Coaching fraternity reeling from Prosser's death

Originally Published: July 26, 2007
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- My 23-month-old son was being his normal, vocal self behind me. I was on the phone with Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser Wednesday morning, and Prosser asked me about my family, my wife, my nearly 5-year-old daughter and my son. And before I could answer, Prosser told me how much better being a parent is as your children get older.

"What's great is now I see my son on the road recruiting, and we can go out and have lunch and hang out," Prosser said of his son Mark, an assistant at Bucknell. "We just did [this week]. I love it."

Prosser died Thursday after going out for a jog in Winston-Salem, N.C. I can't stop thinking about our conversation 24 hours earlier. He was so upbeat, so full of life, so Skip, easily one of the most likable and respected college basketball coaches.

Prosser told me he had just been recruiting in Las Vegas, was in Orlando for another day and had to go back to campus Thursday. Supposedly, the plan was to possibly head back to Orlando for more recruiting evaluation. We talked about the good news Wake Forest was receiving on commitments for some of the top big men in the Class of 2008. He was as excited about Wake Forest basketball as he was when the Demon Deacons were No. 1 in the country two seasons ago with Chris Paul at the point. After a disappointing 2005-06 season, Prosser was mentioned as a candidate to head back to Cincinnati to replace Bob Huggins. He was adamant that he was staying at Wake Forest, determined to turn the Demon Deacons back into an ACC contender. He echoed that sentiment in our conversation Wednesday.

It all seems so trivial right now.

It's way too early to speculate on what Prosser was living with, what time bomb lurked inside him. But like most college coaches, he was in the midst of the usual July grind -- taking red-eyes from Vegas to Orlando, sneaking back for a camp day and then quickly back on the road.

And as the news of Prosser's death quickly spread Thursday at the Milk House on Disney's Wide World of Sports complex, where I was taping a series of ESPNU college basketball roundtable discussions, the reaction among college coaches was one of utter shock.

We had just finished a session with Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, VCU's Anthony Grant and Clemson's Oliver Purnell when Ohio coach Tim O'Shea and Pitt coach Jamie Dixon delivered the news. Martelli's son, Jimmy, an assistant at Robert Morris, ran up to find his father.

George "Skip" Prosser
Wake Forest, 2001-07
Xavier, 1994-2001
Loyola (Md.), 1993-94
Xavier, 1984-93, assistant coach
Central Catholic HS, 1979-84
Linsly Institute, 1971-79

Notables:
2003 ACC coach of the year
1995 MCC coach of the year
9 NCAA Tournament berths
4 regular-season conference titles
2 conference tournament titles
1 Sweet 16 appearance (2004)
Dixon had just seen Mark Prosser get the phone call while sitting courtside watching an AAU game. He got up and left in tears.

The ashen looks on the coaches in the gym were everywhere. Around the court, Dixon, Kansas' Bill Self, Louisville's Rick Pitino, Baylor's Scott Drew and Virginia Tech's Seth Greenberg stared blankly out at the court. Their eyes were focused on the action, but there's no telling where their minds had drifted.

Everyone was in a state of disbelief. Prosser had just been in Orlando the previous night. Stanford coach Trent Johnson called to tell me he was with Prosser late into the night after a game. Johnson was in shock after hearing the news, but still wanted to be sure he heard it correctly.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber wanted to be certain he heard the same thing. So, too, did Gonzaga's Mark Few and many others. West Virginia called on behalf of Bob Huggins, a good friend of Prosser's from their Cincinnati-Xavier rivalry days. UCLA's Ben Howland was just as stunned. No one could come to grips with the news that one of their own, who never seemed to be the subject of negative talk, was gone so suddenly.

A number of these coaches have dealt with grief recently. Pitino lost his brother-in-law on 9/11. Dixon's sister, former Army coach Maggie Dixon, and his cousin both died unexpectedly last year of heart ailments. Greenberg didn't lose any loved ones in the Virginia Tech massacre, but he was there, sharing the fear, and in the aftermath, the schoolwide grief.

Greenberg had a hard time dealing with the rather trivial task at hand of watching high school players run and up down a court Thursday. He cited the health of Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins, who told me earlier this week that he was told his exhaustion contributed to his seizure last month, as yet another warning sign to the demands of the profession. Greenberg wondered aloud what kind of lifestyle these coaches are living with their rush to watch games, going from Orlando to Las Vegas to Los Angeles, to text one more recruit, to make one more phone call, to rush back for this camp and that speaking engagement.

Skip Prosser and Mark Prosser
Bucknell AthleticsSkip Prosser's son Mark (right) is an assistant coach at Bucknell.

There was a collective pause among the coaches here Thursday, wondering if they shouldn't all just take a step back. Martelli was so distraught, he said he was heading back home to Philadelphia. He didn't see the purpose of staying on the road anymore. I got the sense no one wanted to be here. Martelli said Thursday night that he thought the event should be shut down since no coaches clearly wanted to be recruiting.

"Maybe we should all go home and take a breath and a break," Martelli said.

He also said Prosser had recently encouraged him to read the book about the Duke lacrosse case while they sat at the Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C., earlier this month. Martelli said he just finished the book and said he was looking forward to talking to him about it.

The reason Prosser was so beloved by his peers was because he was genuine. He was honest. He was real. On a number of occasions, he could be found taking his developmentally challenged son Scott with him on the road. I can't recall seeing Prosser by himself over the years. He was always with Scott, his son Mark, his assistant Dino Gaudio or his wife Nancy. While at Wake Forest, he was close to sports information director Dean Buchan, who recently took a job at Georgia Tech in the same capacity.

Prosser talked to me Wednesday about Buchan's departure. He joked about how Buchan kept text messaging Prosser to make sure he wasn't mad at Buchan. They continued their friendly barbs as late as Thursday morning, Buchan said later in the day.

Prosser said he was eager to get to know Buchan's replacement. He was one of those people interested in just about everyone he came into contact with on a daily basis. He was a diligent reader, interested in history and politics. He was more than just a coach. Much more.

The fair-haired, freckled Prosser was a wonderful man and appeared to be a devoted father, husband, friend to many, foe to apparently no one and a mentor for many in the profession.

Wake Forest, Winston-Salem, the ACC, college basketball, and those of us who knew him lost a gentlemen Thursday. His death makes us all ponder purpose and the need to slow down at times, too.

Excuse me while I head home to hug my loved ones.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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