At every step in his climb up the proverbial college basketball coaching ladder, Eric Skeeters has learned an invaluable lesson.
Many of the lessons imparted to Skeeters – a Baltimore native now serving as an assistant coach at South Florida – came during his time working under Coppin State's Fang Mitchell.
"I had to finish a scouting report for a game one time," Skeeters recalled. "Fang came in the office the next day and said, 'Did you get a chance to finish that report?'
"I said, 'No, not yet. I'm almost done now.'
"Fang said, 'Well did you sleep last night?'
"'Well then you had time to do it.'"
It's been 12 years since Skeeters left Coppin. At South Florida, he enjoys coaching in the most high-profile basketball conference in the country. But the lengthy path that led to Tampa was predominantly paved thanks to his experience playing and coaching in Baltimore. Skeeters started his high school career at Cardinal Gibbons before moving on to Woodlawn. After graduating from high school in 1986, Skeeters headed to CCBC-Catonsville, starring on the basketball and lacrosse teams. After a knee injury ended his playing career, Skeeters turned to coaching – on the AAU circuit and at the Bentalou Recreation Center in West Baltimore.
While Skeeters worked on his bachelor's degree at Coppin State, William Wells, the venerable St. Frances basketball coach, offered him a job coaching the Panthers' junior varsity in 1992. For four years, Skeeters helped build St. Frances – which didn't have a gym at the time – into a perennial Baltimore Catholic League contender. He also started to earn a reputation – that still holds to this day – as a tireless recruiter.
"I say this all the time, but in recruiting, the biggest signing I've had was convincing Mark Karcher to go to St. Frances over the defending national champions in Dunbar," Skeeters said. "Mark was the best prospect in the eighth grade playing on the East Coast. So coming up, getting Mark to come to St. Frances was the hardest job ever. Then we had to convince him to stay. Oak Hill, St. John's Prospect Hall, all of them came after him. … We had to sell Mark not on being the next, but on being the first. A great player comes to a program and opens the doors for a Sean Mosley. Now they'll be compared to you."
Skeeters left St. Frances in 1996 to join Coppin's staff. At that point, Mitchell had already established the Eagles as the MEAC's preeminent power. Skeeters did all he could to enhance that success.
"Those years at Coppin," Skeeters said, "I learned everything you needed to do to be successful at any level, from admissions to academic support to financial aid to scouting to scheduling to recruiting to player development to marketing. Fang was the AD, so we were involved in all that. We were involved in every aspect. So I learned everything about being a college coach in my years at Coppin with Fang."
During Skeeters' three seasons on North Ave., Coppin went 58-30 with three regular-season conference titles. In 1997, the 15th-seeded Eagles pulled off one of college basketball's most memorable upsets, topping second-seeded South Carolina in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
"We had to sell the success," Skeeters said. "In the 90s, Fang owned the league. We won our share."
When the opportunity to come back to Baltimore in 2004 as an assistant at Towson presented itself, Skeeters jumped at the chance. Five years later, South Florida coach Stan Heath came calling, and Skeeters headed to Tampa for the biggest challenge of his coaching career.
"Being back at the [high-major] level, it's all what I expected," Skeeters said. "Everybody knows how good this league is. Night in and night out, it's a pro league. In order to be successful at this level, you have to be good. The league is full of great coaches. There are no rocking-chair games in the Big East. You can't sit back and say, 'OK, we can take it easy tonight.' Every night in the Big East, every night is a national championship-level game."
In Skeeters' first season in Tampa, the Bulls went 20-13 – the program's third 20-win season ever. Despite having a .500 record in the Big East, South Florida was left out of the NCAA tournament field. The Bulls followed that up with a disappointing 10-23 campaign this year.
"We had nine losses by single digits where we had the lead in the second half," Skeeters said. "That's just how tough the Big East is. But overall, it was definitely a year we didn't expect. You lose a guy like Dominique Jones in the first round of the NBA draft, it's hard to recoup that. We won 20 games last year, but lost a guy in May to the draft. His dreams came true. But we'll be pretty good and back in the mix next year."
The Bulls have signed two intriguing post prospects in Andre Jackson and Jordan Omogbehin. They'll also add Victor Rudd, a transfer from Arizona State, onto the active roster. Skeeters thinks Rudd could be "one of the better perimeter players in the Big East." In the meantime, Skeeters will do what he does best – recruit.
"We've established that you can win at South Florida," Skeeters said. "South Florida is a sleeping giant, a diamond in the rough in the best conference with the best location. Right now it's 77 degrees and sunny in Tampa, Fla. Up in Connecticut, it's snowing. We think we have the best location in the league. Obviously, we're in the best conference in college basketball. This is a hard sell, but it's not that hard to sell because players coming in can be difference makers."
Whatever the future in coaching holds for Skeeters, he'll always look back on his basketball upbringing in Baltimore, where he learned the trade from Wells, Mitchell, and countless others. A piece of advice from Coppin's longtime coach still resonates to this day.
"Fang sat me down and said, 'You have an opportunity there to do something that so many people would want.' I was like, 'Come on, Fang. I just got the JV job at St. Frances.' And he said, 'but you have a job coaching basketball. And that right there is a fortunate thing.' I'll never forget that. You go back over the years, this job opens, that job opens – it didn't matter where it was. It didn't matter if it was little, tiny St. Frances. I got paid $175 every two weeks. It wasn't for anything else besides being in coaching, developing kids, and the love of the game and building something."
2006 Baltimore Sun photo of Eric Skeeters by Gene Sweeney Jr.