Leonard Skinner, the no-nonsense, flat-topped basketball coach and gym teacher whose name is forever linked with Jacksonville’s legendary Lynyrd Skynyrd, died in his sleep early Monday morning. He was 77.
His son, also named Leonard Skinner, said his father had a bowl of ice cream just past midnight — he loved ice cream — and then was found dead about 2:30 a.m. He had been a resident of St. Catherine Laboure Manor, a nursing home in Riverside, for a year, his son said. He had Alzheimer’s disease.
Mr. Skinner never asked to become part of rock ’n’ roll lore. He didn’t even like rock ’n’ roll. He was just a by-the-book gym teacher at Robert E. Lee High School, his alma mater, who, in the late 1960s, sent some students to the principal’s office because their hair was too long.
Gene Odom, who worked security for the band and survived the crash of its plane in 1977, said one of the longhairs was Gary Rossington. Rossington was guitarist in a rock band that would later name itself Lynyrd Skynyrd in a smart-aleck tribute to the gym teacher.
During an interview in January 2009, Mr. Skinner said he was just following the rules about hair length. It always bothered him that the legend grew to say he was particularly tough on them or that he’d kicked them out of school.
“It was against the school rules. I don’t particularly like long hair on men, but again, it wasn’t my rule,” he said.
To Mr. Skinner — known to many as “Coach” or “Big Leonard” — the incident soon passed into obscurity. He didn’t even recall the name of the long-haired student, and certainly didn’t know of an up-and-coming Southern rock band bearing a mocking version of his own name.
Years later, though, his son was listening to the band’s 1973 debut album, “Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd.” The younger Skinner recalled that his father was not impressed, asking him: “What the hell kind of noise are you listening to?”
Around that time, his family said, a relative called after hearing a radio show on which the band told how it had come up with its offbeat name. And so Mr. Skinner became something of a celebrity — forever having to show his ID to people who didn’t believe that Leonard Skinner was his real name.
Mr. Skinner eventually made friends with some members of the band when they came to jam at The Still, a bar the ex-coach opened on San Juan Avenue. Mr. Skinner also named a couple of bars at the Beaches after himself, capitalizing on the fame of the name.
He also allowed the band to use a photo of his Leonard Skinner Realty sign for the inside of their third album. For years, fans would call the phone number on the sign to reach the real Leonard Skinner. Their inevitable reaction, said Mr. Skinner: “Far out.”
Years later, Lynyrd Skynyrd asked him to introduce the band at a concert in Jacksonville.
Mr. Skinner’s children said their father, while never completely comfortable with being linked to the band, did grow to embrace it.
“He made a lot of new friends,” said his daughter, Susie Moore. “That in itself really brought a lot of wonderful people in our family’s lives, simply because they were Lynyrd Skynyrd fans, and they wanted to meet Dad. They loved him. They’re part of our extended family now.”
Forby Leonard Skinner was born Jan. 11, 1933, in Jacksonville. He graduated from Lee High in 1951. A talented athlete who played basketball into his sixties, he went to Jacksonville Junior College (now Jacksonville University) on a basketball scholarship before being drafted into the Army.
“He did more playing ball and playing than studying,” noted his wife, Rosemary Skinner.
They were high school acquaintances who reunited at the beach in 1955 as “he was celebrating his release from the Army and uniforms,” she said.
They married in 1956. The next year, he graduated from Florida State University. He remained a dedicated Seminoles fan for the rest of his life and rarely missed a football game.
He taught and coached in schools until 1969, when he retired from Lee. He then had a real estate firm, sold cars and owned a few bars.
The family is planning a funeral that they hope will take place on Friday, said his daughter. “We want anyone to come who feels so inclined to be part of the celebration of his life,” said Moore.
The family will announce details soon.
In 2009, friends organized a tribute to Mr. Skinner at the National Guard Armory on the Westside. There were three bands and a couple of hundred people in attendance, including Lynyrd Skynyrd fans, former students and friends from that big part of Mr. Skinner’s life that had nothing to do with the rock band.
Rosemary Skinner said her husband was touched by the event.
“On the way home, Leonard said, ‘You know, we sure have a lot of friends.’ I said, ‘Yes we do, Leonard. We do have a lot of friends.’ ”