Skip Prosser Was a Coach for All the Right Reasons

Skip Prosser would have made a damn fine old man. We should have gotten him for another 30-odd years just so we could go back from time to time, listen and laugh, see his mind, feel a little bette

Aug 1, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

Skip Prosser would have made a damn fine old man. We should have gotten him for another 30-odd years just so we could go back from time to time, listen and laugh, see his mind, feel a little better. He already helped us see straight, and he improved with age.

Prosser, the former Xavier basketball coach who later took Wake Forest to new heights, died last Thursday in his office after taking a jog. He was only 56, which is always too young and, in his case, way too young.

One spends a bit of his life around sports and turns deaf to the most half-cocked opinions stated with the most bombastic confidence. Especially in college coaching, which is a rat race under the easiest circumstances, a siege mentality fences out the real world only to be foiled when coaches try to expand their artificial boundaries.

Prosser was the kind of man one hopes to find in sports and rarely does, a truly good sport who fought almost with a lover's passion against letting his athletic vocation become a prolonged adolescence. Prosser embraced the outside world, wanted it madly and made his players see it, too.

One spent time with Prosser, admiring his intensity and humanity without ever thinking about his burning desire to succeed. He succeeded without it, because his burning desires weren't limited or defined by success.

Prosser aspired to nothing less than the life well lived. Succeeding just came with it.

It mattered to Prosser if he could give a good impression, make the right remark, protect his flanks politically or win on the basketball floor. But he didn't chew on it much. That stuff took care of itself.

It's not often that within the whiff of filthy jock straps one confronts such an unquenchable desire to live well and in good conscience. It's not the same as winning.

Prosser left Xavier for Wake Forest in 2001, saying to his new constituents, "I won't make a lot of promises but I won't make excuses, either." Never a drop of nonsense.

Wake Forest has never stood so tall against its neighboring giants in the Atlantic Coast Conference, particularly Duke and North Carolina, as in the last six years with Skip Prosser.

During his first year at Wake, Prosser brought home a third-place team in the 2002 ACC, followed the next season by Wake's first outright league title in 41 years. A squad with no scholarship seniors returned in 2004, and the Deacons still beat two teams ranked in the top five, rising as high as No. 3 in the major polls.

Prosser's 2005 team occupied No. 1 in the polls for the first time ever and set a school record with 27 wins. He took the Deacons where they'd never been, all the while graduating every player who made it to his senior year. He did it without promising championships or cutting corners.

"We want to be the best team we can be and we want to compete with the best teams in the country," Prosser said when he took over at Wake Forest. It's the right goal stated rightly. And he delivered, perhaps more than many thought he could.

One almost wonders what would have become of Prosser's career if he'd been a little more obsessive. It says something about his comfort with teaching that he took the scenic route through his career, starting with four years as a private high school freshman coach.

But what it really says is that he went into coaching for the right reasons.

Prosser took his first job as a history teacher at Linley Institute in Wheeling, W.V. The school asked him to coach freshman football and basketball as part of the job. Prosser had just spent a year on tour with the merchant marines while graduating from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy with a degree in nautical science. How hard could it be to coach football and basketball?

Prosser discovered a new kind of classroom in the gym. Naturally, his competence was soon enough in demand, though he didn't market it with much conviction.

When Prosser finally joined the Xavier staff in 1984, he was 34. Not until age 43, when he left Xavier for a year to run the Loyola-Maryland program, did he take a college head coaching job.

Rather than ratting through the college recruiting game and advancing through coaching's back channels, Prosser put in seven years as a high school head coach in West Virginia before joining Pete Gillen's first Xavier staff. And from that day until the end, Prosser was a college coach in a high school coach's body.

Throughout his college coaching career, Prosser was such an eminently respectable man, largely because he was so respectful to the people he met. Twice at Xavier, Prosser beat the University of Cincinnati when the cross-town rival held the No. 1 ranking. And yet he got along fine with former UC coach Bob Huggins.

Prosser tried changing Xavier's self-image from that of the little school that could to less of an underdog mentality. Rather than frame UC as the big player across town, Prosser wished to emulate the Huggins Bearcats, because he loved UC's reputation for being a team no one wanted to play.

Prosser navigated Xavier's move from the Midwest Collegiate Conference to the Atlantic-10 with two conference titles within three years of joining the new league. It seemed, perhaps, as though Prosser had taken Xavier as far as it could go.

Of course, Thad Matta took Xavier to that next step, building teams that improved as the season transpired and taking the 2003 group to a regional championship game against Duke. Prosser, meanwhile, notched up his chops by putting Wake Forest into the thick of the ACC.

The last couple years at Wake have been lean for Prosser, but he hoped a batch of good recruits would put him back in the national hunt. Now the kids won't be able to play for him. Their loss. And his. And ours.

Prosser should have lived another 30-odd years as someone's coach, someone's grandpa, an elder statesman for all of us. We live the rest of our lives, instead, settling for a memory.