There aren’t many things that will catch Elon University football head coach Rich Skrosky off guard when it comes to football.

Skrosky is a rarity among college football coaches — he’s relatively young, at 51, yet he has more than three decades of experience. With the conclusion of his second year at Elon as head coach, Skrosky has coached for 32 consecutive years.

Despite all that time coaching, Skrosky had to deal with a situation he said he had never faced before last month when one of his football players, wide receiver junior Demitri Allison, committed suicide, according to a UNC police report.

Skrosky found out at the conclusion of a practice that Allison had died and was tasked with the job of relaying the information to his team.

The death of a player is something no coach should ever need to prepare for, but the tragic loss has brought the team closer together, according to wide receivers coach Billy Riebock. Out of this, Skrosky can continue to develop the program.

The road to Elon has been unconventional for Skrosky, and the challenges have been plentiful. But he’s at Elon to rebuild the program to the levels of success it had during his time as an assistant coach here.

Building programs is something Skrosky has a lot of practice in, going back to his teenage years.

Starting during school

Skrosky graduated from Lodi High School in his hometown of Lodi, New Jersey, in 1982 and stayed local for college, attending Ramapo College of New Jersey, a Divison III public liberal arts college in the northeastern corner city of Mahwah, New Jersey.

Skrosky majored in political science and took an astute interest in politics, spending time on his town’s planning board as an 18-year-old. He even helped run a campaign for a local councilman.

“I kind of liked that stuff,” Skrosky said. “But like a lot of young people interested in that, [I] thought deep down, you thought you were going to save the world. Once you get into it, I didn’t like a lot of the things that were going on.”

After receiving All-County honors in high school as a safety, Skrosky went on to play for Ramapo. He only played for one season, though, so before long, he found himself looking for a calling.

“There’s some coaches that you talk to, and they know they were going to coach since they were seven years old,” Skrosky said. “I wasn’t that. When I decided I wasn’t going to play anymore, my high school coach had taken a job as an assistant at St. Peter’s Prep[aratory School] in Jersey City. He asked me, ‘Would you want to coach?’ I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m taking classes, but I can stay involved.’ And I really enjoyed it.”

Forging a career path

Skrosky spent one year at St. Peter’s Prep before returning to his high school, Lodi High, to work as the defensive coordinator for three years. As he was finishing college at Ramapo, Skrosky got to know some of the college coaches that were recruiting the talented players he was coaching at Lodi.

“I was so naive. When they came in, I was like, ‘Really? You do this? You get paid to do this? You’re making a living with coaching?’” Skrosky said. “As I got more and more into it, I found a passion. I really loved it.”

Skrosky admits that the enthusiasm for coaching “probably hurt me academically,” but in the end, he decided it was the career choice that best suited him.

“Some start out in the job with a goal of becoming a Division I making it to the National Football League,” he said. “But honestly, my goal was: If I could make a living coaching football, that’s a pretty good gig.”

Skrosky used his newfound relationships with the coaches who recruited at Lodi to get a graduate assistant job at Rutgers University, spending 1988 and 1989 under the tutelage of head coach Dick Anderson. To this day, Skrosky touts the credentials of the staff he worked with at Rutgers during those two years, mentioning all of the coaches that went on to have high-profile jobs.

One of those coaches was Skrosky’s roommate, fellow graduate assistant Greg Schiano, who went on to serve as the Rutgers head coach from 2001-2011 and led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL from 2012-2013. The two remain close, with Schiano giving Elon a glowing quote about Skrosky when he got the job as head coach two years ago.

Skrosky is proud of the fact that he didn’t “brown-nose” his way to a better job, and he feels he out-worked others to achieve what he did during his career.

“I was not going to be the guy who joined [coaching] associations to get a job,” Skrosky said. “And I’m proud of that. I worked very hard, whether I was making $7,000 or what I’m making now.”

Skrosky used his hard work to return to Ramapo in 1990 as the offensive coordinator and held that position for two years. Ahead of the 1992 season, Skrosky was named head coach at the young age of 27.

Landing on his feet

When asked about Ramapo, Skrosky shifted in his seat, admitting, “I don’t talk much about it.”

Ramapo went 1-8 in 1992 — certainly not the ideal record Skrosky had in mind for the Roadrunners. As Skrosky prepared for the next season, the school administrators decided to cut the football program.

“That was done poorly and was done for the wrong reasons — to this day, I don’t have a strong feeling about the place,” Skrosky said. “If you cut a program, be a man and put it on paper and give forewarning. Nobody helped those kids other than me. It was bad.”

