The fundamental problems, according to Pat Skerry, are threefold: His team does not shoot well, and it does not pass well, and it does not dribble well. This poses a challenge when your objective is to win basketball games. Hell, this poses a challenge when your objective is to win one basketball game over the course of an entire season.
“We’re not exactly an offensive juggernaut,” he said. “We’re not going to evoke memories of Paul Westhead’s Loyola Marymount teams.”
And: “We’re not particularly deep.”
And: “We’ve got a lot of guys who haven’t been around success.”
And: “I’m surprised it took people this long to figure out that they could play zone against us.”
In the waning hours of a January evening, Skerry slouched before a microphone, at what was ostensibly a press conference but felt more like an attempt to meander toward catharsis. Skerry is compact and thick, with fierce green eyes and an accent straight out of The Town (at one point, he referred to an opposing player who ate his team up on the boards as “a monstah“) and he spilled on his team’s myriad weaknesses to a sedate gathering of four reporters occupying the 20 seats opposite him: a correspondent from a Virginia newspaper here to cover the visiting team, a writer for the student newspaper, a writer for TowsonTigers.com, and me. We had just watched Skerry’s Towson team lose at home by 30 points to Old Dominion;1 in this moment, there wasn’t really anything to ask that didn’t seem abundantly obvious to everyone in the room.
Attendance: 689, a number that would have been considerably lower without the participation of the Cub Scout troupe behind the bench.
At halftime, Towson trailed by only nine, and then came a spectacular implosion of the kind that had occurred in all 18 of the Tigers’ previous games this season and had occurred in every game the Tigers played, under two different coaches, since the holiday season of 2010. At the seven-minute mark, the Tigers trailed 66-31; their best interior players were tossing up uncontested airballs from three feet; and Skerry had stopped skating up and down the sideline and taken up residence in a chair with a bemused expression on his face. There are a few games every season, he had once heard from a coaching colleague, where you have to conserve your energy and take your ass-kicking and ponder what comes next. It’s just that no coach imagines he’ll have to deal with this sinking feeling every single night.
It was a regrettable performance all around. Towson was in the midst of the worst stretch of futility in Division I history, a run of losing that may stand unparalleled for years on end, and in that moment there seemed no immediate reprieve on the horizon. Several times during my conversations with him, Skerry lauded his team’s ability to devise innovative methods for turning the ball over; on one of the final possessions of the Old Dominion game, an undersized walk-on referred to as “Rudy” by opposing crowds threw an errant pass in the frontcourt. Off he raced, chasing the ball handler down and fouling him so hard that he crashed into the basket standard and blacked out for several seconds. He got up, wincing, stayed in the game for those final pointless seconds, then went to the hospital that night to make sure he hadn’t damaged any internal organs.
It felt like the ending to the most awkward sports movie of all time, and yet, citing this incident, a reporter remarked how Skerry’s team played hard until the end. It was more of a consolation than a question, and I got the sense that these sorts of sympathetic gestures only made the coach feel worse.
“I think that’s good,” he said. “But you’re supposed to play hard. It’s like I’m supposed to show up for work.”
There are 344 Division I college basketball programs in America, and as of last Saturday, two were without a single win: One was in Binghamton, New York, on a campus still recovering from a multifaceted scandal that rocked the university. The other was at Towson, a school of 17,000 undergraduates in suburban Baltimore, where ignominy has been achieved through years of neglect and indifference. The Tigers haven’t had a winning season since 1996; they play in a boxy and outdated gym that will soon be replaced. The man who preceded Skerry, veteran coach Pat Kennedy, bolted after last season’s team finished the year with 19 consecutive losses, which means that until a reprieve came last Saturday, the Tigers had dropped 41 games in a row, setting a new Division I record. The record will show that in the year 2011, Towson’s men’s basketball team did not win a single contest.2
Technically, the record still belongs to the New Jersey Institute of Technology, which lost 51 straight from 2007 to 2009, though because NJIT was in the process of reclassifying to Division I, their streak doesn’t count in the official record book.
“Sometimes I don’t even answer my phone,” freshman guard Kris Walden told me. “Everybody wants to tell you what they think you should do.”
