Sunday, June 17, 2001

Holding Court With Skip Prosser

Originally published on the network

On April 24, Wake Forest named Skip Prosser their new men’s basketball coach. Prosser had made a name for himself as the coach at Xavier, a small Jesuit school located in Cincinnati. For many ACC fans, Xavier might as well have been located on the moon for all they knew or cared about.

Many big-time NCAA coaches began their coaching careers at a high school or a small college but most of them at least had the image of a master plan mapping out their career path leading to a major college job with all the stature and riches. Not Skip Prosser, who told me,” I didn’t start out wanting to be a coach. I wanted to be a history teacher.”

While teaching history at Linsly Institute in Wheeling, West Virginia, Prosser began dabbling in coaching in 1972 when he took over the school’s freshman team. After four seasons, he moved up to junior varsity coach, and then was promoted to varsity coach in 1977. After two successful seasons, Prosser moved over to Central Catholic High School in Wheeling in 1979, where his teams won a state championship and five regional titles in six seasons.

During this period, he was still a full time teacher, but had started making some contacts in the college basketball world. He met Pete Gillen when Gillen came to Wheeling to scout one of Prosser’s players. They later crossed paths again when Prosser worked at a Notre Dame summer camp where Gillen was an assistant coach for the Irish. They stayed in touch, and when Gillen was offered the head coaching position at Xavier, he asked Prosser to join him as an assistant coach.

During Prosser’s eight seasons as a Xavier assistant coach, the Musketeers reached the NCAA tournament seven times, dominating the Midwestern Collegiate Conference during that time. His opportunity to become a head coach at the collegiate level came in 1993, when he accepted the position at Loyola of Baltimore, another small Jesuit school with nothing resembling a basketball tradition.

Prosser led the Greyhounds to the biggest turnaround in Division I basketball during the 1993-94 season. He took a team that finished with a 2-25 record the previous season and led them to their first NCAA Tournament appearance. Loyola finished with a 17-13 record that season, which would be his only year at the school. That season affirmed to Prosser that his coaching career was on the right track. He reflected, “That year solidified that what we were trying to do was the right thing.”

When Pete Gillen left Xavier to coach Providence, Prosser was named his successor. He succeeded in maintaining the Musketeers’ high level of success as they moved into the more challenging Atlantic 10 conference. Prosser led Xavier to four NCAA appearances and two NIT bids in his seven years as head coach, winning at least 20 games each season. Perhaps even more impressive was the fact that 83% of his players graduated on time at Xavier.

Over the past couple of seasons, Skip Prosser had been linked to several job openings, particularly ones at Notre Dame. The call he finally answered, however, came from Wake Forest. George Edward “Skip” Prosser, a 50-year old former history teacher from Pittsburgh, is now a head basketball coach in the most scrutinized conference with the most passionate fans in the nation. Yet he still does not have a fancy master plan.

When I recently asked him how he would cope with competing in the long shadows cast by Duke and North Carolina, he said, “I’m still trying to find where the pencils are. My immediate plan is to try and have a good day today.” He has enjoyed success against strong geographic neighbors, defeating cross-town rival Cincinnati four out of their last five meetings.

I asked Prosser why he had success graduating players at Xavier while so many other Division I programs struggle in that area. He thought “the relative smallness of the school made it hard for someone to slip through the cracks. The culture of the school itself encouraged strong academics.”

Despite his coaching success so far, he still thinks of himself as a teacher. Viewing the basketball arena as his teaching ground, he says, “My classroom doesn’t have a lot of desks in it, and there are thousands of people at every test.” It was this philosophy that made Wake Forest so attractive to Prosser. He felt that Wake “is one of the best academic schools in the country.”

This combined with the challenge of competing in the ACC lured him away from Xavier. Addressing that, he said, “I know how difficult it is, but the challenge is part of what excites me. We came here to play and coach against these teams.” The only part of that which he does not look forward to is competing against Virginia and his former mentor, Pete Gillen. When I asked him about that, he said, “Pete is a very close friend, and I’d rather not play a close friend.”

Prosser struck me as a very sincere, unassuming person who realized he had jumped from the frying pan into the fire, but who would not shy away from the challenge that presented.

To gain some objective background from people who had know him during his time at Xavier, I spoke with Paul Daugherty, who has been a columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer for several years. He described Prosser by saying “As a person, he’s one of the best people I’ve ever known.” When I asked Daugherty about Prosser’s commitment to his players’ academic success, he told me that Prosser “will not have one of his players not graduate.”

Daugherty offered the opinion that Prosser “would be just as happy in a history class as on the basketball court, I think.” Yet Daugherty emphasized that Prosser was not a lightweight, giving him high marks in “advancing the program”, particularly for the courage to move into the Atlantic 10 conference and his role in the building of the Cintas Center, Xavier’s two-year old plush arena and conference facility.

Yet not everyone in Cincinnati was happy with Prosser after his Xavier team stumbled to the finish line this past season, losing their final three games. Various Cincinnati media reports indicated there was an undercurrent of feeling about Prosser not being a strong bench coach. Indeed, the coach himself has said, “if we practice well, ideally I don’t have to coach a lot in the game.” There was also the feeling that Prosser had taken the program as far as he could.

This praise and criticism reminds me of someone else. Let’s see, a good person who has a strong emphasis on academics; questions about his bench coaching and the feeling that his program had reached a plateau; sounds a lot like Dave Odom, doesn’t it? Yes, the Dave Odom who had coached the Demon Deacons for 12 years before leaving a few weeks ago to accept the South Carolina job.

Did Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman consciously go after a Dave Odom clone in hiring Prosser? Will he be content if Prosser reaches the NCAA most seasons and makes a first or second round exit? Is that the best any ACC coach not at Duke, North Carolina, or Maryland can realistically hope for? Only time will answer those questions.

Prosser wants his team to play an up-tempo style and “be the type of team no one wants to play.” Now all he has to do is find a way to beat two of last season’s Final Four participants, Duke and Maryland, and a school that has been to two of the last four Final Fours, North Carolina. Not to mention finding those damn pencils.