JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - If Forby Leonard Skinner had gone by his first name instead of just plain old Leonard Skinner, then who knows? Perhaps Lynyrd Skynyrd might now be known worldwide as Fyrby Skynyrd.
Oh, but don't broach that subject to him.
"Don't call him Forby," warns his son, Leonard Skinner, middle name Sheldon. "He'll remember that he doesn't like that." The elder Skinner - "Big Leonard," or just plain "Coach" - is 76 now, and he's showing the effects of Alzheimer's.
But he still remembers enough to recognize foolishness when he sees it, so he wants to know why some people - OK, this person - still want to talk to him about some long-haired boys in his gym class who'd go on to form one kick-butt Southern rock band.
"That was 100 years ago!" complains Leonard Skinner.
Well, the reason this time was because he was the headliner at A Tribute to Coach Leonard Skinner & Southern Rock, held Saturday at the National Guard Armory on - where else? - Jacksonville's Westside, home of Skynyrd.
He was just a regular Westside guy, a coach and businessman with a strong code of honor, a disciplinarian at home and at school. "There was right and there was wrong, and you'd better not deviate," says his daughter, Susie Moore.
And he was an accomplished athlete who played competitive basketball into his 60s, loved the dog track and burned with a competitive streak as wide as the St. Johns River.
"If you measured feet, he wanted to have the biggest feet," his wife, Rosemary, says fondly.
So the elements were in place for a bit of rock history to be made.
The story goes this way: The band named itself in a smart-aleck tribute to the basketball coach and gym teacher at Robert E. Lee High School, the tough guy who sent some of the musicians to the assistant principal's office because their hair was too long - it touched their collars in the back.
It was apparently a big deal to them. To Skinner, though? Not so much. Even as the band was making it big in the '70s, he admitted he didn't recall their names or faces: He remembered the athletes he coached, not the longhairs.
It rankled him then, and it rankles him now, that some say he was too tough on them, or that it was he who kicked Skynyrd out of school.
They were breaking the school dress code, after all. And he was just doing his job by sending them to the office - if they were expelled or suspended after they got to the office, it wasn't his doing.
"It was against the school rules. I don't particularly like long hair on men, but again, it wasn't my rule," he says.
At their home on the Westside, Rosemary has arranged some yearbooks, newspaper clippings and photos that document her husband's life. In most of the pictures, he has the same haircut, a sturdy flattop.
Rising to the top, though, is a photo of mid-'70s vintage, in which he's sporting stylishly shaggy hair and honest-to-goodness sideburns.
He leans forward as she shows it to him. "I violated my own rule?" he says. Then he laughs, a big belly laugh.
In the early '70s, Leonard Skinner's daughter, Susie, was at a dance at Jeb Stuart Middle School where a young band with a familiar name was playing.
"I went up to one of the band members at the break and said, 'Which one is Leonard Skinner?' I thought that was so cool that one of the band members had the same name as my dad, and rather than give me the long explanation, he said, 'There's no one named Leonard Skinner.' And dumb me, being 14 years old, I took everything literally, and I said, 'Well, OK.' " A couple of years later, Leonard Skinner's son, Leonard, liked to listen to a new record called Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd. His dad wasn't crazy about it. "I had the album, and he'd say, 'What the hell kind of noise are you listening to?' " Somewhere around that time, a relative called: She'd heard a radio show on which a new band told how they'd come up with their unusual name. Ever since, Leonard Skinner has been tied to the band - and is forever having to take out his billfold to show his ID to people who don't believe that that's his real name.
So perhaps he's warmed up to Lynyrd Skynyrd's music after all these decades?
"No," he says flatly, resisting a golden opportunity to play nice. "I don't. I don't like rock 'n' roll music." "That's the truth," says Rosemary, teasing him. "He likes that elevator music." Others wanted to make a big deal of the Skynyrd thing, but it never turned Skinner's flat-topped head, says long-time friend Bill Rogers, who worked in the insurance business with the ex-coach: "It was water off a duck's back. He didn't pay any attention to it." But Skinner was savvy enough to use his name on a couple of bars he owned at the Beaches after quitting coaching in 1969. And he made friends with some of the guys from Skynyrd when they'd come to jam at The Still, Skinner's place on San Juan Avenue. Lynyrd Skynyrd even asked him to introduce them at a concert in their hometown. He agreed.
And he let them use a photo of his Leonard Skinner Realty sign for the inside cover of their third album. The sign had his phone number on it, which led, of course, to numerous middle-of-the-night calls from fans. The inevitable reaction when they found they were talking to the actual Leonard Skinner? "Far out." Reporters turned to him after the 1977 plane crash that killed six people on Skynyrd's plane, and found Skinner as stubborn as always.
In an interview with the Florida Times-Union, he spent paragraphs complaining that people always misunderstood his role in the band's history. Again: It was not he who kicked them out of school, and he certainly never picked on them in particular. He was just doing his job.
Still, he softened a bit when he spoke to the reporter of getting to know Skynyrd. "They were good, talented, hard-working boys," he said.
"They worked hard, lived hard and boozed hard." A pretty good epitaph for the band with which he is forever linked, though he never asked for it.
Reach Matt Soergel at email@example.com or (904) 359-4082