At times this season, the Tigers appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough: In December, they lost to a ranked Virginia team by only seven points. They played perennial Colonial Athletic Association power George Mason twice, and lost by only 12 each time. But problems always manifested themselves in the end; the Tigers shoot 36.6 percent from the floor, which is 342nd in Division I; they average 49.6 points per game, which is dead last. They have perfected the second-half scoring lull, and in so doing have lost to excellent teams (they opened the season with a 100-54 defeat at Kansas) and in front of heads of state and comedic icons.3 In a 60-27 loss to Drexel, they scored the fewest points ever in a CAA game. In a 62-58 loss to the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, they made 8-of-25 free throws. A perplexed Skerry asked his sports information director to see if it was the worst free-throw shooting performance in college basketball history; the SID, Dustin Semonavick, unearthed a box score from four decades ago where a team shot worse, which led Skerry to extrapolate that it was the worst any team had shot from the line in 40 years. (Whatever gets the message through, I guess.)
A 66-46 home defeat to Oregon State prompted a visit from both President Obama, whose brother-in-law coaches the Beavers, and Bill Murray, whose son Luke is an assistant on Skerry’s staff. Luke Murray’s father isn’t mentioned in his official bio, and I was told he’s kind of tired of talking about it and is trying to establish his own identity as both a coach and a recruiter. “He hasn’t even seen a lot of the movies,” Skerry told me. “I was like, ‘You’ve never seen Kingpin? That’s a classic.’”
“Well, are they bad free throw shooters in practice?” I asked the next day. We were sitting in his office, and Skerry had his feet propped up, and he was drinking a Diet Coke. He looked me in the eye, swallowed hard, and nodded his head vigorously.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah.”
Skerry is a journeyman assistant coach who bounced from one program to another before spending last season on Jamie Dixon’s staff at Pittsburgh. He grew up in Medford, a Boston suburb, the son of an attorney (his brothers are all lawyers as well), and he played college ball at nearby Tufts, and you can envision him as one of those undersized Division III point guards who careens toward the basket like a runaway bowling ball.4 After college, he took an assistant’s job at Stonehill, a local college, and then at 26 he was hired as the head coach at Curry College in nearby Milton. He flipped the entire roster, won 13 games in his second season, jumped for an assistant’s job at Northeastern, and spent the next decade and a half leapfrogging from one stop to the next, scraping together a résumé and recruiting up and down the East Coast. “I’m not someone that’s easily discouraged,” he said.
When Skerry was cut from the freshman team at his high school, he played pickup ball every afternoon, transferred to a different school, and started on the varsity as a sophomore.
He has, he likes to say, fought for everything he’s got; he is not one of those assistants who came of age under a prominent coach or an ordained program. It took him 13 seasons and six different assistant’s gigs to get to this point, and he soon realized that it would take him even longer to actually succeed at Towson. There wasn’t even a weight-training program in place when he got here; whatever plan for success the previous regime formulated had been rendered obsolete. Soon after Skerry arrived, one of Kennedy’s players transferred to Xavier. Another went to Israel to play pro ball. Skerry’s top recruit failed to make it through the NCAA’s clearinghouse paperwork. The night before preseason practice began, one of his top returning guards got into legal trouble on campus; he was allowed to stay in school so he could graduate, but wasn’t allowed to play.
Skerry picked up walk-ons and fill-ins just to complete his roster. Several of his starters are playing outside their natural positions, and a few go nearly 40 minutes every night, which explains why they have trouble sustaining much of anything down the stretch. His only scholarship senior, a former walk-on named Robert Nwankwo, sat out last season for academic reasons and wasn’t even allowed to practice with the team.5 The only returning letterman is a sophomore. When the Tigers lost an exhibition game to Virginia State, a Division II team,6 Skerry knew he was in for it.
I asked Nwankwo how he dealt with the losing, given that he wouldn’t be here to see the potential fruits of Skerry’s labor. “I eat a lot,” he said.
And not a particularly good Division II team: As of Monday, Virginia State had lost 16 of 19 regular-season games.
“I’m fine, other than the games,” Skerry said. “But the only way out of the forest is —” He paused, sussing out the proper metaphor. “To burn down the fucking trees.”
There’s real potential here, if you buy into Skerry’s pitch. The idea he’s running with is that none of the Division I college teams in Baltimore are dominant programs, and Towson, playing in a respected conference and on the verge of completing a new on-campus arena, is a couple of years away from vying for the CAA title. And it is not impossible to see a path forward. Skerry has already pulled in a couple of high-profile transfers (one from South Florida and one from Georgetown) for next season, along with the sixth-best recruiting class among non-BCS schools, according to CBS Sports. By the time the Tigers move into that new arena in 2013, Skerry will have once again flipped most of his current roster.
