutelage goes beyond the court. Assistant coaches and other university personnel check on players daily to make sure they attend every class. The university has bulked up its academic support unit for athletes and put money into strength and conditioning facilities and sports medicine -- great news for the players who endure those grueling practices.
"We've got the support from the athletic department and the president here," Skerry said. "People understand what men's basketball can do for our institution."
The local recrutis are starting to sign on, after what seems like a lifetime away from the days of Baltimore stars who played for the Tigers, such as Gary Neal, Devin Boyd and Kurk Lee. Allen Costley (Milford Mill) and Jordan McNeil (Mount St. Joseph's) have pledged to join the Tigers for the 2014-15 season, along with Byron Hawkins and Mike Morsell, two high-profile players from the Washington, D.C., area.
All signs point to an extended run of success for Skerry -- if he stays. In August, he signed a contract extension, which runs through 2019. Rumors circulated earlier this year that he had interviewed for the University of Minnesota job. And if he continues to build Towson into a CAA power, the requests for interviews will mount.
Skerry said he's comfortable living in Lutherville, as are his wife and two sons, and called the situation at Towson good.
"If we can complete this turnaround and be consistent winners, we'll really be appreciated here," he said. "I'd be very happy to know that I was coaching at Towson for the next 10 years."
Issue 191: November 2013