April 19, 2006
CHESTNUT HILL -- Al Skinner considers himself and the Boston College basketball program "tremendously blessed" to have been able to hold his coaching staff together since the group's arrival from Rhode Island nine years ago.
Over that time, as Skinner and his staff turned the program around after the turmoil that followed coach Jim O'Brien's strained departure for Ohio State, Skinner had lost just one of his assistants -- Tim O'Shea to Ohio -- but that all changed in early April.
First, Ed Cooley got the head job at Fairfield. Then, in a hiring that actually was projected to take place before Cooley's exit, associate head coach Bill Coen hopped on the "T" and went over to Northeastern.
One week. Two big hits.
Five years ago, when O'Shea left, at least one member of the Boston media predicted doom for the Eagles, wondering how the program would survive without a key guy. O'Shea has done well at Ohio, going to the NCAA Tournament in 2005, but the Eagles have prospered, too.
Now comes a tougher test.
"Obviously, I was tremendously blessed to have them as long as I had them," Skinner said. "Even in comparison to a lot of staffs, we've still got stability within our staff."
Skinner was set to elevate both Pat Duquette, the only coach remaining from Skinner's original BC staff, and Bonzie Colson, the Eagles' administrative assistant for the past five years. There also will have to be hires from outside, with Skinner reportedly set to try to hire Clark coach Mo Cassara, who once coached Smith and guard Jarrett Jack (Georgia Tech/NBA) at Worcester Academy. Cassara later spent one year as an assistant at Dayton, before moving to Clark two years ago.
The losses of Coen and Cooley won't be easy to overcome. But that's the price you pay for winning, and it really was surprising that it took this long for this staff to get hit. The Eagles have been virtually trouble-free under Skinner -- no recruiting headaches, just some internal things with players after they arrived -- and the two departing coaches were right there at the forefront.
"The way you build a program and sustain it is through quality people," Skinner said. "We don't always attract the top talent, and (we) have to scratch the surface in order to get young men who can compete on this level. Bill and Ed were willing to take more time to get it done. They put in the effort and stayed longer than other guys to find the type of individuals who could be successful."
The BC program has done so well in part because it has been able to find talented recruits who somehow weren't chased by other teams from the major conferences.
"Those guys have done as good a job as anyone in the country in finding talent under the radar," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun told the Boston Herald. "We couldn't decide whether Troy Bell was good enough, and look what he did (BC's all-time leading scorer). Their staff is sensational."
The BC team that just went to the Sweet 16 -- Skinner's first trip there with the Eagles -- also was led by people few others wanted. Forward Craig Smith, forward Jared Dudley and guard Sean Marshall all came out of southern California unwanted by any of the major programs out there (or really anywhere else). Tyrese Rice, the freshman guard from Virginia who played so well this season, was sought by Wake Forest, but he wasn't as highly touted as most other ACC players.
Coen and Cooley, along with Skinner, were masters at finding those guys. Duquette, though, has a good pedigree (he recruited incoming freshman forward Shamari Spears), and the success of the program should carry enough weight to help things continue.
Skinner is the underrated variable in this equation and shouldn't be overlooked. While one Boston media type recently said, "Al needs guys to get players for him," it's clear that all coaches need that, at least the ones that aren't Duke and North Carolina and basically have McDonald's All-Americans banging at their doors.
"It's a big change because guys have new responsibilities," Skinner said. "But they'll learn their way just like anything else. It's going to take a little time for them to get comfortable."
Duquette, 35, one of those sharp young coaches basketball people label as "head coaching material," likely will slip into his new role without much trouble. Colson, 38, who played for Skinner at Rhode Island, also should be able to grow into his new role. He has learned from quality people such as Cooley, Coen and O'Shea.
A side note to Coen's move across town to Northeastern: Stevie Hailey, the guard who left BC for that school, sat out last year as a transfer and will play for Coen next season. The Huskies were 19-11 in 2005-06 and lost their backcourt, including star Jose Juan Berea, but now they pick up Hailey -- and a new coach -- after Ron Everhart left for Duquesne.
"I had a great job at Boston College and was very, very comfortable there and really wasn't entertaining any thoughts of leaving," Coen, 44, said. "(Northeastern AD Dave O'Brien) called me and decided to talk about this opportunity, and immediately I got something in my gut. But what really sold me was when I came over and talked to the people involved, working every day at the university. Their passion overwhelmed me, and I knew this was the place for me."
Northeastern joined the Colonial Athletic Association last season and went 12-6 in conference play. Berea was the CAA player of the year.
Talking about his departing associate head coach, Skinner said, "He's as good with Xs and Os as anyone I've ever been associated with. I'm just happy for him, and I'm happy with the fact that the community there is supportive and is willing to make an investment in him to be competitive in that league."
Skinner said he's in no hurry to play either of his former assistants (he has only scrimmaged Ohio since O'Shea went there) but will leave the door open.
"Why would I want to play my own guys?" he told the Boston Globe. "I don't want to do that. But if they want to do it and it works out for them, then it should be a win-win situation. I'm not looking to hurt them. I want to help. So if it's going to benefit them to play BC, then we will, but if it doesn't, then we won't."
Strangely enough, BC's only non-NCAA season in the last six saw the Eagles go to the NIT, primarily because of a loss to Northeastern.