Vince Skillings’ fondest memory of playing at Derry Area was the camaraderie and joy of success.
Skillings, a 1977 Derry Area graduate, was a direct part of a 10-year run of success for the Trojans, which included two conference championships in 10 seasons.
Fast forward 45 years later, and Derry Area is in the midst of another historic gridiron run, triggered by now former head coach Tim Sweeney, who led the Trojans to the WPIAL Class 3A championship game in 2018.
Skillings will have a chance to continue that run of success.
Skillings was picked to succeed Sweeney, as the former Trojans’ standout in the 1970s, who also played at Ohio State and with three teams in the National Football League, was unanimously hired as Derry Area’s new football coach during Thursday’s school board meeting.
“It’s a huge honor,” Skillings said. “I’m so thankful and appreciative of the hiring committee, (athletic director Brett) Miller and the school board members for selecting me, putting their confidence in me and having the ability to continue and build on what coach Sweeney started.
“Coming back home, it’s déjà vu, really. I look forward to impacting the community in a positive way. I wish I could play because it brings back a lot of great memories, that’s for sure.”
Those memories on the gridiron were his fondest at Derry Area.
“There was so much love and compassion and support for one another,” Skillings said. “That’s what we talk about when we get together, how close knit we were. It was truly a feeling of family, and that goes all the way down to the ’83 team as well. We saw those guys way down the line as being very good … just as good as us, so we would go to the midget games, watch them play and support those guys.
“It was a generation where everyone was so close and the community was so excited and supportive of each other. That’s something Tim brought back at Derry, and we’re going to keep that going if I have anything to do with it.”
Sweeney, a 1985 Derry Area graduate, enjoyed unparalleled success at his alma mater. The Trojans went from a winless group in 2013, the year before Sweeney arrived, to runners-up in the WPIAL five years later. Sweeney went 49-18 in six seasons at Derry Area. His Trojans qualified for the playoffs during each of the last four seasons, including three trips to the semifinals and one appearance in the WPIAL Class 3A championship game.
Sweeney was hired as Baldwin High School football coach in April. He primarily made the move because of family reasons, as Sweeney, his wife Robin and 4-year-old son Deuce live in Bethel Park, a 90-minute drive from Derry.
“Vince is one of the biggest names in the history of Derry football,” Sweeney said. “When I played football, everybody knew the name Vince Skillings. The level he played at and his experience at those levels will pay dividends for the players at Derry. I’m sure the players are excited to learn under Vince and I’m sure he’s equally excited to get started.”
Miller said there were 10 candidates for the position, narrowed to six after the first round of interviews. The committee returned three candidates for the final round of interviews, including Skillings.
“Everyone had varying ranges of experiences and background,” Miller said. “But what it really boiled down to during the discussion was ‘What was the best fit for Derry,’ and that’s how we ended up picking Vince.”
Miller also pointed to Skillings’ character and his care for kids.
“He talked a lot about being a role model and a father figure for students,” Miller said. “That’s really what stood out, in addition to his playing experience and coaching background.”
School board president Dave Krinock said that Skillings shares the same beliefs as Sweeney.
“What the committee liked most about Vince was, if he got the job, that he would come in and not change too much of what was successful here,” Krinock said. “Vince wasn’t going to come in and upset the apple cart or reinvent the wheel. I think it’s a big plus that Vince is from Derry and lives in (the district). It’s an easy transition.”
Skillings, 61, was an All-State running back and defensive back at Derry Area. He was part of the 1974 Foothills Conference championship team, played in the Big 33 Football Classic and captured a state track and field championship.
Skillings enjoyed a successful football career at Ohio State University, as a three-time First Team All-Big Ten selection before he was selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the sixth round of the 1981 NFL Draft. He also enjoyed stints in the Canadian Football League and the NFL with the Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Rams.
In 2018, the staff of “Eleven Warriors,” a popular Ohio State football fan website, selected “99 Warriors,” a series which highlighted the greatest Buckeyes by jersey number in program history. Skillings was voted the best No. 48 ever to wear the scarlet and gray.
“You think about the thousands and thousands of guys who marched through that program, and to be listed on that, a kid from Brenizer, that’s pretty cool,” Krinock said.
Skillings believes he can use his success to motivate the current players.
“I think I’ll be able to point out to the players what it takes … the sacrifice it requires to be highly successful,” Skillings said. “If you want to be an average team, or an average player, that’s up to you, but I require you to be your best. You have to be willing to lay out the necessary sacrifices. My philosophy as an athlete at Derry, was that if I wanted to be the best, I had to outwork the rest, and that’s what I’m going to emphasize to our players.”
Similar to Sweeney, the Derry Area position — his alma mater — is Skillings’ first-ever head coaching job. But unlike Sweeney, Skillings has served as an assistant for the last 30-plus years.
