Great coach, greater man
College hoops world loses a true gem in Skip Prosser
Posted: Thursday July 26, 2007 7:21PM; Updated: Thursday July 26, 2007 9:07PM
When I heard the shocking news that Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser had died of a heart attack on campus Thursday morning, for some reason my mind flashed back to the day I spent at Wake two years ago previewing the Deacs for SI's college hoops issue. It was one of those perfect North Carolina fall afternoons, and Skip and I were headed out to lunch. As we walked to his car, Prosser said hello to a pack of students who were passing by.
"Beautiful day, isn't it?" one of them said.
"It's always a beautiful day in the forest of Wake," Skip quipped.
Thursday was not a beautiful day at Wake Forest. It was an ugly, horrible, tragic day. I realize it is customary to say something nice about a person after they've passed away, but believe me when I tell you the world of sports lost a true gem on Thursday. College basketball is a cutthroat sport; and after you've been on the beat a while, it feels as if you've heard at least one negative thing said about every coach in America.
And yet, I have never heard a bad word uttered about Skip Prosser. Not one. He was one of the best-liked, most-respected coaches in the game. Like everyone else in the sport, I cannot believe he is gone at the young age of 56.
More than anything, Skip was really easy to talk to. I especially enjoyed discussing things other than basketball with him. Whenever I'd see him on the recruiting trail, the first question I'd ask him was not about whom he was recruiting. It was about what he was reading. He particularly liked historical novels, and we'd spend some time talking about books we had recently read. Invariably, our discussions turned to current events, politics and family. Then, if we still had time leftover, we'd dish a little on hoops.
In many ways, Skip still liked to think of himself as the high school history teacher he once was. His beginnings were a lot more humble than most of the guys he coached against. He started his coaching career by leading the freshman team at Linsly Institute in Wheeling, W. Va., and spent 13 years in the high school ranks before Pete Gillen hired him onto his staff at Xavier in 1985. With that background, Prosser knew how lucky he was to make such a comfortable living coaching college basketball. The more success he acquired, the more humble he became.
"He never big-timed anybody," a shaken Gillen told me by phone Thursday afternoon. "He walked with kings, but he still had the common touch. He could hang with Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams and beat them on occasion; but he'd also have time for the maintenance man at the hotel who was a Steelers fan. He was just a special person."
Gillen recalled Thursday that as a coach, one of Prosser's biggest strenghts was his ability to spot potential. That led Prosser to recruit guys like Aaron Williams and James Posey to Xavier, both of whom went on to have long NBA careers. When Prosser was a head coach at Xavier and Wake Forest, his teams played an exciting, up-tempo style predicated on tough defense. He was hard to beat but easy to like.
Gillen said he didn't know Prosser well when he first hired him, but he quickly learned the depths of Prosser's passion for the sport -- which was especially evident during games. I remember after one tough particularly tough contest, Prosser began his postgame press conference by saying, "This job would be great if it weren't for the games." It was a funny line, but I don't think he was kidding.
That was his sense of humor, though -- sharp and self-deprecating. Over dinner one night, he boasted to me that, as a guard for the Merchant Marine Academy, he once scored a career-high 14 points against Yeshiva University. He wobbled his head and shimmied his shoulders and said, "They couldn't guard me!" He also boasted that night that he once went out with a girl who broke a date with Jack Ham, the great Steelers linebacker, to go out with Prosser. For a kid who grew up in Pittsburgh, there could be no prouder achievement.
From time to time, I'd send Prosser a text message after one of his games. I'd congratulate him on a win or tell him to hang in there after a loss. His reply always came swiftly, and it never failed to make me smile. The Deacs had a particularly rough time of it two years ago, and when Skip saw me at the Final Four that winter, he made a point to thank me for staying in touch, even if it was usually just through text messages.
The last time I sent a message to Skip was the morning of June 6. I can't recall why I wrote him, but I know the date because he called me back immediately, and I still have his number stored in my phone's caller ID. The funny thing is, when I picked up the phone, he said, "Who is this?" Apparently, he had lost his cell phone during a trip to Kuwait with a bunch of his peers. (They coached U.S. soldiers in a basketball tournament.) He told me about his experience in Kuwait -- he was deeply moved, to say the least -- and that, of course, led us into a discussion about the war in Iraq.
We spoke about his team at Wake for a few minutes, and he talked (again) about his son, Mark, who is an assistant at Bucknell. I remember Skip said that since Mark got into coaching, they talked now more than ever. It's a testament to how good a dad Skip was that his son would follow in his footsteps, but Skip was just happy they were in such frequent contact.
Earlier this month, Prosser made big news by procuring verbal commitments from two of the best high school big men in America. The Deacs have had a couple of down years, so that was very welcome news. I had planned on calling Skip to offer my congratulations, but I never got around to it. Now I'll never have the chance. That is a sad thought on a very sad day for a sport that gave such joy to this very good man. May he rest in peace.