A Ghost on Tobacco Road

Five years later, the late Skip Prosser still looms over Wake Forest basketball
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Photo by zachklein, used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Lawrence Joel Coliseum seats more than 14,000 comfortably, though it appears no more than 2,500 people show up for the January 2 basketball game between hometown Wake Forest and tiny Wofford College—the official attendance bravely suggests 6,342 were in the house. The game is slow and methodical and no joy to watch; the crowd lacks students due to the holiday break, and is accordingly subdued. Any shot of the crowd reveals a sedate group more interested in socializing than making things difficult for the opposing team. The Demon Deacons quickly fall behind, and find themselves down 10 at halftime to the Terriers. Despite a late-game charge that keeps things interesting, Wake loses 56–52.

The Joel wasn’t always a tomb. Not all that long ago, it was known as “The Jungle”—the rocking and rollicking home to a team poised to take over the ACC, led by a wizard named Chris Paul and a charmer of a coach named Skip Prosser, who seemed ready to push Wake’s program into the Final Four for the first time since 1962. Prosser loved fast-paced basketball and quoting Shakespeare, and wore his ambition openly. At a small liberal arts school that had spent decades subsisting on unfulfilled potential, Prosser was poised to become Wake’s Coach K or Roy Williams, with a charisma and style all his own.

And then, in July 2007, he dropped dead of a heart attack in his office at the age of 56, after going for a jog on campus.

***

The recent past has been full of scandal in college athletics, even relative to the unhappy familiarity of recruiting violations and vacated tourney wins. From Penn State to Syracuse to Ohio State and beyond, the sordidness of these scandals can only be matched by their variety. The commentariat outrage machine grumbled to life, demanding accountability and casting blame at the prominent coaches in charge of these programs. “This is the danger in the cult-of-personality dynamic of college sports,” Pat Forde wrote for Yahoo! Sports in November. “Coaches are elevated to such mythic levels that they become larger than the programs they lead … Perspective gets warped. Bad endings often ensue.”

Lost in this is the very obvious fact that the cult-of-personality is tolerated, and often specifically sought after, in college athletics for a simple reason—because it works and, given the right autocrat in the right situation, works well. In an environment in which players cycle through a program four years (at most) at a time, that consistency must derive from the coaching staff. Given the nature of coaching, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that autocracies subsequently develop in these environments, especially in flagship sports that rake in millions of dollars annually. Just as Mussolini got the trains to run on time, great coaches get kids to play hard, shoot well, and slap the floor as if their lives depend on it; the wins that follow from all that are what athletic budgets are made of. Democracy may be conducive to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but it doesn’t win games, or help all that much when it comes to recruiting top prep athletes.

But there’s a lot of gray area between success and failure, between winning it all and plain not winning. Even when the right school hires their right coach, it’s not a guarantee of success. That’s what happened with Skip Prosser. He was well on his way to establishing a kingdom at Wake Forest, and there was, somewhat astonishingly, nothing nefarious about it at all. He wanted to win, Wake wanted to win, and they both knew they needed him to do it.

Even despicable people are sometimes recast as saints after they die, but Prosser seemingly deserves the sanctification. He ran clean programs and believed in teaching and mentoring, both in theory and in practice. Prosser had partly found success in life because of his strong personality, and so did his teams.

“He was a teacher first, and a basketball coach second,” remembers Kyle Visser, who played center for the Deacs from 2003–04 to 2006–07, earning All-ACC honors his senior year. “Before every practice, even before we stretched, we’d start at the whiteboard and go over the ABC’s—Academics, Basketball, Character. He really took an interest in us as people first, then as players, and that made him different.”

Sports programs built on cults-of-personality may be more susceptible to scandal and less resistant to accountability, but they also tend to be more conducive to dynasties. Entering into this sort of situation is a calculated risk, like anything else in sports. Just like anything else in life, really. Sometimes things go wrong and there’s no one to blame.

***

It is the autumn of 2001. Leaves turn gold while the dusk slowly swells red. A sleepy, suburban campus in the Southern woods buzzes with the hopes of a new semester. For at least one more week, it’s still pre-9/11 America. Skip Prosser wastes no time endearing himself at his new home.

