Celebrating Roy Skinner

The SEC honored former basketball coach Roy Skinner as a "Living Legend" at the conference tournament last March. A number of players were present to honor Skinner, the winningest coach in Vanderbilt's storied basketball history.

The old teacher of the game is getting along in years these days. The gait is noticeably slower. The hair, cut in his trademark flat-top straight out of the 1950's, is a good deal grayer. 

But the resonant bass voice is still there-- that voice that used to boom out over WSM radio on the post-game show. The twinkle is still there in his eye. 

And that dry, disarming wit of his is still razor-sharp. "Back when I was coaching, if I had only been half as smart as I am now, we never would have lost so many games," he quips today. 

More than 25 seasons have come and gone since Roy Skinner coached his last game at Vanderbilt. Yes, he lost his share-- 135 games in 16 seasons at the Vanderbilt helm-- but he is far better remembered for the 278 games that he won, between 1958 and 1976. 

Now 72 years young, Skinner is more than just the winningest coach in Vanderbilt basketball history. For Vandy fans of his era, he WAS Vanderbilt basketball. Today, he remains an icon, a living treasure of Commodore hoop memories. 

Back in March the SEC chose to honor him as one of the conference's "Living Legends", one of a select few coaches so honored. At halftime of the Vanderbilt-LSU game, he was awarded a trophy by SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer. The next day, a good crowd of well-wishers and former players gathered at an Atlanta hotel to pay tribute and share reminiscences. 

Did Skinner find all that attention embarrassing? 

"No," said Skinner, who rarely gives a straight answer about anything these days. "I loved it. Suddenly there it is, and I'm going for it." 

Today Skinner's former players are spread across the country. Collectively they form an impressive array of doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. 

"I feel like a big daddy, and they're my little boys," said Skinner. "I am really proud of them." 

After the breakfast in Skinner's honor, the memories came spilling from the former players' mouths. 

"He was always so calm," recalled Roger Schurig, one of Skinner's prototypical shooting guards from the 1960's. "He was always so in control of his emotions-- none of the histrionics that you see out of so many coaches today. I think that had a real influence on all of us that played for him. In a tense, tough game, he kept his calm." 

"Coach's demeanor was low-key," echoed Bo Wyenandt, Class of '68. "He's not out of the Bobby Knight / Bob Huggins mold-- which is good, because I probably couldn't have played for him." 

"He was a good leader, but he didn't try to do it all himself," added Schurig, today a corporate vice-president in St. Louis. "When I was there he had several different assistant coaches. Don Knodel, who went on to be the coach at Rice, was his lead assistant then. And it was a partnership. Roy would say, I don't know it all, I don't see it all. I'm gonna rely on the guys supporting me. They all sort of knew what the other was thinking, and they all brought different perspectives." 

"[Coach Skinner] was what you'd call today a player's coach," said Bob "Snake" Grace, a member of the 1965 Elite Eight team who today owns his own structured steel business in Nashville. "He was very calm, cool, never raised his voice. 

"But he always had a game plan. Once you were in the game, you were ready. We practiced hard and played hard. He was just a great, great coach. We're still friends." 

"He let you know when you made a mistake, but WE knew when we made a mistake," laughed Wyenandt. "He didn't have to holler at us or tell us. He'd just say, come on boys, you can do better than that, or occasionally, 'Man, that's sorry.' If he said that, you knew you were in trouble. 

"He basically let us be us. He recruited good people, good players, and we played well together. He let us play. He let us be ourselves." 

Coach Skinner's fast-paced run-and-gun style was one that kids loved to play. 

"It was a different game back then. It was an offensive game," recalled Wyenandt, today a business owner in Hamilton, Ohio. "There was no hand-checking, no body-checking, nobody leaning on people. The offensive player had all the advantages. That's why games were higher-scoring. Who knows how many points we'd have scored if we'd had the three-point shot in the 1960's." 

Does Skinner think his style of play would still work today? 

"It sure would!" replied Skinner, almost insulted that anyone would ask such a question. "We called it run-and-gun. That is the fun game, and to me, basketball is played for the fans. That's what the fans prefer." 

Skinner won more Coach of the Year awards (four), more SEC championships (two), and had a higher winning percentage (.673) than any other Vanderbilt coach. In addition, he helped break the SEC's color barrier by signing the conference's first African-American player (Perry Wallace in 1966). 

People forget that at the height of his Vandy career, Skinner had opportunities to bolt for both the Purdue Boilermakers and the NBA's Chicago Bulls. But unlike a number of other successful coaches at Vanderbilt, Skinner turned down his suitors and remained a Commodore to the end. "I found a home in Nashville, and I loved it," he said. 

Now completely retired after several years in the insurance business, life is good for the old coach. He and his wife are in great health. Skinner divides his time between bass fishing, basketball-watching, and his nine grandchildren. 

Coming soon: In an exclusive interview with VandyMania, Skinner talks about his reminiscences regarding his career, Memorial Gym, and the Golden Era of Vanderbilt basketball. 

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