Commentary

Gaudio faces challenge at Wake Forest; top recruits stay committed

Originally Published: August 10, 2007
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

His mentor, closest friend and the person who helped save his coaching career was going to be buried in 24 hours in Cincinnati.

But there was something else that also was making Wake Forest associate head coach Dino Gaudio anxious.

He had no idea what was going to happen in the aftermath of Skip Prosser's tragic death July 26 of an apparent heart attack at the age of 56. A week later, Gaudio had no idea if he would permanently replace Prosser as Wake Forest's coach, if he would fill in as an interim coach, or ultimately, if he would even have a job as an assistant there if Wake Forest hired a coach from outside the school.

Dino Gaudio
Craig Jones/Getty ImagesDino Gaudio has head coaching experience. He coached at Army and Loyola (Md.), although he never had a winning record in any of his seven seasons there.

"I had a lot of mixed emotions," said Gaudio, 50.

Those emotions disappeared Wednesday when Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman introduced Gaudio as the new head coach.

At least two of the high-profile committed recruits in the class of 2008 -- 7-foot center Ty Walker of Wilmington, N.C., and 6-8 Al-Farouq Aminu of Norcross, Ga. -- anticipated that Gaudio would be chosen to succeed Prosser, a move that ensured they remain committed to the school.

"After coach Prosser died, I knew he was next in line," Walker said. "I just guessed that on my own. So I was just waiting for it to come up in due time."

"I wanted them to stay within the coaching staff," Aminu said. "The coaches already knew me, so I knew it wouldn't be a big transition. But I didn't want to bug anyone about it. I wanted to pay my respects to him, and then after that I would think about it. I knew it was a hard time for all of them. I didn't care about a [coaching replacement timeline]. It just made perfect sense to me not to make any changes."

Both Walker and Woods said their Georgia Stars summer league teammate Tony Woods, a 6-10 player from Norcross, Ga., feels the same way. (Attempts to reach Woods on Thursday were unsuccessful.)

"Tony and Al are still committed to Wake Forest regardless of what happened, ready to play under coach Gaudio," Walker said.

The NCAA gave Wake Forest an exemption due to Prosser's death to have unlimited contact -- instead of just one call a week -- with their committed players until Aug. 13, Gaudio said.

Wake Forest needed the exemption to make sure the players still were committed, considering that, at least in the case of Walker, other schools started to recruit them despite their commitments to Wake Forest.

"There have been schools trying to get me," Walker said. "I'm thinking [North] Carolina was the main one trying to get to me. I don't know for sure, but I heard they were supposed to be offering a scholarship. But I'm going to stick with Wake Forest 100 percent, no matter what happens. No school is going to change my decision. I'm going to stick by it. I figured schools would try to do this and make me decommit to Wake Forest at the last minute. I was ready for it."

Walker said nobody from North Carolina called him, but he heard from his "peers, coaches and parents and people around the traveling team," that North Carolina and Clemson were two of the schools trying to get him.

"I know it's just rumors about these schools trying to steal me from Wake Forest, but it was Wake Forest that wanted me [most]," Walker said. Walker said he even heard there was a letter sent from North Carolina, prior to Prosser's death but after Walker had committed to Wake Forest, but said, "I haven't seen it, and it wouldn't make a difference. Nothing is going to change my decision."

Walker said he remains committed to Wake Forest because the Demon Deacons were the first school to latch on to him as their No. 1 target when "nobody knew who I was. They said I would be good. Plus, I was a real good student, too."

Multiple ACC coaches told ESPN.com they didn't feel right recruiting Walker, Aminu or Woods in light of Prosser's death and that they were hoping there would be a pact among the ACC coaches that no one would recruit these players, even if they decided to open up for recruitment -- something none have publicly stated.

Talking to Grandma Jo and to Scott made this all more palatable to me. It had been such a roller coaster.

Dino Gaudio

"Nobody has tried to [recruit] me [since Prosser's death]," Aminu said.

"It would be awkward [to play for another ACC school and play at Wake Forest]," Walker said. "We're going to play for a great coach, a chance to go to the NBA and get a great education. The five-year contract sounds like they're really confident in coach Gaudio. That contract says a lot about him. I'm ready to play for him."

That's good news for Gaudio, considering it would be natural to question his career record since he never had a winning record in four years at Army and three years at Loyola (Md.).