He gives energetic interviews to the local press, expressing how he’s never backed down in his life and he didn’t intend to start now just because there were bigger schools in the area. He says things like “The Player of the Year should always be the best player on the best team, unless he’s a jerk.” He reads Emerson, listens to Irish music, and always points out that his wife Nancy, a trauma nurse, does far more important work than him. He arrives from Xavier, a small Jesuit university in Cincinnati, where he won under unique circumstances. Wake Forest wants smart, talented student-athletes who show up to class, stay out of trouble, and are an active part of the community. Done, Prosser says. Done.

Nestled in the old cigarette town of Winston-Salem, Wake Forest lies at the western edge of Tobacco Road, a 100-mile stretch of I-40. Due east from Winston-Salem is the UNC bandwagon in Chapel Hill, then Duke’s gothic walls sequestering itself in Durham, and eventually, the sprawling campus of NC State in Raleigh. Nearly every exit along the way leads to a small town with a native son who made it big on the hardwood at one of those schools.

The state’s pedigree speaks for itself: UNC owns five national titles and has been to 18 Final Fours; Duke, four and 15; NC State, two and three. Wake Forest? Zero and one. Despite a prestigious basketball history of its own, Wake pales in comparison to the other schools, something siblings and friends and neighbors constantly remind Deacon fans. Fans of Wake have taken to referring to this little brother complex as “LOWF,” Little Ole’ Wake Forest.

Keenly aware of the nearby giants, Prosser shakes things up right away. After watching tape of home games, he determines the atmosphere at the Joel is lacking. He consolidates the student section and moves it next to the opponents’ bench, despite protests from some old-timers. He consults with student leaders and helps create a new shirt for the co-eds to wear, a black and gold tie-dye that horrifies everyone but the wearers themselves. The shirts turn the student section into a spinning, swirling blob. Prosser’s first team, led by holdover forwards Darius Songaila and Josh Howard, roars through the non-conference schedule and keeps on winning during ACC play. The students show up to games en masse, and the locals follow suit. It’s not just the game against UNC that sells out now.

Over the next couple years, Prosser adds spotlights, a roaring motorcycle driven by the mascot, and a ubiquitous techno soundtrack to player intros. After a tough loss to the Deacs, Krzyzewski complains about the atmosphere cultivated by Prosser, comparing it to a circus. The burgeoning Tie-Dye Nation reveled in Coach K’s sniffing. Older Wake fans still remember when games were played at an empty Greensboro Coliseum 40 minutes away from campus. Younger fans don’t know how good they have it.

( I was one of those younger fans promising a new age, happily ignorant of the weight of history. As an overly earnest writer for the student paper, I treated every interview opportunity as if a Pulitzer rode on it. Despite my commitment, I showed up a few minutes late to an interview with Prosser. I apologized profusely. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’ve seen you on the intramural courts, and know you move like pond water.” He winked and smiled. We talked about basketball and then the Potato Famine.)

His second year at Wake, Prosser wins the ACC Coach of the Year award for guiding the Deacs to a 25–6 record and their first regular season conference crown since 1995. He displays a great ability to adapt to the talent on his roster, constructing game plans that emphasize their strengths. His team is upset in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, though, and he is crushed. Despite this, he offers a wisecrack: “When my mom said, ‘Honey, you can’t win them all,’ my father would say, ‘It doesn’t say that in the rule book.’”

Josh Howard is graduating, but there is talk about a skinny local point guard set to enroll the next year. His name is Chris Paul, and he chose Wake Forest despite growing up a UNC fan; UNC didn’t offer him a scholarship, and Coach Prosser sold him and his family on the idea of revenge. Paul committed on the spot. The future is bright and full of promise. LOWF is dead.

***

Though he died over four years ago, the ghost of Skip Prosser still looms over Wake Forest basketball. Not just metaphorically, though that’s certainly true, but physically, as well. A large banner of Prosser hangs from the rafters of the Joel in a wave of old gold and black. The image on the banner captures the coach mid-instruction, hands extended, forever teaching and slightly frustrated, only his eyes hinting at his eternal amusement. Given what’s happened to his old team since his passing, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t the right way to spend eternity. LOWF lives.

