A love of the game

At 78 years old, Mel Skillman could be enjoying retirement and kicking back at his cottage in Atlanta, hunting, fishing or playing golf.

But as Skillman is quick to point out, he doesn’t do any of those things.

His comfort zone is on the gridiron.

As he begins his 46th year as a high school head coach, Skillman is trying to turn Alpena into a winner. He’ll make his coaching debut tonight as the Wildcats take the field in their home opener against Sault Ste. Marie.

In a coaching career that’s spanned nearly six decades, Skillman has more than 250 career wins and has made a name for himself by turning struggling programs into winners. He’s endured winless seasons and been to state finals, all while constantly adapting to the ever-changing football landscape.

“He’s got lots of respect, but he puts the time in. When you walk into his office at home, he’s got the newest Mac with the biggest screen and the biggest hard drive. He’s always changing with the times,” Coleman coach Chad Klopf said. “He’s still on his game.”

Learning the ropes

Originally Skillman was supposed to be a basketball coach.

Growing up in Oscoda, Skillman didn’t get a chance to play football because the high school had no football team. Skillman played basketball in high school and played a little football under Bill Kelly at Central Michigan, but decided it wasn’t for him. Instead he opted for baseball and was a catcher for the Chippewas for four years.

When he took his first teaching job at Beaverton in 1957, he planned on coaching basketball, but the administration told him otherwise.

“They said you will also coach football because that’s what coaches do,” Skillman said. “Well guess what? It was fun. Then we went undefeated and then it was really fun.”

Skillman went 13-14-1 at Beaverton, including an undefeated season in 1961. He moved on to Freeland and went 18-5-1 before taking over the JV program at Saginaw Douglas MacArthur.

Taking over as head coach of the Generals in the mid-1960s, Skillman ran the veer offense and turned MacArthur into a periennial powerhouse, compiling a 139-68 record until 1987, when the school merged with Saginaw Heritage. During his time there, Skillman guided MacArthur to two state finals appearances including one in 1975, during the first year of the state tournament and the other in 1977. He continued at Heritage for four seasons.

“We made the playoffs seven times. Unfortunately we would always lose to Traverse City St. Francis, Lansing Catholic Central, Dearborn Divine Child. I go to mass every Sunday, I’m not sure why that was happening.” Skillman said laughing.

A game changer

In his early years as a coach, Skillman ran the wishbone, an offense that relies heavily on running the ball and option plays. Its simplicity helped Skillman’s teams be successful until a rule change forced him to rethink his offensive scheme.

“It’s amazing how the game has changed. you used to have gut trap, power off tackle, bootleg pass, flood pass and it took you 10 minutes to teach your whole offense. If you ran the wishbone, it was triple option right, triple option left, counter and counter option,” Skillman said. “We ran a lot of the wishbone. We were the only team that did it but then they changed the rule you can’t block below the waist on the perimeter.

After four seasons at Heritage, Skillman took a job as an assistant at Alma College and together with the coaching staff, he put together a spread offensive package that helped jumpstart Alma’s offense. Quarterback Bill Nietzke was among the best passers in the nation in the late ’90s and rewrote the school record book.

“No one ran the spread including Alma College. We put together everything. All the coaches sat down and said ‘let’s do this, let’s do this,’ but then we didn’t know all the problems. We didn’t know what kind of blitzes we were going to see,” Skillman said.

From then on, Skillman was a student of the spread. Instead of relying on run-heavy offensive attacks, Skillman’s teams could spread the ball around and put up monster numbers with the right combination of speed and athleticism.

Skillman got back into the ranks of high school coaching in 1997, when he took over as head coach at Merrill. After a rough 1-8, season in 1997, the Vandals exploded offensively the next season under Skillman’s spread offense and the skillful quarterbacking of John Breasbois, who etched his place in the state record books in several categories by the end of his career. In 1999, Merrill scored 488 points, a school record that still stands and reached the Division 7 semifinals before losing to St. Francis.

Klopf, was recruited by Skillman in 1996 and later coached with him at Merill. Klopf learned a lot from Skillman about how to run a successful program.

“The biggest thing (I learned from him) is that you let coaches coach. You bring in guys with knowledge, that know football and let them do their job,” Klopf said. “You put people on staff for a reason. Trying to micromange doesn’t always work.”

After stops as an assistant at Saginaw Arthur Hill and Hemlock, Skillman took over at Bridgeport for three seasons and went 4-23. In 2010, Skillman accepted a job to take over Atlanta and headed to Northeast Michigan.

Skillman’s impact at Atlanta was immediate. He won his debut as coach of the Huskies, earning his 250th career win after defeating Alcona in a 21-20 shocker to open the 2010 season. The Huskies finished 3-6 that season and scored just 132 points, but the seeds were planted for future success.

With more time under Skillman’s system, the Huskies went 4-5 in 2011 and scored 261 points. Skillman finished with a 6-9 in a season and a half at Atlanta, but the spread offense remains an important part of the Atlanta program. When Troy Cheedie took over as Atlanta’s coach last season, he kept the spread offense in place and it continued to work wonders. Atlanta scored 312 points, its second-highest total in school history.

Hungry for a winner

During baseball season, Skillman attended a game at Alpena and was instantly impressed by the Wildcats’ athleticism, particularly the skill of Brady Marwede, Tim Atkinson and Tyler Pintar, all of whom have played quarterback.

“I said, ‘There’s a place that wants to be successful.’ If I’m successful, I’m happy for us, but we’ll give it our best, that’s all we can do,” Skillman said.

The Wildcats got off to a solid start last Thursday, beating Escanaba 15-7 to win their first seasion opener since 2010. Skillman was away on a family matter and turned things over to his assistant coaches for the game.

Alpena’s new pistol offense struggled at times against the Eskymos, but the Wildcats were able to capitalize when it mattered most. Pintar threw for 129 yards in his first varsity start and Alpena’s backfield made a big splash as well. Jordan Ferguson broke through Escanaba’s defense for an 80-yard touchdown on Alpena’s second drive and finished with 132 yards.

Making the playoffs will be a tough task for the Wildcats this season, but with Skillman’s pistol offense, Alpena could take a huge step forward and put a lot of points on the board. When Alpena made the playoffs for the first time in school history in 2004, the Wildcats featured a high-octane offense that averaged nearly 28 points a game.

With just two wins in the last two seasons and a 3-19 record in Big North Conference play since 2009, Skillman knows Alpena’s players, coaches and fans are hungry for a winner.

“Winning keeps kids out and it keeps the fans happy. We’re here to win, we’re not here to participate and have fun. I’ve tried it (losing) and it sucks.”

Learning the intricacies of Skillman’s offense has been a challenge, even for Alpena’s seniors, but they’ve gotten more comfortable as they’ve seen what results it produces.

“I guess I was a little skeptical at first because we’ve been running Dubey’s offense there for a while, we knew what we were doing and were used to it. Now coming in senior year, we have to learn a new offense and I was a little worried, but it’s been working out really great,” Alpena senior Cade MacArthur said. “I really like it now because we’re sustaining drives, moving the ball up and down the field, using plays to set up other plays and we can pass and run.”

Skillman isn’t sure how much longer he’ll coach, but in a 56-year coaching career he’s gained the respect of his peers across the state and has never shied away from learning and finding ways to help his teams win games.

“As long as it’s fun, as long as the kids enjoy what we’re doing, I don’t know when I’ll quit,” Skillman said.