"I'm not making excuses, but those experiences definitely prepared me for this," Gaudio said. "I was a 33-year-old head coach at Army. Now I'm 50. Those were the greatest experiences of my life."

The challenge ahead of him, though, will be the toughest in his career.

Prosser said the day before he died that next season is going to be a chore since the team is so young. The Demon Deacons are coming off a 5-11 season in the ACC, 15-16 overall, and missed the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season.

The Demon Deacons will have no seniors, two juniors who are contributors (Harvey Hale and Cameron Stanley) and eight sophomores and freshmen. They will be led by returning guard Ishmael Smith, the team's second-leading scorer last season with 8.7 points per game. Two of the incoming freshmen -- Indianapolis point guard Jeff Teague and Cheyenne, Wyo., forward James Johnson -- are being billed as potential NBA players by Gaudio.

The past two weeks, though, have been such a blur.

Gaudio said Wellman -- who hired Prosser and has been praised for how he handled Prosser's death -- first met with each of the members of the coaching staff on Aug. 3, the day before Prosser was buried in his adopted hometown of Cincinnati.

Wellman laid out his four options to Gaudio: He would hire one of the current assistants; he would hire one of them as an interim, which he wasn't a big fan of because it would be hard to recruit; he would hire an outsider and make the new coach retain the entire staff, but admitted that would be difficult for a new coach; or he would hire an outsider who would have the discretion of hiring a new staff.

Skip Prosser
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeSkip Prosser was bured in Cincinnati on Aug. 4. Dino Gaudio was named Prosser's replacement four days later.

Gaudio said fellow associate head coach Jeff Battle told Wellman he couldn't be the coach due to a family situation and that he wanted Gaudio to succeed Prosser. Pat Kelsey, another assistant who played for Prosser at Xavier, "had tears in his eyes and came out and said he fought" for Gaudio. Mike Muse, the director of basketball operations and the one who found Prosser after his apparent heart attack, also pushed for Gaudio.

Then it was Gaudio's turn to meet with Wellman. After a two-hour meeting Monday in which Gaudio said Wellman promised to not "leave you dangling," Wellman met with his assistant athletic directors and Wake Forest President Dr. Nathan Hatch. Then he called Gaudio in for another meeting Tuesday.

"He saw me again at 4 p.m.," Gaudio said, "and told me, 'You're my guy. You're a head coach in the ACC, and I'm giving you a five-year contract.' "

Later Tuesday night, Gaudio called Prosser's mother, Jo, and son Scott, and told them the news. Gaudio also called and left messages for Prosser's son Mark, an assistant at Bucknell.

"Talking to Grandma Jo and to Scott made this all more palatable to me," Gaudio said. "It had been such a roller coaster."

Gaudio was Prosser's best man in his wedding, and Prosser helped baptize Gaudio's daughter. Thinking about the fact that he's now replacing Prosser is sometimes too hard to bear. The two were with each other the night before Prosser died, watching games in Orlando and then going out to eat with Mark and Bucknell coach Pat Flannery. Gaudio said neither he nor Prosser probably got to bed before 1:30 a.m.

Later that morning, on July 26, Gaudio received a call from Muse about Prosser's death. Gaudio then had to turn to Mark, who was sitting next to him in the gym at the Milk House at Disney's Wide World of Sports. Gaudio broke the news to him.

"The boy broke down, but after that he was rock solid, just like his old man," Gaudio said. Gaudio said the school sent a plane to pick up Prosser's wife, Nancy, who had gone to Cincinnati that day to check on their house, which they never sold after their time at Xavier. Gaudio's wife, Maureen, flew up to Cincinnati to be with Nancy. And, Gaudio said, throughout the funeral and memorial services, Mark was the rock of the family. "He did a magnificent job," Gaudio said. "It was just so unbelievably devastating."

One thing Gaudio won't do is move into Prosser's office in the near future. The door remains locked. Gaudio said whenever Nancy is ready to go into Prosser's office, then it will be opened.

"I'll stay [in my current office] the whole year," Gaudio said. "It doesn't bother me."

Monday, Wellman will meet with the department to discuss tributes to Prosser, Gaudio said. He said there are plans for every team at Wake Forest, beginning with football, to wear a patch during the 2007-08 season. The patch might say "Skip" or "SP". Gaudio said he also might leave a vacant chair on the bench in Prosser's memory.

"The school will honor and respect him," Gaudio said. "Nobody deserves it more."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com