Skinn jumped at chance to return to beloved Capers

File photo by Nick Pearce
File photo by Nick Pearce

By: Monty Mosher

As second chances go, this one is a beauty.

It's safe to say Matt Skinn never truly wanted to leave the Cape Breton after coaching the Capers men's basketball team for four seasons, a run that included an AUS title and a conference coach of the year award.

He had personal reasons beyond the basketball court to set out for Calgary. He ended up as an assistant coach with the Dinos men's team, a decision that culminated with a national championship victory in Halifax this March.

Back in Sydney, new head coach David Petroziello went 0-20 in his first season after taking over for Skinn. But after a 2-18 record in his second year, the university and Petroziello parted ways.

Just like that, the 37-year-old Skinn had a fresh start he never expected in a million years. He went 49-31 as a head coach at Cape Breton from 2013-16 and raised the banner in his first year.

Officially, Skinn, a native of Welland, Ont., returns as the interim head coach, but it is his plan to make the university want to retain him.

"There were a few calls from (athletic director) John Ryan to try to talk about the possibility," Skinn said this week from Calgary, where he is sorting out his business before moving back to Nova Scotia in a few weeks. "Basically, I asked where to sign."

Ryan said Skinn will be given every opportunity to earn the full-time job. A search will be launched after Christmas.

"As a former AUS coach of the year, and someone who has led the Capers to an AUS title in the past, we feel he is the best person to lead our team forward," said Ryan. "His experience winning the national title with the University of Calgary Dinos this past season will benefit our program immensely.

"As an alumnus of this program, Matt has the passion to see our program return to prominence in the AUS and I look forward to working with him."

It was an odd turn of events for Skinn, a former CBU player and captain. Why he left in the first place never panned out, but everything else went just about perfectly, topped by Calgary's first W.P. McGee Trophy in a tournament where perennial-champion Carleton and Ryerson were considered the favourites.

Calgary defeated Ryerson for the title after Ryerson ousted Carleton in the semifinals.

"Winning this year with Calgary was pretty special," Skinn said. "I think a lot of things bounced our way and our guys just executed our game plans down the stretch so well. We got hot at the right time.

"We felt really good about going into next season, returning seven of our top nine players and having a good recruiting class coming in."

Then Ryan popped up on his phone.

"It was my alma mater, it was CBU," Skinn said. "When John made the call, I was just thrilled he would offer me the job and offer me the opportunity to lead the program again.

"Looking back, I never wanted to leave. I felt like I wanted to finish my career at CBU. I'm very proud of playing there and graduating from there. Having the opportunity to coach at your alma mater is pretty special. I was hoping to finish my career there and that's the plan now."

Wishing to return and having it happen are entirely different. He's had to pinch himself a time or two.

"To meet somebody new, which I have, and to win a national championship in those two years and then have the opportunity to come back to the job I always wanted to be at, it doesn't make a lot of sense to me. It's pretty surreal."

Now comes the hard part. Two wins in the last 40 games is hardly the norm for a program that has been consistently competitive in the always-tough AUS.

Skinn will need to set out right away to recruit. While he doesn't plan to sweep aside the last two years for the Capers, there will be changes ahead.

He's got a veteran in forward Shacier Locke he had the first time around.

"I have to go out there and try to get the best players I can right now," Skinn said. "If I can't get that blue-chip guy this year … then I have to make sure I'm filling the team with some really good pieces.

"Why I love coaching in the AUS is six out of the eight teams make the playoffs. If you get in you have a shot. That's my goal moving forward. The goal in the future is to be best program in the AUS. It doesn't mean we win every year, but it means we have a chance to win and we are graduating great young men."

Recruiting through the summer will tell the tale. He doesn't want to say how far the team might be able to advance with the new season not that far in the future.

"Obviously, I'm a pretty competitive guy. I want us to be there, but there is no magic potion. I don't have any fairy dust to sprinkle on things to say we'll be 20-0 and win an AUS championship. It just doesn't work like that. I'm going to have to be patient."

He got to Cape Breton for a week to meet with the players and conduct some workouts. It was similar and different all at the same time.

In the two years he's been gone there have been changes to the athletic department. Even the Sullivan Fieldhouse has undergone some renovations. He'll be living in a new home.

"It feels new enough for me, and comfortable. That's what's so exciting for me right now. I still have that drive. It's not like I'm just settling into the same life I had before. That's something I'm focused on not doing.

"I've learned a lot over the past couple of years. I feel I am the most ready I have ever been to lead a program."

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