And yet that doesn’t make the present moment any easier. Skerry has expressed genuine admiration for this group’s work ethic (it makes it easier, of course, when a lot of them are playing for a roster spot next season), but their directionlessness on the court drives him batty. He’s utilized every motivational tactic imaginable; after the loss to Virginia, he evoked a metaphor involving the chicken wings at a local restaurant. He showed them the Ali “Rope-a-Dope” fight. He has engaged in expletive-laced tirades and pulled back and delivered encouragement in the face of irrational decision making. He’s not really sure what else he can do.
“You guys act like you’ve done this perfectly the whole fucking year,” he deadpanned during a defensive drill on the day I watched a walk-through.
And to me, he muttered, “I shouldn’t swear so much.”
The morning after the Old Dominion game, I met with Mike Waddell, who was hired as the athletic director at Towson in 2010 and served as the one-man search committee who hired Skerry. He burst through the doors of the cottage where his office is located, went upstairs to get something, then came back down and declared that we were going to lunch. “OK,” he said. “Let’s go talk shitty basketball.”
In a profession that typically values judiciousness over personality, Waddell is one of the more freewheeling athletic administrators I’ve ever met. Over the course of lunch, he told me that he wanted to redesign Towson’s football uniforms so that they resembled actual tigers and he quoted at least a half dozen films and television shows, including Crimson Tide, Friday Night Lights, and The Devil’s Advocate, somehow likening himself to Al Pacino’s incarnation of Beelzebub. He predicted that Towson would get its first win over Delaware in a few days (they lost by 19) and he told me about an extensive argument he had with a prominent national basketball reporter, and then he declared that next year’s Tigers will have the biggest season-to-season improvement in NCAA history. “I don’t care if we recruit 13 kids from Nome, Alaska,” he says. “It’s all about the dubs.”
Later that afternoon, I asked Skerry how he managed to recruit anyone while coaching the worst basketball team in America. He walked over to his jacket, pulled out his keys, and tossed them on his desk. At first, I had no idea what was going on; then I realized this was the pitch. “Heah ya go,” he said, ratcheting up his accent, because this is the kind of stuff you play up when you’re chasing after fickle 18-year-olds. “I need guys who can drive the cah.”
This is what’s most interesting about both Waddell and Skerry: They are so confident about the future that they have not been afraid to use the losing streak as a selling point. (“You get to write the prologue in what’s going to be the greatest turnaround story in college basketball,” Waddell told me.) At a time when every major college in America is seeking an upgrade to its basketball program, in a conference that has sent two teams to the Final Four in recent years, I have no idea if they’re actually capable of completing such a turnaround, but their salty candor is refreshing. “I worry about Pat, and I worry about our kids,” Waddell told me as the losing streak continued to grow. After the Old Dominion game, the coach and his athletic director had one of those late-night phone calls in which they tried to buoy each other’s spirits, and I like to imagine Waddell quoted a Michael Bay film at some point.
“Then again,” Waddell said, “there are 2 billion people in China that don’t give a damn.”
Last Saturday afternoon, shortly before Towson (then 0-22) tipped off against an 8-12 North Carolina-Wilmington team, Pat Skerry’s wife rang his cellphone and told him that an owl had crashed into their house. A few minutes later, she called back again, and told him it wasn’t an owl, but a hawk. Then she called emergency responders to clean up the mess.
Skerry started thinking. North Carolina-Wilmington’s nickname, he realized, was the Seahawks. Never mind the genus, he figured, and he launched into a pregame speech about how a hawk had been slayed at his house, and now it was time to slay the hawk here, and so on. “You can’t make this shit up,” he said.
Buoyed by that curious (and not necessarily positive) omen, Towson found itself up seven with a minute to play. The Tigers hadn’t really practiced late-game situations, because it wasn’t something that applied to them; Wilmington hit a pair of 3, cut the lead to two, and then to one, and after Towson extended it back to three, the Seahawks had one last chance to tie the game with a 3-pointer. You had to figure it would go in, because this is how you think when you go a year without winning …
It rimmed out. The monstah had been slain, and whether they’d strangled it or merely allowed it to slam into a window didn’t matter at that moment. It was all about the dub.
And yet afterward, Skerry found he still couldn’t sleep very well. On Sunday night, he watched the game tape and got riled up at his team’s continued ability to flout the very foundations of basketball. This week at practice, he said, he planned to get after it pretty hard. The last thing he wants is for this group to start getting cocky. Not when they’ve got a winning streak going.