With Ramapo’s football program shut down, Skrosky was left looking for a job all over again.

That’s when Kevin Callahan stepped in.

Callahan had just been hired as the head coach at Monmouth College in West Long Branch, New Jersey, which was starting its football program anew in 1993.

Skrosky needed a job. Callahan needed an offensive coordinator. It was a perfect match, and one that lasted eight full seasons.

“Rich and a couple of guys with him at Ramapo were guys I had known for years,“ Callahan said. “I talked to Rich about an assistant at Ramapo in May, 1993, who was interested in a job at Monmouth, and as the conversation unfolded, Rich expressed an interest in joining the staff as well. It was great for me as a first-year coach to get a guy of Rich’s experience and professionalism.”

Not many people would talk about a 28-year old football coach’s experience, but Skrosky already had years of experience. Skrosky has many fond memories of his eight years on staff at Monmouth, remembering one story in particular about Callahan’s organization skills.

“You remember certain things, and I remember Kevin’s door was open all the time for the players and coaches,” Skrosky said. “But when budget time came, he closed the door for three days.”

Unique circumstances

Callahan is still the head coach at Monmouth University, the only leader the school’s football program has ever had.

But late in summer 2000, Callahan was diagnosed with cancer and had to step away from the program in late September for a few weeks to go through treatment.

“That was one of the experiences that showed his perspective,” Skrosky said. “The way he handled that is something I’ll remember forever. He knew he was going to have to go through treatment, and he didn’t bat an eye. He attacked it like you would want an offensive lineman to attack a defensive lineman.”

When Callahan stepped away, he purposefully did not appoint an interim head coach. He couldn’t be there, but he trusted his coordinators — Skrosky on offense and Andy Bobik on defense — to run the team.

“I was extremely confident that everything would be organized and well-run because I was entrusting it to people like Rich,” Callahan said.

That confidence left a major impact on Skrosky.

“His trust in me to go do it was awesome,” Skrosky said. “It was nice that I had earned that, but it was also good for me to see how he dealt with some pretty hard news. He beat the crap out of cancer.”

An opportunity denied

After the 2000 season, Skrosky took the offensive line coaching position at Columbia University in New York City. Ray Tellier, then head coach of the Lions, promoted Skrosky to offensive coordinator for the 2002 season.

Tellier was then fired, opening the head coaching job. At the time, Skrosky was named interim head coach and was told he could apply for the job.

The Columbia Daily Spectator, Columbia’s student newspaper, got quotes from multiple football players praising Skrosky’s candidacy for the head coaching job.

“Skrosky is by far the most knowledgeable coach on the staff. He’s a great motivator and makes us work hard,” said then-junior quarterback Steve Hunsberger in the Dec. 3, 2002 edition of the Spectator. “Selfishly, I’d rather have him there. If we had to learn a whole new system, it would be like we’re freshmen again.”

The next day, Dec. 4, 2002, then-senior Parker Meeks told the Spectator, “I think Coach Skrosky would be a great choice for coach. A lot of the guys on the team have a lot of respect for him, so I definitely think he’d be a great choice.”

But Skrosky was not hired for the job. Instead, Bob Shoop was brought in to lead the Lions.

“That time taught me more about the profession — now you’re older, you have a mortgage, a wife — way different than Ramapo,” Skrosky said. “In that process, I got to know the administrators more than you would if you were a normal assistant.”

Shoop, now a defensive coordinator at Pennsylvania State University, kept Skrosky in the same position for all three years he was at Columbia, which Skrosky said “turned it into a better job.”

But after three losing seasons, Shoop was fired, and Skrosky again was named the interim coach. When he did not get the head job, Skrosky was also let go from Columbia.

“The hard part of the profession is, when you get hired and fired, it’s hard to maintain and continue coaching relationships,” Skrosky said. “I’m not a big phone guy, so I miss a lot of those guys, but I learned a ton.”

Heading down South

Without a job, Skrosky started calling his “list of guys you’re calling every two or three days” trying to find a job.

Then-Lehigh University head coach Pete Lembo was on that list. Lembo kept calling Skrosky back, and hindsight allows Skrosky to see those conversations as the interview for a new job.

“I can remember him asking about various I-AA school openings, and he asked, ‘What do you hear at Elon?’” Skrosky said. “I knew nothing. I had heard about Elon, but I didn’t know the coach was fired. I didn’t know North Carolina.”

Lembo was hired to lead the Phoenix starting in the 2006 season and offered Skrosky the offensive line coach position. The coach who had never left the New York-New Jersey area in coaching joined Lembo down in North Carolina.

