July 26, 2007

A loss for all of college basketball

MORE: Prosser's death shocks college basketball | Odom mourns friend | Prosser career timeline

Coaches love inspirational sayings. They adopt them as a motto, hang them from walls, print up T-shirts. They are as much about coaching, especially at the still youthful high school and college level, as Xs and Os.

Skip Prosser loved them, too. Only Prosser, being an insatiable student, a former high school teacher and one of the last true educators in college athletics, liked it with a twist.

He never fell back on the trite and easy, the sayings that didn't challenge his players' minds as well as their mettle. Why give them "Refuse to Lose" when, say, Thomas Paine is available?

"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis ..."

Prosser would write on a chalkboard during a rough stretch for one of his teams. His players would have to read and think and contemplate at a real depth the magic of some long gone American patriot speaking to them through the centuries. The next day he'd write up another from Thoreau or Nietzsche or Shakespeare.

Prosser, a coach like almost no other, passed away Thursday. A heart attack while jogging at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., ended his profound and powerful life at 56.

This isn't so much about me or many others losing a friend. This is about college athletics as a whole losing one.

Prosser was a man's man and a coach's coach; too good in so many ways for the cut-throat business of college hoops, a place he found great success in nonetheless.

There wasn't a better teacher in the game; which shouldn't be confused with a teacher of the game. Perhaps there were some more adept at boxouts or fast breaks, although his 291 career victories and .667 winning percentage at Wake Forest, Xavier and Loyola (Md.) attest that he could more than hold his own.

But it was always, truly, about more with Prosser. Not just in words, but in actions.

This was the guy that you'd send your son to play for, work for and learn from. His hobby was reading long biographies, history, philosophy and politics. He was forever challenging everyone, not just his players. Every conversation I ever had with him began with him asking what I was reading, and if it wasn't up to intellectual snuff, he'd let me know and recommend a shelf full of serious.

Prosser loved to take his teams on those summer exhibition tours. For so many schools now, for so many coaches, these are nothing but extra practice time. Too many teams skip touring the capitals of Europe and head to Canada or the Bahamas, less travel, more mindless fun. What's the Sistine Chapel when jet skiing is an option?

Not Prosser. Every trip was about taking in the history, soaking up the culture. In the spring semester before the trip, he'd get a professor on campus to conduct a one-credit class on the country the team would be visiting, mandatory for every last player and student manager.

And then, as a bonus, Prosser would attend the class too, writing the term paper even, banging out 4-6 pages on the role of Patrick Pearse in the Irish uprising of 1916 like he hadn't long ago mastered the subject matter.

There was simply nothing else like him in big-time college sports; a D-I success story who never turned his back on his D-III ideals. He grew up in little Carnegie, a hardscrabble town in Western Pennsylvania, attended the Merchant Marine Academy and once hitchhiked across the country. He never lost his love of Pittsburgh, Guinness or the possibility of tomorrow.

While he always said he'd still be happy coaching and teaching at Central Catholic (his first job) in Wheeling, W.Va., he was too good for that. The guy was a winner, his intelligent, challenging, man-up motivational ways connecting with so many players through the years. He had a powerhouse going at Xavier, bringing in stars such as David West until in 2001, at the age of 50, he got offered a job in the venerable ACC and decided, "why not try to win a national championship?"

And so he tried. He coached Josh Howard and Chris Paul, reached the Sweet 16 and just this summer had put together what was expected to be a top-five recruiting class. He was making things work at a small, academically elite school, while privately frustrated at the rampant rule-breaking and dishonesty around him. If there was ever a coach who followed the rules, ever someone to root for, this was one.

Prosser was forever proof that good guys could succeed, that ethics and education were still possible in the billion dollar enterprise of NCAA basketball.

He never won his national championship, of course. Never quite put all the pieces together for a Final Four.

But Thursday, as the shocking, awful news of his death swept the country, as phone calls were exchanged from nearly every person he ever touched, ever challenged, ever showed the right way with his dignified yet approachable manner, as all the old stories and all the old sayings he'd scribble on those blackboards were recounted and recalled, his victories were mounting fast, his life carrying on in a way that no basketball victory could ever challenge.



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