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July 27, 2007

Requiem for a coach

Throughout its 54-year history, the Atlantic Coast Conference has featured many men's basketball coaches; young and old, colorful and drab; winners and losers. Skip Prosser would have fallen somewhere in the middle of the age and color spectrums, depending on who you speak with, but there is no question that he was a winner, both on the court and in the game of life.

On Thursday, Prosser became the first active basketball coach in league history to suddenly pass away, a shocking and tragic event that creates a void at Wake Forest and within the conference as a whole. The only other ACC school to face a similar tragedy was North Carolina, when its head football coach, Jim Tatum, suddenly died after contracting Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever back in 1959.

"The entire sports world, particularly those associated with Wake Forest University and the Atlantic Coast Conference, are shocked and saddened by this tragic news," said ACC John Swofford. "Skip was a great friend and colleague who always had a ready smile. I always thought of him as a renaissance man, he had such varied interests in life. He was truly a teacher, never forgetting the fact that he rose out of the high school ranks to become one of college basketball's best coaches and leaders. He represented all that is good in college sports and his loss is a very deep one. We will all miss him immensely. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Nancy, and his sons, Scott and Mark."

"I am absolutely shocked and deeply saddened. Today the world has lost not just an outstanding basketball coach, but a great person and great friend," said North Carolina head coach Roy Williams hours after Prosser's passing. "I was fortunate to be friends with him even before I came back to Carolina. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family. The world has lost a great person and great family man."

As competitors both on the basketball court and in recruiting, Prosser didn't have to go particularly out of his way to be nice to Williams.

On the court, Prosser's Deacons weren't nice on the Tar Heels in Williams' first two seasons back in Chapel Hill, beating UNC both years, including an epic triple-overtime contest in Chapel Hill in 2003. In all, Prosser's Demon Deacons beat North Carolina in five of his first six games as head coach at Wake Forest.

While the Tar Heels have risen above Wake Forest in the league standings over the last two years, it turns out that Prosser was far classier than to allow competition to get in the way of common decency off the court.

Not only did Prosser call Williams to offer his congratulations after Carolina's overachieving 2006 season, but also was the first to call him after he was elected to the College Basketball Hall of Fame.

"I'll always remember him calling after the 2006 season to say what a great job we had done after losing all the players from the (2005) championship team. That call meant so much to have come from another coach," Williams said. "This April, I heard from a hundred or so coaches after the Hall of Fame announcement, and Skip was the first to call. But Skip was someone who will be measured in terms of his actions, not just words."

Prosser certainly proved himself with his actions in addition to his words.

In 14 years as a head coach, Prosser only had two losing seasons. He revitalized programs at Loyola (Md.) and at Xavier, earning NCAA Tournament berths in his first seasons at each school.

Prosser led Xavier to four NCAA Tournaments while posting five straight 20-win seasons from 1997 to 2001 before arriving in the ACC at Wake Forest in time for the 2001-2002 season. In leading the Demon Deacons to the 2002 NCAA Tournament, Prosser became the first head coach in history to lead three different programs to the NCAA Tournament in his first season.

In 2003, Prosser earned ACC Coach of the Year honors in guiding Wake Forest to the league's regular season title and another berth in the NCAA Tournament. The following year, Prosser led Wake to the Sweet 16, solidifying the program's place as one of the country's top programs.

Although the Demon Deacons have been rebuilding the last two seasons, they have remained highly competitive, evident in upsets of Florida State and N.C. State in the 2006 ACC Tournament, which led to a NIT berth, and an upset of Georgia Tech in this past year's ACC Tournament when the Demon Deacons were the 12th-seeded team. Under Prosser, Wake Forest was never a team to be taken lightly.

With a talented nucleus of young players, including Ishmael Smith, L.D. Williams, and Jamie Skeen, along with some recruiting momentum, it seemed inevitable that Wake Forest would soon be making a rise in the ACC standings, and as his final hours on Earth unfolded, Prosser must have been thrilled at the way things were going for his program.

In the midst of a whirlwind of recruiting trips, Prosser had traveled from Las Vegas to Orlando and then back to North Carolina in a matter of a few days.

As he was jogging around the Kentner Stadium Track, adjacent to his office in the Manchester Athletic Center on the WFU campus around lunchtime yesterday, Prosser's mind was surely filled with excitement about the upcoming season, in addition to the verbal commitments from several elite prospects in the Class of 2008, including Ty Walker, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Tony Woods.

With his program clearly heading in the right direction, Prosser's final thoughts had to have been very much positive, which may provide some small measure of solace during this unimaginably difficult time for Wake Forest and those close to him.

Wake Forest will of course, eventually pick itself from this tragedy and move on with a new coach. Things are still looking up for the program, despite the stiff competition it faces within the ACC, and they will find a way to move on from this tragedy and play on next season.

However, Demon Deacon fans will always be left with a curious "What might have been" feeling in regards to Prosser and the possibilities for the program's future.

Sadly, it is a question that will never be answered.





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