“As a coach, you want to be someplace where they care,” Prosser said in 2001.
In his six years at Wake Forest, people from the school and the area also came to care about Prosser.
That was painfully obvious yesterday when Prosser collapsed and died of what Dr. William Applegate, the dean of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, said was probably a massive heart attack. Prosser was 56.
News of his death rocked the community, the ACC and all of college basketball.
Prosser completed his regular jog yesterday at Kentner Stadium and then returned to his office next door in the Manchester Athletic Center about 12:40 p.m. Mike Muse, the Deacons’ director of basketball operations, found Prosser unconscious in his office about 12:45 and tried to revive him with CPR.
The attempts of Muse and Dr. Cecil Price from the Student Health Services - which included the use of a defibrillator - were unsuccessful. Prosser was taken to Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, arriving about 1:30. He was pronounced dead at 1:41.
Wake Forest did not confirm Prosser’s death for more than seven hours because school officials were trying to reach his wife, Nancy, who was driving to Louisville, Ky., to visit a family member.
Prosser’s record at Wake Forest was 126-68. The Deacons finished first in the ACC regular season in 2003 and played in the NCAA Tournament in four of his six seasons.
Although the Deacons were coming off their first losing season since 1990, Prosser had just landed commitments from three highly rated high-school seniors.
“I met with the team earlier, and I told them how blessed we are to have known him,” Athletics Director Ron Wellman said.
“I told our players I don’t know if I’ve known a stronger man, a man who believed in what he believed and lived what he believed. There were so many times after a devastating loss I’d talk to him, and every time I left that conversation thinking ‘We are going to be OK.’”
Prosser loved coaching college basketball. He loved the game, the interaction with players, coaches, media and fans. He even loved the recruiting. His favorite hours were spent in a gym, coaching his team.
“Beats being at the mall,” Prosser would quip.
But coaching wasn’t Prosser’s first love.
George Edward Prosser III grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of a signalman for the Pennsylvania Railroad. His father was made of stern stuff, and he expected his son to be as well. Once, playing in a Little League game for his father, the coach, Prosser hurt his arm and left the field crying.
His father asked: “What’s the matter? You have another one, don’t you?”
Prosser completed the game, after which he was taken to the hospital and treated for a broken arm.
Prosser attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and majored in nautical science. He joked that he majored in driving ships.
His early days at the academy, in Kings Point, N.Y., were trying, so much so that Prosser called home to say that he was returning to Pittsburgh.
His father told him that was all right, but he didn’t know where his son would sleep because he was getting ready to go to Prosser’s room and knock the bed apart. Prosser stayed and graduated in 1972. He received a master’s degree in secondary education from West Virginia University in 1980.
Prosser played basketball at the Merchant Marine Academy but spent most of his time on the bench. “Even when I could play, I couldn’t play,” Prosser recalled.
He became a coach because that was a stipulation attached to his first job as a teacher at Linsly Institute in Wheeling, W. Va.
He considered himself as much a teacher as a coach, if not more. “I love teaching,” Prosser said. “I love lectures and all that.
“My opinion is, there’s a lot of lessons you can learn in the gym that you can’t learn in the classroom - just like there’s a lot of lessons you can learn in the classroom that you can’t learn in the gym.
“But I know that some of the best lessons I ever taught were taught to me by my coaches. And I remember some of my coaches more than I remember some of my teachers.”
Dick Vitale, the television commentator, who knew Prosser well, wrote yesterday that Prosser was proud of the fact that he came from nowhere in the coaching profession, without the pedigree of most major-college coaches.
Prosser, in fact, was 34 when he broke into the college ranks. He had been coaching high-school basketball in West Virginia and coaching it well enough to win the 1982 Class AA championship at Central Catholic High School in Wheeling.
He began networking with college coaches at camps and learned that Pete Gillen, the head coach at Xavier, needed an assistant. Prosser said he remembers standing in a phone booth by a busy interstate, while on a scouting trip for the Central Catholic football coach, when Gillen offered him the job.
According to Prosser, at least three other candidates had turned down Gillen. “I might have been his 33rd choice,” he said.
He remained loyal friends with Gillen, whom he insisted on calling “Coach,” even when the two competed against each other in the ACC when Gillen was at Virginia.
Prosser’s first head-coaching job was at Loyola of Maryland, and he made enough of a splash to coach the Greyhounds to their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
The next season, Gillen left Xavier for Providence, and Prosser replaced him.
Prosser succeeded at Xavier, with his teams winning 148 games and losing 65 over seven seasons. The Musketeers played in the NCAA Tournament four times and in the NIT twice.
Because Prosser had turned down several high-profile coaching jobs to remain at Xavier, there was a question of whether he would accept the position at Wake Forest. Wellman wondered as well before he hired Prosser to succeed Dave Odom in April 2001.
“I called the people in the country who I felt knew the best basketball coaches,” Wellman said in 2001. “And when I asked them about a short list of names that I had, when I got to Skip Prosser the response was always the same. And that is, ‘If you can hire him, you’d better get him. He is a great basketball coach, and beyond that he is a great person.’”
When asked then about his new challenge, Prosser responded in typical fashion.
“I may not know a lot about the ACC right now, but thanks to Ron (Wellman), I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night,” Prosser said. “I mean I know how difficult it is. In all honesty, that’s certainly one of the challenges that excited me, and we’re looking forward to it.”
Most modern college-basketball coaches hold the media at arm’s distance. Prosser embraced them, and because of that and his quick mind, he was a post-game favorite.
Michael Perry covered the Xavier beat for the Cincinnati Enquirer during Prosser’s years as the Musketeers’ head coach.
“If all the coaches I dealt with were like Skip, then I’d be happy,” Perry said. “He was cooperative, accessible, and he respected the job I had to do.”
If anything, Prosser became even more accessible during his time at Wake Forest, regularly opening his practices to the media and actually ribbing reporters whom he hadn’t seen drop by for a day or two.
One reason that the media gravitated toward Prosser was that he was not just an interesting basketball coach but a very interesting man who coached basketball. He was well-read, listing his favorite authors as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Tom Clancy, Nelson DeMille and Pat Conroy.
Contrary to what most people believed, Prosser, despite his red hair, ruddy complexion and love of almost all things Irish, was not of Irish descent. He did make several summer trips to Ireland. “That’s all a myth,” Prosser said. “I think it’s just because I’ve got red hair. I like their music and I like going over there. But that’s not true.
“I’m English, Scottish and Welsh.”
Prosser had two sons from his first marriage, Scott, 28, and Mark, 27. Mark Prosser played basketball at Marist and has been an assistant coach at Bucknell the last three seasons.
Prosser’s one fault, if it could be called that, was his intense aversity to losing. He said he recognized the character flaw, and at one period of his life attempted to accept losing more graciously. He admitted that the attempt failed.
But he did retain a healthy perspective, particularly for a man engaged in a high-profile occupation. His wife, Nancy, was a trauma nurse while they lived in Cincinnati.
“She deals with life and death every day,” Prosser said. “She literally has saved people’s lives that I know. We would go out to dinner, and people in Cincinnati would walk up to me - and she may have actually saved somebody’s life that day - and they would want to know how recruiting’s going.
“What she (did) is infinitely more important than what I do.”
Players remember him as the ultimate player’s coach.
“He’s more than just a coach to us,” said Steve Lepore, a former player at Wake Forest. “He told us that he’ll always have our backs, no matter how long we’ve been gone or graduated. He said he’s going to be a good friend of ours, and he’s going to back us up.”
■ Dan Collins can be reached at 727-7323 or at [email protected].