Former coaches praise pending Ohio State hire Tony Skinn's abilities

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Tony Skinn, center, coaching with Louisiana Tech. Said Tech coach Eric Konkol: "He’s just so connected to so many different people it’s really remarkable."

In hiring Tony Skinn to fill out his basketball coaching staff, Ohio State’s Chris Holtmann is taking a little leap of faith. Skinn, who spent the past six seasons split evenly between Louisiana Tech and, most recently, Seton Hall, has no direct ties to the Buckeyes, to Holtmann’s coaching tree or to most of Big Ten territory.

It’s a decision that Eric Konkol is familiar with. So, too, is Jim Larranaga. And both Division I men’s basketball coaches, who each took a chance on Skinn at one point in their careers and benefited, describe Skinn as a special type of person who will assimilate quickly onto the Ohio State staff.

Born in Nigeria, Skinn moved to the United States with his mother and older brother when he was 2. Raised in the Washington, D.C., area, Skinn wasn’t offered a single scholarship out of high school and opted to attend junior college at Blinn College in Texas. There, he caught the eye of Konkol, who was recruiting as a member of Larranaga’s staff at George Mason.

It was the 2001-02 school year, and when Larranaga offered a scholarship Skinn had a unique request.

Tony Skinn

“He, to this day, made a decision that I don’t know anybody else who would’ve made it,” Larranaga said. “He asked me, ‘Hey, you’re offering me a scholarship. If I don’t play this year, is the scholarship still good?’ ”

Skinn’s reason was pragmatic. Realizing that junior-college transfers often struggle to graduate on time, he wanted another year to bolster his coursework and ensure that he could earn his degree from George Mason. Larranaga acquiesced. Skinn sat out the 2002-03 season and joined the Patriots with three years of eligibility to start the 2003-04 season.

By February of that season, he had fought his way into a prominent role in the backcourt and would help George Mason reach the third round of the NIT. His career would culminate with a magical run to the 2006 Final Four during which Skinn would play a crucial role. It just got off to an unconventional start, and that included some early bumps while adapting to Division I.

“Some kids will get very, very frustrated or disappointed it’s not happening for them right away,” said Konkol, who just finished his sixth season as the coach at Louisiana Tech. “He is not an instant gratification guy. He believes in work. He believes in learning, and by the end of the season he was one of our best players. He’s done the same thing in his coaching career.”

Starting out at Louisiana Tech

After graduating with a degree in communication and media studies, Skinn began what would be a six-year professional career that included time in the NBA Summer League and an Olympic appearance for his home country (where he famously crossed over James Harden). It wasn’t until 2015 that Konkol, who had just been hired at Louisiana Tech, had to start building his first coaching staff.

Skinn was his first hire.

“I just really believed that he had ‘it,’ and he really did,” Konkol said. “I just believed in him when we recruited him and I believed in him as a young coach and he’s been fantastic everywhere he’s been.”

Among Skinn’s first responsibilities was the need to retain as much of the roster, which had a hefty dose of Floridians. Skinn, despite being new to the program and general area, was able to do so while also cementing himself into the region’s basketball scene and helping the Bulldogs go 23-10 during the 2015-16 season. That record included an 82-74 win at Ohio State on Nov. 24, the program’s first win against a Big Ten team in 30 years.

He helped recruit in the school’s footprint, Konkol said, as well as back home in the Washington, D.C., area.

“This is one of the beautiful things about, I think, this whole thing,” Konkol said. “I’m a small-town white kid from central Wisconsin and him and I, for whatever reason, really hit it off. Nigerian descent from inner-city D.C., but I’m not the only one. He’s that way with all his teammates. He’s just so connected to so many different people it’s really remarkable.”

After three seasons, he was hired to Seton Hall in April, 2018.

“The common language between Tony and the recruits is basketball,” Larranaga said. “Tony’s got a great history, a great story to tell, and he’s such a genuine person he comes across very naturally as someone who cares. When he’s talking to a recruit about what he’s already been through, he becomes a great mentor to other kids who are going through that. I think that’s why he’s such a good recruiter.”

Tony Skinn played a key role in George Mason's run to the 2006 Final Four.

Onto the Buckeyes

Skinn arrives at Ohio State having received endorsements from every level of organized basketball in this country, from the grassroots level to the NBA. That level of trust, Larranaga said, is key when hiring a new assistant from a new area or league.

“Tony’s a student of the game,” Larranaga said. “When he moves from Seton Hall to Ohio State, he’ll spend a great deal of his time studying Ohio State University as a school. He’ll study the Big Ten as a league. He’ll study the players, get to know what their likes and dislikes are. Get to know the recruits in the Midwest which more than likely will be an area that he has to get more and more familiar with.

Konkol said the two would have lengthy conversations while recruiting together at Louisiana Tech because he believed both then and now that Skinn will be a head coach eventually. Larranaga said it was clear from his earliest encounters with Skinn that he was positioning himself for success in whatever field he would choose and that he’s not surprised it’s in coaching.

Now, he’ll be on his biggest stage yet as he takes over for Terry Johnson, who left the Buckeyes for an assistant coaching job at Purdue. Roles will be adjusted among Skinn, Ryan Pedon and Jake Diebler, but each will have his hands on the team’s recruiting, offensive and defensive plans and positional skills. June will be busy: as in-person recruiting resumes for the first time since the pandemic, the Buckeyes will have at least one visitor every day during the month.

It might be a lot to take on, but Konkol has seen this script before.

“When he came here he certainly didn’t pretend to have all the answers,” Konkol said. “He learned an awful lot. He asked a lot of questions, and next thing you know, he did a phenomenal job here and I know he did at Seton Hall as well. Very confident he will at Ohio State.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

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