Sunday, February 15, 2004

Prosser finds self at home

Coach content at Wake Forest

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - Dear Coach Prosser: I am seven months' pregnant. If you stay at Wake Forest, I will name my first child Skip.

Dear Coach Prosser: We are your biggest fans. The Wake Forest basketball team was a selling point of this school for us. ...

Dear Coach Prosser: If you leave, this will be the biggest tragedy to befall the human race since the fall of Jesus Christ.

Well, we couldn't have that, now could we?

Last spring, after two years coaching Wake Forest, Skip Prosser, a Pittsburgh native and stone-cold Steelers fan, considered chasing the vacant University of Pittsburgh job. Word spread quickly on the campus at Wake Forest, a 4,000-student university in the small town of Winston-Salem, where everybody knows your name, like it or not.

Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser is as fiery as ever.
(AP photo)
The kids began to gather at Manchester Hall. They plastered the windows of the basketball offices with Please Stay pleas. They chanted outside the windows. They sent e-mails. So many e-mails, the secretaries stopped counting them and simply printed them out and stacked them on the floor of the office. By the time Prosser decided to stay at Wake - and agree to a 10-year contract extension - the pile was taller than the Manhattan White Pages.

"Very gratifying," Prosser said.

(After Prosser announced his decision, he got another e-mail from the expectant mother: "I was kidding," she wrote.)

Life is good on Tobacco Road for George Edward Prosser, whose 20th-ranked Demon Deacons will play UC here today. The best coaches inspire on the court and off. Prosser has always done that, but never on a stage so large. At Wake Forest, which is a lot like Xavier, without the Fathers and Sisters, or Duquesne on the schedule, Prosser gets to be Mr. Chips and recruit blue-chippers.

It hasn't been without pitfalls. There are no Irish pubs. When Prosser wants a Guinness, he goes to the store and buys one and drinks it at home. When he was at Xavier, Skip used Hap's Irish Pub in Oakley the way a squirrel uses a tree when the Doberman is around.

He has no refuge here. It's too small, the fans too rabid. "You're more under the microscope. It's much harder to go out. Everybody's an ACC basketball fan. I'd rather have the anonymity," Prosser said. Occasionally, he retreats to the local Borders bookstore, with a cup of coffee and a book. He's reading Oscar Robertson's autobiography now.

A week after he arrived, Prosser drew a square on a sheet of paper. "This is the state of North Carolina," he said to Lynne Heflin, his administrative assistant. "Where are we?" It wasn't long after that when an office secretary referred to Prosser and his staff as "damned Yankees.'' She was reassigned.

Wake Forest is an academic place that doesn't cater to its jocks. It accepts no partial qualifiers. It's forever in the long shadow of Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State. Prosser doesn't even have his own parking spot on campus. Then again, neither does the athletic director.

Prosser plays a Murderers' Row schedule. After UC today, the Deacons play No.1 Duke Wednesday and at Georgia Tech Saturday. Between Jan. 13 and Jan. 20, Wake traveled to 18th-ranked Texas, played at Duke and home against Georgia Tech, ranked 11th at the time. We're not at Fordham anymore, Toto. "Every school in the league is trying to win the national championship," Prosser said.

He has adjusted to all of it: The "sweet tea," the locals referring to his team as "y'all," the online gossiping of fans on message boards and in chat rooms. If Prosser goes for a beer with his staff in Winston-Salem, his mother in Pennsylvania can read about it within the hour.

Prosser the Yankee has signed nine players from the state of North Carolina. Last year, he got point guard Chris Paul, a McDonald's All American and Top 25 recruit everyone figured would play for UNC. Paul is averaging 13 points, five assists and just two turnovers a game. He is wiser than his years.

When Wake was recruiting Paul, Prosser's wife, Nancy, even made the kid some grits.

Prosser has filled his staff with the usual suspects, all the guys he went to war with on Victory Parkway: Jeff Battle, Dino Gaudio, Chris Mack and Pat Kelsey.

Last season, Prosser charged Mack and Kelsey with raucous-ing up the staid, big-money Deacons crowd. The pair convinced the university the republic could withstand some ear shattering during pregame intros. Mack, a huge Bengals fan, suggested Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle." Kelsey decided the team mascot would arrive on a motorcycle.

(Kelsey, the Elder grad, gets online at 7 a.m. on football Fridays, to assure he has a stream for WTSJ's radio broadcasts of the Panthers games.)

Kelsey and Mack also have outfitted fans with tie-dyed shirts bearing the slogan Wake The Neighbors, the neighbors being Duke, Carolina and N.C. State. Imagine the wine-and-cheesers in the first several rows of Cintas Center doing that.

Gaudio's daughter attends Wake and is on the dance team. "I told (Kelsey) when we play (at UC) next year, schedule it for a Monday, so we can get there Friday and go to Montgomery Inn and Skyline Chili," Gaudio said.

Prosser, meanwhile, has settled in. He's an easy guy to like, a coach with diverse interests who fits as well on Wake's small, leafy, academic campus as he did on Victory Parkway. He has the best winning percentage of any third-year coach in ACC history; he's making recruiting noise in homes where previous Wake coaches didn't dare go.

When the Pitt job opened, Gaudio urged Prosser to go for an interview. He didn't. He knew if he had, he'd be coaching the Panthers now. Going home is a powerful draw. It's why Prosser misses Xavier, and the city of Cincinnati. It's also why he signed for 10 more years at Wake Forest.

"All those e-mails had a very strong impact on me," Prosser said, "and the players said they wanted to do special things here and they wanted me to be a part of it. We have a lot of unfinished business here."

It's a fragrant February day, sunny and 60 degrees, undergrads walking the compact campus wearing shorts and long-sleeved T-shirts. What's not to like? They all wish Prosser good luck against Cincinnati.

"It's incredible how friendly everyone is," Prosser said. All that's missing, it seems, is a decent Irish pub.



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