“From his standpoint, moving from New Jersey to North Carolina was a great move in terms of quality of life and cost of living,” Lembo said. “He was really excited about coming on board with us and building the program.”

The Phoenix went on a successful run under Lembo, finishing in the Sports Network Division I-AA Top 25 three times, including a ninth-place finish in 2009.

Skrosky was promoted to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach ahead of that 2009 season and worked with standout Elon quarterback Scott Riddle during the time.

“You could tell how thorough and organized and detailed he was with the offensive line,” Lembo said. “As that level of trust developed over the first three years, it was a natural move to promote him.”

Lembo said Skrosky is “one of the finest men I’ve ever worked with,” highlighting the eight-year run the two had together in the coaching profession.

The top level of college football

With the 2010 season done, Lembo was offered and accepted the head coaching position at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Lembo, who still is the coach at Ball State, asked Skrosky to go with him to Ball State, which Skrosky did.

“In a lot of ways, he was the head coach of the offense for me for five years,” Lembo said.

In his three years in the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach position at Ball State, Skrosky continued to recruit in North Carolina, helping the Cardinals sign Chris Blair, a defensive back from Winston-Salem.

Blair recalls that, on his official recruiting visit to see Ball State, his flight got delayed because of snow.

“It was a five-hour period, but [Skrosky] was constantly checking up with my mom, checking in with me,” Blair said. “I gained a lot of respect and trust in him, and there was no doubt when he offered me to come to Ball State.”

Blair redshirted his freshman year at Ball State, but talked every day to Skrosky in the hallways at the football facilities. He recalled that, on Halloween, Skrosky had the players from North Carolina over to enjoy some candy together. It was a sign for Blair, who made a decision to transfer after his redshirt season.

An unexpected chance

When Elon fired Jason Swepson after three uninspiring seasons, an opportunity availed itself to Skrosky. But he’s quick to point out that the only place he would have left Ball State for is Elon.

“Coming back here was easy — I love this place, I love Elon, and my wife and I plan to retire here,” Skrosky said. “It was hard to leave those kids [at Ball State], but it wasn’t an urge to be a head coach, it was Elon. If it had been [State University of New York at] Albany or some other school calling, I would have stayed.”

Skrosky praised the offensive coaching staff at Ball State, saying he was “so lucky” to work with that group. But he said the decision to come to Elon is a decision he made for the long-term, and not a quick stop on his way to a coordinator job at an upper-level university.

“If Clemson [University] calls in two years, this is what we’re doing,” Skrosky said. “It was a personal decision and a professional decision as well.”

Skrosky’s move worked out perfectly for Blair, who came to visit Elon once and “fell in love” with the university. Blair is now a standout defensive back at Elon, just completing his sophomore year.

A player from Ball State’s neck of the woods, quarterback Connor Christiansen, appreciated Skrosky’s honesty in the recruiting process.

“The first thing he said when I got my offer was, ‘It’s going be hard,’” Christiansen said. “When you get recruited, they tell you all the great things, but he immediately said, ‘This is going to suck. You’re going to have to work really hard.’ It blew my mind, but he wasn’t going to bullcrap you.

“He’s saying, ‘It’s going to be hard, but I’m going to work hard and I expect the same thing from you.’ At that point, I thought, ‘Alright, this guy, he wants to win. He’s going to do whatever it takes to win.’ That was probably the biggest selling point for me.”

Christiansen played in all 11 games at quarterback for Elon in his redshirt freshman season, completing 136 of 233 passes for 1,246 yards and seven touchdowns.

Going forward

Skrosky challenged the notion that his time as an offensive coordinator at a brand-new program in Monmouth was more difficult than becoming head coach in a challenging time at Elon, referring to a new program in-house.

“I was talking to [Elon women’s lacrosse head coach] Josh Hexter about building a program,” Skrosky said. “We’ve gotten pretty close — we’ll share ideas and I’ll go see his girls play.

“And he said, ‘Your job is harder than mine.’ And I asked, ‘Why do you say that?’ But I thought I knew where he was going, which was: there’s no history [of women’s lacrosse] at Elon. Good or bad. One of the hardest things about this job is changing the losing mindset. You have no mindset at Monmouth.”

That history of losing only adds more layers of difficulty to the job for Skrosky. His first season was a continuation of that history as the Phoenix sputtered to a 1-11 season in 2014.

But a very young team finished the 2015 season at 4-7, which gives Skrosky and Elon hope going forward.

In the end for Skrosky, it all comes back to building programs. And there’s not many coaches that can match Skrosky’s knowledge of how to do just that.