The current men’s head basketball coach of Wake Forest is veteran NBA coach and scout Jeff Bzdelik. Where Prosser was outgoing and an interviewer’s dream, Bzdelik is a bit of a wallflower who comes across as awkward and flippant. Prosser recruited athletes and high-fliers, and often quipped, “The older I get, the faster I want to play.” Bzdelik prefers an strict defense-first strategy. Prosser dressed sharply and drove a gold Mercedes around campus. Bzdelik tends to dress like a chemistry teacher and is spotted behind the wheel of a Toyota Prius.

Not being Skip isn’t Bzdelik’s fault, of course, but it sometimes feels like it should be. He won only eight games in his first year, losing 24, and currently has only five conferences victories in nearly two seasons. The man Bzdelik replaced as coach in 2010 was Dino Gaudio, Prosser’s longtime assistant and close friend. Thrust into the top position after Prosser’s death, Gaudio went 61–31 over the course of three seasons, including a pair of appearances in the NCAA Tournament, largely due to the strength of Prosser’s last two recruiting classes, which included current NBA players Al-Farouq Aminu, James Johnson and Jeff Teague.

The Wake Forest Athletic Department’s stated reason for firing Gaudio was lack of postseason success. But not long after Gaudio was let go, talk of “culture change” emanated from the Wake AD, perhaps a reaction to the fan base’s observation that Bzdelik had no postseason track record himself.

There is some evidence that Gaudio had indeed lost control. A player allegedly sexually assaulted a fellow student the night after a 2009 NCAA Tourney game. (Despite a police investigation, no charges were ever filed.) In the first 18 months of the Bzdelik regime, four players—all Gaudio signees—transferred, all but one because of legal dust-ups.

Prosser had an ability to get through to talented but troubled players like Howard, who has credited Prosser with teaching him the importance of dedicating oneself to the craft of basketball. Gaudio, despite his years as Prosser’s reliable sidekick, did not pick the trick from his old boss.

Prosser led Wake to the NCAA Tournament four straight times from 2002 to 2005 and to a #1 ranking in late 2004, the first time in school history. In the process, he somehow made a nice, gracious program hip. Greg Oden of Indiana and Mario Chalmers of Alaska both almost signed with Wake; Johnson of Wyoming and Aminu of Georgia did sign.

When Prosser went away, so did Wake Forest’s new swagger. “Skip Prosser was Wake Forest basketball,” Visser says. “When he passed away … ”

Visser doesn’t finish the sentence. He doesn’t need to.

***

Prosser died before he could either make the Final Four or retire short of it. Who knows if he would have made it. Tough questions about his coaching acumen linger. At best, he seemed disinterested in defense, a weak spot that contributed mightily to his Paul-led teams flaming out prematurely in the NCAA tourney. His last two squads, in ’06 and ‘07, struggled especially on the defensive end, and Paul’s subsequent greatness as a pro has made those teams’ failures look especially unflattering. But if there was one constant about Prosser’s personality, it was his uncanny ability to inspire hope and confidence, if not for the present, at least for the future. As he told Gaudio after Aminu committed, only a few days before his heart attack, “Dino, we’re going to be good again.”

The Joel Coliseum of today greatly resembles the one Prosser found in the autumn of 2001. Polite, largely empty, very quiet. Unlike last year, Coach Bzdelik has his players playing hard and engaged this season. Unfortunately, none of this has translated to consistent production on the court, as evidenced by a 76–40 home loss to NC State, an outcome that marks Wake’s full circle return to being Tobacco Road’s littlest brother. The Deacs are back to being everyone’s second-favorite team in North Carolina.

Through every win and every loss, Coach Prosser overlooks the program that was once his from the dim of the rafters, as if to remind everyone that “We’re going to be good again,” even if his vision for Wake Forest basketball never was fully realized. Sharing his optimism would be easier if Wake manages to beat Wofford next season. In the meantime, the What Ifs persist, no matter who sits in Prosser’s old, benignly haunted seat.


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