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Prosser provides higher education

Former high school teacher brings lessons to court for Demon Deacons.

By BRIAN LANDMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2003

TAMPA -- It's easy to imagine Wake Forest's Skip Prosser wearing a tweed coat, gesturing with chalky fingers and lecturing about the writings of Thomas Paine or Ralph Waldo Emerson to his high school class.

Even Prosser, despite the black warmups, sneakers and whistle dangling from a chain, giveaways that he is first and foremost a basketball coach, sees himself that way.

"I think I'm a teacher," he said Saturday afternoon.

"Without trying to wax too philosophic, I think this is all part of the education process. There's a lot of lessons you can learn on the basketball court, the locker room, the practice court, that you can't learn in the classroom. Just like there's a lot of lessons in the lab or the classroom you can't learn on a football field, a lacrosse field or a basketball court. I'm hoping that these guys learn to think on their feet, to be very aggressive, to be extremely unselfish and to understand the value of hard work."

Lessons learned, Mr., er, coach Prosser.

Thanks to their tenacious defense, relentless rebounding and team-first attitude, Prosser's indelible signature, the Demon Deacons (25-5) won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title for the first time in 41 years. Not bad for a bunch picked to finish sixth.

They then earned a No.2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and look to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1996 -- when a guy named Tim Duncan played in Winston-Salem -- with a win against No.10 Auburn (21-11) today at 4:30 p.m. at the St. Pete Times Forum.

"We know Wake Forest is a great team," Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said. "You don't go through Duke and end up No.1 in that league, because I've been in that league, and even though that league may not be top to bottom what it was 10, 12 years ago, you've still got to go through Duke. That says a lot."

For the team.

For its coach/teacher.

Prosser, 52, graduated from the United States Merchant Marine Academy in 1972 and took a job teaching high school history at Linsly Institute in Wheeling, W.Va. At the urging of a longtime friend and colleague, Eudy Joseph, he also started coaching the ninth-grade basketball team.

During the next 30 years, he has worked his way through the ranks of high school coach, assistant college coach (under Pete Gillen at Xavier for six seasons) and college coach at Loyola (Md.) and Xavier.

At each stop, folks warned him he could not win there.

He did. Big.

"As Thomas Paine said, 'The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph,' " Prosser said.

When Wake Forest called two years ago, folks again were quick to point out how daunting a task he faced at the small private school that, basketball-wise, is relegated to stepchild status, a distant fourth behind Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State.

"I think Clemson is the toughest job, and I think Wake Forest is the second toughest job in that league," Ellis said. "It's a tough job, and Skip has done a great job."

Prosser was the unanimous choice as the ACC coach of the year.

"I've never worried about (perceptions)," he said. "The longer I do this, the more I'm convinced that the things I was taught growing up in western Pennsylvania and by the people who taught me to coach and teach, those values become more and more affirmed each and every year."

If you work hard -- the players don't have an option, with demanding three-hour practices -- stick together in good times and bad and show the unflappability to adjust to changing situations on the fly, good things will happen.

In life and in sports.

That's why he doesn't like to call timeouts.

"I tell them, 'When you get fired, your wife leaves you, your kids get sick, you can't call timeout and say, 'Coach. What should I do now?"' Prosser said.

For the most part, the Demon Deacons had learned to think on their feet and react correctly. They might not have the beautiful offensive game of Duke, but they do tend to win the close games, as they showed Friday night against East Tennessee State, with a smothering defense (allowing an average of 67.8 points on 39.6 percent shooting) and the nation's top rebounding group (a plus-9.9 average margin).

"When he came in, he willed it (that attitude) on the team," star forward Josh Howard said.

"Emerson is the one who said, 'Our chief want in life is someone who will make us do what we can,"' Prosser said. "I try to be like that for my players, my sons. I try to get them to do what they can do; not to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but get the players to do what they can do. That's my role. That's always been sort of a credo of mine when it comes to teaching and coaching, and fathering for that matter."

Lessons learned.

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