Passionate Pat Skerry looks to complete Towson turnaround with NCAA berth

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."

He took a job at an education firm after graduation and quit after four days. Bolstered by a winning lottery ticket that put $473 in his pocket, Skerry talked his way into a low-paying assistant job at Tufts. He also refereed, tended bar and substitute taught so he could survive. His coaching odyssey was underway.

Reflecting on his many years of jumping from program to program, Skerry says he had periodic doubts about where it would all end. He tried to take lessons from each coach, however, and he built a reputation as a relentless recruiter with deep contacts up and down the East Coast.

"He's a grinder," says Central Michigan coach Keno Davis, who hired Skerry at Providence. "To be a great recruiter, you're looking under every stone. And then maybe, when somebody has a player who's underrecruited, they're going to call you instead of somebody else."

In fact, Skerry has built his rapid success at Towson around transfers who felt underappreciated at their previous schools. He has a keen eye for the possibility in such players.

"He knows upside," Baron says. "He just has an instinct for getting guys who will get better."

Skerry talks about his 10 months at Jamie Dixon's Pitt program as a kind of finishing school, the place where he learned from a coach who had mastered the total picture. Every practice, every film session, every recruiting visit was a dogged exercise in routine, with Dixon keeping his hand in every pie. From the experience, Skerry stole a key mantra for Towson: "Do what we do."

He often says it at practice, reminding players that if they revert to the basic principles of the program —defense, rebounding, resilience, accountability — the end product will take care of itself.

'A father figure'

Skerry had to believe that during his first season at Towson, when the results were so wretched. His 1-31 season looked like more of the same to an outside world that was used to Towson being terrible. But inside the program, players say, a culture change was already apparent.

Practices remained intense, even as any hope of a decent record faded. Players went to study hall every night, knowing they couldn't afford the same academic slip-ups that had imperiled the program under previous coach Pat Kennedy.

When the transfers finally got to suit up in 2012-2013, Towson was a whole different team, a winning one. The Tigers had to sit out the postseason because of NCAA sanctions. But that only enhanced their ambitions for this season.

Their 22-9 record aside, it hasn't been an entirely easy ride. The Tigers played poorly on the road early in the season and fell well behind Delaware in the conference standings. Skerry had to dismiss Jerome Hairston, one of his most touted recruits, for violations of team rules.

"It's just something we had to do," the coach says. "Where we're at now is the best we've ever been chemistry-wise. Injuries, losing guys, that's just part of what you go through. … It's got to be next man up, find a way. And these guys are great like that. They're tough-minded."

Despite his occasional on-court rants, Skerry is no dictator. He gives players plenty of room to express their thoughts and frustrations. During the same February practice where Skerry rips into the team, Benimon profanely berates himself for a misguided shot and kicks over a chair. The coach doesn't say a word.

"He can't tell us to be a quiet because he'd be a hypocrite," Benimon says, chuckling.

Fellow senior Marcus Damas, in his third season with Skerry, says the coach imparts great trust to those who earn it.

"At practice, he lets the older guys speak their minds," Damas says. "If I want to stop practice for a second and make a teaching point, he'll definitely give me the floor."

The two share just as much trust off the court. Damas recalls how worried he was when his mother lost her job and how Skerry talked him through it until she found another opportunity.

"He's a father figure to all of us, a father figure to me," Damas says. "I speak to the guy every day, outside of basketball."

The coach's words are backed by his obvious loyalty to wife, Kristen, and sons, Ryan and Owen. Skerry has become an outspoke autism activist since Owen, the spitting image of his father, was diagnosed with the condition.

Now this emotional group, which has lived through a wild three seasons, faces its long-anticipated postseason gauntlet.

The players try to think one day at a time as they have while winning 10 of their last 11. But it's hard to avoid the bigger picture. Just being in the SECU Arena, a $75-million gem where the home crowds more than doubled those of two seasons ago, nudges the mind to great possibilities.

"When you look back years from now," senior Rafriel Guthrie says dreamily, "I'll be one of the players on the roster that made some of this stuff happen."

The Tigers are exactly where they want to be, a peaking team playing on virtual home turf with a March Madness bid at stake. On the other hand, because this is the one and only shot for this particular group, Skerry worries his players might get too hyped.

"I don't want them worried about making mistakes," he says. "I want them to get out and have some fun, just play really, really hard."

In other words: Do what they do.

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