Around noon nearly every weekday, Boston College coach Al Skinner rolls into an auxiliary gym at Conte Forum wearing gray jogging pants with maroon mesh shorts pulled over them.
He will bang in the low post with history professors and take associate athletic directors off the dribble; his afternoon ritual is one he observes zealously. Skinner is still known, at age 52, to swing his elbows a bit and make the occasional phantom foul call come crunch time.
"It's kind of hilarious," Boston College guard Louis Hinnant said, "but he's old school."
No one is laughing at Skinner these days. Ninth-ranked Boston College (15-0, 4-0), which plays St. John's today at Alumni Hall, has emerged as one of college basketball's biggest surprises.
Skinner's throwback shorts-pants combo and his quiet but intense demeanor are a window into his coaching style.
Skinner's is the antithesis of the modern, slick-haired, publicity-hungry college coach spawned in part by Rick Pitino, who was his teammate at the University of Massachusetts. Skinner rarely yells at his players. He does not fawn over potential recruits and he does not see the logic in spending countless hours watching game tapes.
His laid-back, player-friendly style obviously works. His teams have gone 105-39 since the start of the 2000-2001 season. His teams play loose, play hard defensively and have come to reflect the quiet confidence of their strong-willed coach.
"In order to play well, you have to play relaxed and confident," Bill Coen, Boston College's associate head coach,said. "Al's really in tune to that."
What Skinner does not tune in to is recruiting hype. The Eagles' success has not come because Skinner recruits the most highly touted players, but because he recruits players who fit best within his team concept.
Only one player on the roster, the reserve guard Jermaine Watson, was considered a top-100 prospect coming out of high school. The Eagles' top-flight high school talent seems laughable when compared with players on the three other undefeated Division I teams: No. 1 Illinois (19-0), No. 2 Kansas (14-0) and No. 4 Duke (14-0).
But Skinner ignores the rankings. His star big man, the junior Craig Smith, came out of Los Angeles without an offer from a Pacific-10 team. His star guard, the sophomore Jared Dudley, is from San Diego and was looking at Creighton and San Diego State before signing with Boston College in August 2003.
Skinner said he did not give recruits any grand illusions because he did not want anyone to be disillusioned after arriving on campus.
"Al doesn't pay attention to the recruiting gurus and doesn't put a lot of pressure on his assistants to get a name-brand recruit," Coen said. "He wants players that he'll identify with, that'll come and play hard for him every day."
Skinner's team during his second season at Boston College, in 1998-99, epitomized that mentality. That team, Skinner said, lost to Harvard at home, won only three Big East games, had a walk-on point guard and a 6-foot-3 power forward, but it set the tone for the program's upswing.
Those around the program say Skinner's calm, quiet manner is the same now, with his team 15-0, as it was while enduring that 6-21 season. Skinner said he hoped the players from that team took pride in what Boston College was accomplishing today.
"We didn't turn it around with tremendous talent, we turned it around with tremendous attitude," he said.