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Brian Mull

14 Feb

So Much Heart

I never knew coach Skip Prosser.

Perhaps I sat in a press conference or two, might have asked him a question here or there. But he died in July 2007 and while I covered college basketball in North Carolina at that time, it rarely involved Wake Forest.

Yet I always respected the man, from afar.

For starters he appeared to be, right or wrong, a more well-rounded person than the average college basketball coach. Anyone who watched Prosser work the sidelines could understand how badly he wanted to win. Still, it never seemed to consume him like it did his contemporaries. He quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson, studied U.S. History and treated his players as people first, students second. Listen to him long enough and you’d learn something.

As a fan of entertaining basketball, his teams were a joy to watch.

His infectious attitude attracted top-flight talent like David West to Xavier, and stars later flocked to Wake Forest, where his teams went toe-to-toe with their talented rivals Duke and North Carolina, located 90 minutes east on I-40.

Prosser built dynamic teams centered on freedom and fearlessness.

The 2002-03 Demon Deacons, led by Josh Howard, won the ACC regular season championship. The 2004-05 squad featured Chris Paul, Justin Gray and Taron Downey as one of the most explosive backcourts in ACC history. Those Demon Deacons are among the all-time greats in offensive efficiency in the last decade of college basketball. They played at a fast pace and took chances. The odd turnover was quickly forgotten. A bad shot was excused.

They competed at the highest level and during Prosser’s tenure Wake’s Lawrence Joel Memorial Coliseum became one of the most daunting homecourts in the ACC and beyond. The mascot rode in on a Harley and the tie-dyed band of Screamin’ Deacons kept the pace at a fevered pitch. Prosser was easy to support that way. 

Those teams reflected his outlook on life, I believe. Don’t hold back. Go for it. Enjoy yourself. Never look back.

To learn more about coach Prosser I’ve read plenty of words written or spoken by those who spent the most time around him.

He touched them all, well beyond the Xs-and-Os.

Paul, now a perennial NBA All-Star with the Los Angeles Clippers, remembers what his coach said about being prompt: “If you can’t be on time, be early.”

People like Xavier coach Chris Mack, a former Prosser assistant at Wake who last December told the Cincinnati Enquirer: “Skip never got big time. Although he became arguably one of the best coaches in the ACC, he never changed. He was as gracious to a restaurant server as he was to the president of Wake Forest every minute I was with him. That’s how I think about Skip.”

Or I listen to Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey, who played for Prosser at Xavier and coached under him at Wake. Kelsey was so distraught after Prosser’s sudden death from a heart attack at age 56 that he stepped away from coaching for a year. But there’s a reason he came back, as Kelsey told ESPN.com four years ago when he got the Winthrop job:

“I think if he were here, he'd quote Shakespeare: 'To thine own self be true.' Be true to yourself. Follow your heart, and I've realized the best way to honor him is by doing what he taught me to do.”

Skip’s son, Mark, is on Kelsey’s staff at Winthrop, which enters the last two weeks of the regular season tied for first in the Big South.

Similar to Kelsey, not long ago the death of someone special influenced my decision to quit following my heart, for a season. At the time I thought I was gone for good, but deep down I hoped to come back one day. When you make that type of decision, you’re not guaranteed another chance, and if you get one, it’s best not to squander it.

So, thanks coach Prosser. We never met, but I miss you all the same.


college insider Contributors
Brian Mull

Brian grew up on the east end of Tobacco Road in North Carolina. He watched Michael Jordan of Laney High play basketball, caddied on the PGA Tour and has written about college basketball for two decades. He lives in Wilmington, NC with his two young daughters and lovely wife, who keep him busy and pull for teams based on their colors and mascots. Brian also can be found at a good concert, anyone from Jason Isbell or Bob Dylan to Government Mule and Widespread Panic. He also pursues barbecue cooked on wood, strong coffee and efficient offense. If not lining up a birdie putt, Brian is probably cooking a good meal, reading interesting words or watching a halfcourt set that ends in a layup.


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