Elon University head football coach Rich Skrosky uttered the phrase “Embrace the Grind” at his first press conference on the job.
Since taking over in December, Skrosky has faced a grind of his own to begin the overhaul of the Phoenix program, which now uses that same phrase as its mantra.
Having spent a little more than two months at the helm, Skrosky has worked his way through three major tasks that awaited him upon his arrival.
First, with Elon being his first head coaching job in more than 20 years, Skrosky assembled a staff of assistant coaches. Second, he and the staff evaluated the roster as it was at the conclusion of the 2013 season. That roster management led Skrosky straight into arguably the most important task of being a new head coach: recruiting.
Finding his sidekicksSkrosky called the progression of these tasks a natural one, partially due to the calendar.
“The timing really worked out well,” Skrosky said. “[Athletic Director] Dave Blank did a really nice job. The first order of business was to hire a staff. During that time it was pretty easy because I didn’t have players on campus, and it wasn’t what they call an active contact period in recruiting, so it was a whole 10 days dedicated to that.”
Skrosky recalled that he worked 18-hour days during that period and spent 17 of those hours on the phone talking with his future assistants and evaluating their merits. This period also included live job interviews with potential coaches.
“I was really fortunate because, with one exception, everybody was here before the new year,” Skrosky said.
From there, it was on to evaluating the existing talent.
Who’s still here?Using a three-pronged approach, Skrosky examined the nearly 70 players on the roster, some of whom were recruited by him during his stint as an Elon assistant coach from 2006-2010. Skrosky met with the athletic strength staff and the academic staff, as well as assistant coach Scott Browne, who was retained from the previous staff, and director of football operations Jonathan Small.
“I wanted to hear different people’s opinions just to paint a picture of the kid,” Skrosky said. “Are they leaders? Are they followers? How are they academically? How hard do they work in the weight room?”
Upon returning from winter break, each player sat down individually with Skrosky.
“The meeting evaluated what we thought were the strengths of the program and what we could do better,” said redshirt junior offensive lineman Thomas McGuire.
This evaluation was indirectly the first step of the recruiting process, as Skrosky and his staff were able to identify their points of need. Recruiting, the ultimate challenge of a coach, headed into overdrive.
“I’m not going to say it was an easy progression,” Skrosky said. “But because of the way the calendar fell, it was a natural progression.”
Finding future PhoenixOnce the calendar turned to 2014, National Signing Day on Feb. 5 was fast approaching.
Skrosky found that his team was composed of 39 offensive players and 31 defensive players, providing target numbers for recruiting.
“I want x-amount of offensive guys, I want x-amount of defensive guys, I want x-amount of D-linemen, I want x-amount of linebackers,” Skrosky said. “That’s something I’ve kept with me since the mid-90s. That’s something you do as a coach.”
Skrosky stressed the importance of Browne in the recruiting process. The returning recruiting coordinator was able to provide information regarding the players Elon was interested in and who the Phoenix had offered a scholarship to prior to the staff change. To add to Browne’s input, Skrosky collected information from each of his assistants. The new Elon staff consists of coaches with ties to a number of different areas, from South Carolina to Maryland and beyond to the Midwest, so a wide variety of prospects were identified.
“Then it’s just collecting names, watching tape. As you watch their tape you’re saying, ‘oh, this kid in Atlanta can play, he’s a good player,’” Skrosky said. “So you call the coach, then you call the parents, then you go down to see him, then you get him on campus — you do your best to create a relationship in the six, seven weeks before Signing Day.”
Skrosky and his staff spent the next few weeks on the road visiting prospects. Skrosky was able to visit a majority of the recruits at their high schools and introduce himself. His assistants worked even harder, Skrosky said, by being out just about every available day by NCAA rule.
One particular day, Jan. 28, Skrosky and defensive backs coach Terry Lantz were inhibited by weather.
“There was one day my schedule called for me to be in Charlotte at 10 [a.m.], Spartanburg, S.C at 2 [p.m.] and then Atlanta at 7 [p.m.],” Skrosky said with a laugh. “Coach Lantz and I were together — we got out of the home visit in Spartanburg at about 4:30. He looked at me and said ‘Coach, I don’t know if getting to Atlanta is the smartest thing to do right now’ and we ended up making a good decision not to go down there because I might still be on the interstate in Atlanta.”
Despite the challenges, Skrosky was able to land a recruiting class of 13 on Signing Day. The group, which consists of nine defensive players and four offensive players, represents five states. All 13 of these players committed even after Skrosky informed them of the reality of college football.
“Some of the staff, they call me the anti-recruiter,” Skrosky said. “I’m really up front with [the recruits]. I tell them about the commitment it is going to take, about the work ethic they’re going to have. But I tell them, ‘it’s a job, but it will be the best job you’ll ever have.’ I almost try to scare them away. If they stay, they know what they’re in for.”
Overall, Skrosky said he was happy with the results of his first recruiting class.
“I think we did well,” he said. “I was pleased with the class we signed. I think it addressed some initial needs. I don’t know if I went out and said ‘we’re going to get nine on defense and four on offense.’ It’s just at the end of the day that was the best combination for us.”
Moving forwardWhen asked how this group could impact the Phoenix, Skrosky said he doesn’t like to put expectations, too high or too low, on any set of incoming freshmen.
“We obviously believe all these kids can play,” Skrosky said. “So to put unrealistic expectations on any one player or underselling another player, I would never do that at this point. Let’s get them on campus, let’s see how they acclimate both mentally and physically. Then, we’ll make those decisions come August or September.”
Once preseason camp is complete, Skrosky and his staff will identify first-year players who can help the team immediately. Others, he said, will be redshirted and return in 2015 with four years of eligibility remaining.
Changing the culture and embracing the grindWith recruiting in the rear view mirror for now, Skrosky is continuing to work on the process of revamping the entire Elon football program.
“I don’t think that is something that happens in a day,” Skrosky said. “I don’t know if it happens in a year.”
He has laid out clear goals and expectations for his players both on and off the field, from the way the team practices to what they eat.
“Once you define it for them,” Skrosky said, “then you’ve got to push them to meet that expectation, and you can’t accept anything less.”
The changes have been clear to the players.
“My impression of Coach Skrosky was that he wants to do things the right way,” McGuire said. “He talks a lot about servant leadership, and so far I can tell that he wants to lead us by example by serving us and inspiring us to do the same for our teammates and the community.”
Realizing the team’s true potential is Skrosky’s top goal for the year ahead. He said the win-loss record will “take care of itself.”
He said a football team will once again be a part of the campus culture, something that has been missing for the last three seasons.
“At the end of the day, I want this football program to be an integral part of this university and this community,” Skrosky said. “If we can do that, then we’ll be successful, and I think we’re moving in the right direction.”