Passionate Pat Skerry looks to complete Towson turnaround with NCAA berth

Two years after 1-31 debacle, Tigers begin CAA tournament in Baltimore as No. 2 seed

March 07, 2014|By Childs Walker | The Baltimore Sun

Pat Skerry has spent the past 30 minutes pacing the perimeter of the court, tossing out gentle pointers in his New England-inflected patter.

One of his Towson Tigers fires an ill-conceived pass that ends up rattling among the seats at SECU Arena. The third-year coach abruptly morphs into a different animal.

"Instead of acting like little kids, let's execute 'Hook' correctly," he bellows, referring to one of his team's plays.

"Guard!" he barks after a subsequent defensive lapse.

His squat legs pump furiously from beneath billowing Under Armour shorts. He mutters an expletive as he stomps away from the scene of the crime.

Towson players are used to this raging face of Skerry, the same guy they describe as a father figure and model family man off the court. Frankly, they like both versions. As much as Skerry might get on them, they know he'll fight like the devil on their behalf should a referee blow an errant whistle or an opponent play dirty.

They say his passion, revealed again at this late February practice, has driven the remarkable turnaround of one of the country's most moribund college basketball programs.

"When he's screaming on the bench," says senior guard Mike Burwell, "we know it's because he loves us."

With Towson set to begin CAA tournament play at Baltimore Arena tonight, the Tigers are three wins from writing the perfect ending to a three-year tale of transformation.

The leaders of this year's team all signed on to a program that hadn't posted a winning season since 1996. They either played or watched from the sideline during the 1-31 nightmare that was Skerry's first season. The turn for the promised land happened last year, when the Tigers roared to the finish line with eight wins in their last nine games, only to be caged for the postseason because of academic failings under a previous regime.

So for the seniors who bought into Skerry's Lazarus vision, this is it, their one chance to play it out until someone beats them.

"This is what we've all been waiting for," says senior Jerrelle Benimon, Towson's leading scorer and rebounder and the two-time CAA Player of the Year.

Though he might not show it, this is an enormous week for Skerry as well. Towson administrators plucked him from a plum assistant job at Pittsburgh, praying he was the kind of energetic up-and-comer who could finally revive a program that had floundered through a succession of failed hires.

Then-university president Bob Caret believed winning basketball could be a boon for campus life and for Towson's national stature. A sparkling new arena would help. But without the right man leading the quest, the dream would amount to a lot of empty talk.

With two winning seasons, growing home crowds and better academic performance already under his belt, Skerry is a long way down the road. With an NCAA tournament bid — which the Tigers can earn by winning the conference title Monday night — he would render the fantasy entirely real.

"That makes you relevant in college basketball," he says. "That's why you build a place like this, to play in the postseason."

An NCAA appearance would also certify the 44-yeard-old Skerry as a coaching star, the man who transformed a team from worst in the country to bona fide Cinderella in his first Division I shot. Though he brushes off such talk, his name would surely arise in job searches at larger programs.

"He understands what you have to do coming in, and a lot of that is you build a vision," says Canisius coach Jim Baron, who employed Skerry as an assistant at Rhode Island. "I'm not at all surprised by what he's doing now."

'A grinder'

Skerry's story is one of both rapid success and a long slog up the college coaching ladder.

He worked as an assistant at eight different schools over nearly 20 years before he reached his goal of becoming a Division I head coach. Perhaps it's appropriate that his ascent was a scrap given Skerry's origins as a feisty kid on the hockey-mad streets of Medford, Mass., located five miles outside Boston.

Basketball was hardly a family passion. "My dad was a lawyer and a hockey guy. My brothers are lawyers," he says. "I guess I'm the guy who wasn't smart enough to be a lawyer."

Basketball gave him a refuge when his parents divorced, and he drew inspiration from the wondrous Boston Celtics teams of the 1980s.

Skerry says he couldn't shoot a lick but thrived on sharing the ball and harassing the other team's best scorers. He played point guard at Tufts, just a few minutes from his house, and still ranks among the top-20 assist men in Division III history. He also lost four teeth taking charges, a fact he happily reveals by pulling up his lip.

"I played pretty hard," he says. "Hopefully, my teams are somewhat a reflection of that."

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