TOWSON, Md. | The decor is sparse in new Towson basketball coach Pat Skerry’s office. A few bags are on the floor. His desk is covered with notes jotted down during his first week on the job. A laptop is off to the side, and his mobile device is buzzing.
No wonder: The longtime assistant has his first major head coaching job, one his three immediate predecessors found particularly challenging. While George Mason, Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth parlayed consistency in the Colonial Athletic Association into national success, Towson has struggled to gain traction on or off the floor.
“We’re only going to be in this [office] for a couple years anyhow,” said Skerry, who takes over at the only Division I school in Maryland, Virginia and the District with a job opening this year. “We’re not going to spend a lot of time, energy or money decorating.”
Indeed, Towson will break ground on a $68 million, 5,200-seat arena next month to replace the aging Towson Center. It has a new coach with Big East connections (Skerry worked at Providence and Pittsburgh) and a high-energy athletic director in Mike Waddell, who was hired last fall to revitalize a department whose highest-profile sports have sagged in recent years.
There’s quite a ways to go.
Waddell arrived in time to see two opposite developments unfold during basketball season. Towson wrapped up its 15th consecutive losing season last month, tied for the fourth-longest stretch of futility in Division I, with a 4-26 record and a winless mark in the CAA. A little more than a week later, VCU began its run to the Final Four.
Waddell, who was searching for a replacement for departed coach Pat Kennedy at the time, had one pulsating thought throughout it all: Why couldn’t Towson replicate VCU’s success?
“I think we’re in a much better basketball city, we’re in a huge media market, we can own our market,” Waddell said. “They have to go toe-to-toe with Richmond, who is also a Sweet 16 program. They have to go toe-to-toe with Virginia, Virginia Tech and the ACC. That’s a little more crowded market. We’re more wide open. Maryland’s a D.C. school. They’re not a Baltimore school. We can be Baltimore’s team.”
The trouble is, it hasn’t been for nearly two decades. Towson’s only NCAA tournament appearances came in 1990 and 1991. Since then, each of Baltimore’s other Division I teams - Coppin State, Loyola, Morgan State and UMBC - has made at least one NCAA trip.
The issue isn’t necessarily confined to local opponents. When George Mason made its Final Four appearance in 2006, its frontcourt featured two Baltimore-area products (Jai Lewis and Will Thomas) and a starting five composed entirely of Maryland natives.
“You have a backyard that doesn’t belong to you,” said Dave Telep, ESPN.com’s senior basketball recruiting analyst. “You have a backyard that has been targeted by numerous leagues at all levels. In Indiana, you can draw a fence around the state. In Baltimore and Washington, D.C., the National Guard couldn’t help you draw a fence around that place.”
Telep firmly believes a program needs to brand itself before it can succeed. Enter Skerry, a Medford, Mass., native who played at Tufts and rose through the Division III ranks before stints as an assistant at six Division I schools, and he possesses a reputation as a voracious worker.
However things unfold, it will be Skerry’s program. With top scorers Isaiah Philmore (transfer) and Braxton Dupree (pursuing pro career) leaving Towson this month, only eight players remain on the Tigers’ roster. Just three played at all last season.
“I thought he had a very challenging task at hand, but Pat’s had those kind of challenges throughout his career,” said Marshall coach Tom Herrion, who had Skerry on his staff for three years at College of Charleston. “He’s not a silver-spoon guy. He’s going to roll up his sleeves, and he’ll invest so much energy and passion. He’ll pump new life into that program.”
In some ways, it’s the Tigers’ last, best chance to do so. Michael Litos, who operates CAAHoops.com and whose book “Cinderella” chronicled George Mason’s 2006 Final Four run, notes the league’s three heavyweights all grew into consistent winners without a football program to share resources with (Old Dominion added the sport in 2009). Towson has a football team in the powerful CAA.
Facilities aren’t the only commitment required. Skerry received a five-year deal worth $335,000 annually, a figure Waddell said was comparable to what VCU coach Shaka Smart initially received two years ago. (Smart recently agreed to a new eight-year contract that will pay him $1.2 million annually.)
“Teams with far bigger winning histories are doing exactly what Towson is doing, which means they will progress faster,” Litos said. “I will say this, though: They are giving it an earnest attempt. In the CAA you have to build a program, not win for a year or two. And that seems to be what they are doing.”
Towson also will be selling itself to a wary and winnowed fan base. Waddell wants the Tigers to be on television as much as possible; to that end, Towson will visit Kansas (Nov. 11), Michigan (Nov. 14) and Virginia (Dec. 30) and play host to Oregon State (Nov. 26) next season.
Getting games might be the easy part. Winning them, as history demonstrates, is tougher. But neither Waddell nor Skerry intends to dwell on the past, instead looking ahead to how they can lift Towson into the CAA’s upper echelon.
“I like the idea of trying to really develop and build a program,” Skerry said. “This is a great place to be able to do it and live. I’m excited about it. I think it can get done - not easily - but you’ve got a great league, so you have to work to make it happen. But it’ll get done.”