Skillings’ first-ever coaching job was with the Derry Area Midget Football Program in 1981, before taking an assistant job at his alma mater — in addition to baseball and track and field — in the early 1990s. Skillings coached at Edinboro University and California University of Pennsylvania before moving back to Columbus and serving at Westerville South High School. He also coached at Ligonier Valley for four years and Orlando, Florida-based West Oaks Academy for two seasons.
Skillings had coached at United since 2014 and helped the Lions reach the District 6 Class 1A championship game and PIAA quarterfinals in 2018.
“I’m not the type of coach that expects players to be perfect,” Skillings said. “Heck, the NFL players make mistakes. I’m not going to ask them to be perfect, but I am going to ask them to practice hard, work hard, be fundamentally sound and perform your assignment. I let the kids have fun and enjoy success, but I want to make sure they don’t become arrogant because arrogance will lead to a whole lot of heartache.”
There hasn’t been much heartache at Derry Area during the past six years.
Skillings feels the buzz and he senses the pride within the Derry community. His goal is to build on the Trojans’ recent success and continue the legacy that Sweeney started.
“(Sweeney) will be a hard act to follow,” Skillings said. “I’m definitely going to be under the spotlight, but I’m going to be me. I’m very strong on fundamentals and I’ve come to learn that a fundamentally sound football team is going to have a lot more success.”
Skillings didn’t mince words, as his ultimate goal is to win a state championship at Derry Area. His immediate goals, however is to meet with the players and put together a staff, so he can make the transition as seamless as possible.
He understands that could be challenging with the coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions.
“The sooner we can get started, the better,” Skillings said. “We’re green now, but that doesn’t mean that we removed social distancing. We’re going to do what we can in accordance with the directions of the governor’s office, the department of health and the CDC.”
Skillings said he hopes to have as many of the current assistant coaches back as possible at Derry Area.
“This is a quality program,” Skillings said. “They’ve been to a WPIAL championship together, so if I can keep that continuity, I would be grateful.”
Skillings noted that just because there’s a new head coach, doesn’t mean there needs to be a new staff of assistants. He went through that before as a player at Ohio State, transitioning from the legendary Woody Hayes to Earle Bruce following the 1978 season.
“There were a few wrinkles, but as a player, I was appreciative that there were a couple coaches who stayed, which made for a smoother transition,” Skillings said. “I would like to keep as many assistants as possible, so it makes the players comfortable, knowing the coaching staff without any drastic changes. That’s my main goal right now, to get this transition completed as quickly and smoothly as possible with less stress for the players.”
The Derry Area players will have enough on their plate, trying to learn new offensive and defensive schemes.
Sweeney helped transform the Trojans, using a brand of hard-nosed, smash-mouth football that incorporates a bruising running game and a dominant defense. His defenses and rushing attacks regularly ranked among the best in Class 3A the last four years.
Skillings, like Sweeney, is a defensive guy at heart.
“I love stopping supposedly unstoppable offenses,” Skillings said. “You’re going to see pressure from everywhere. I think my strength as a coach is seeing what’s going on and being able to make that in-game adjustment.”
Skillings was a starting safety at Ohio State as a sophomore and led the Buckeyes with six interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown. He picked off seven more passes in his final two seasons at Ohio State, finishing with 13 career interceptions, which ranked fifth in school history at the time, and still ranks eighth today.
“Defensively, we’re coming after you,” Skillings said. “I like to be aggressive and I like to have the quarterback make quick decisions. I don’t want the quarterback standing in the pocket, spending all day eating a sandwich and drinking a Coke before finding the open receiver. That’s not going to happen.”
Skillings is an old-school, offensive guy, who likes power football, but he’s not afraid to spread the field.
“That inside power game opens up the perimeter for the big play,” Skillings said. “I think you have to spread it out in order to be able to run the football today. They’re going to have to defend the whole football field if they want to beat us.”
Skillings is living the dream right now. He’s back in his hometown of Brenizer, taking his first head coaching job at his alma mater. Skillings lives with his wife Dedgrey and his kids Ja’Tawn Williams, Eisha Holliday and Soncee Milton, while also serving at New Creation Family Worship Center in Greensburg.
Now, he’ll be serving his community again, this time as the head coach of the Derry Area football team.
“It’s truly a dream come true,” Skillings said. “As a preacher, I usually don’t get lost for words, but I’m really overwhelmed right now. I really have big hopes and big dreams.
“This is where it all started for me, and now I get a chance to share the knowledge, wisdom and understanding of what it takes to be a champion, having already been a champion at Derry and Ohio State. To be able to share that with these young people and pour into their lives will be vital and instrumental in creating future leaders and awesome citizens in our community.”