Skip Prosser liked to quote Emerson often, and one of his favorite quips was "Our chief want in life is someone who shall make us do what we can." For Wake Forest basketball, that meant an ACC basketball championship in 2003. It meant A-10 tournament and regular season championships for Xavier and a MAAC tourney ‘ship for Loyola. It meant setting up future NBA careers for superstars like Chris Paul or a college degree for every four-year player Skip ever coached.
But on a more human level, Skip Prosser saw the best in everyone, and brought it out. He took the nascent, scant student organization, the Screamin’ Demons, and turned it into a rowdy and raucous student section. He sold out season tickets to The Joel for the first time in Wake Forest basketball history in 2004 and coached the Deacs to their first #1 ranking in 2005.
I was a freshman that year. I grew up on Dave Odom basketball, and this was not Dave Odom basketball. These teams flew up and down the court and scored like crazy. Much like his first year at Xavier when he came in and swept the conference, going 14-0, Prosser’s Wake teams never played scared of the big boys of the conference. His teams played with confidence and swagger, and he coached with that too.
"Meet me on the Quad at midnight," he said, and we rolled the Quad many times in those years to celebrate our major victories. At midnight, the night of his funeral, current and former players, students, and fans rolled the Quad for the biggest loss of all as the bells sounded out from Wait Chapel’s steeple.
Thousands attended his funeral Mass at Holy Family Catholic Church, while hundreds more at Wait Chapel looked on and watched the service broadcasted live. It brought together the entire Wake Forest family, as well as college basketball legends like Tom Izzo, Mike Krzyzewski, Kelvin Sampson, Digger Phelps, Mike Brey, Tom Crean, Jay Bilas. Most of them cried openly and thoroughly: Chris Paul broke down during his eulogy, as did Father Jude during the homily. Bill Cowher mostly smiled; he and Skip went to the same high school, though they didn’t know each other until they became friends later in life. Skip and Bill talked on the phone often, teasing each other about wins and losses.
Chris Paul, John Swofford (ACC Commissioner), Joe Boylan (Loyola AD), and many others described him as a Renaissance man. With a Masters in Secondary Education, he was a teacher and mentor as a coach. He was a devoted husband and father of two, including a son with special needs. He was a father figure to guys who grew up fatherless, like Josh Howard. He was a volunteer for Operation Hardwood, coaching charity basketball games in the Middle East. Eric Williams (correctly) said that Prosser was more than a Wake basketball coach, he was a coach for Winston-Salem. Coach Prosser always stated that his responsibility was to develop young men into responsible adults. And much of how I fondly remember Skip wasn’t about the big wins or rolling the quad. It was about seeing him around campus, chatting with him in The Pit, listening to him at press conferences.
The man could win a press conference like he won every room he ever stepped in. He was erudite to the point of wit and humble to the point of self-effacement. He recruited Chris Paul to play at Wake Forest, David West at Xavier, and a ton of other blue chip guys, but always said his best recruiting pull was his wife, Nancy. If you asked him to break down an opposing team’s defense, he’d quote Shakespeare. Ask him to describe the team’s free throw shooting and you’d get Churchill. Or Joyce.
My favorite thing Skip ever said to me personally was at a rowdy tailgate the night before a huge (albeit ill-fated) game with Duke, right as Wake had just been ranked #1. (Oh, Trent Strickland.) He showed up with twenty dozen Krispy Kreme donuts and told me to deliver the message that they weren’t for the players, who should be in bed in twenty minutes. He he shook my hand, winked, and drove off in his black Mercedes.
Skip was exercising on campus 7 years ago today, when he had a massive heart attack and died. He was only 56 years old. I hesitate to concede that he’s in a better place now, only because there are few better places than Winston-Salem, NC, where he brightened the lives of the community for six years. I also hesitate to admit that life is short, because Skip lived a lot in his 56 years; he was a husband and father, teacher, philanthropist, philosopher, athlete, coach, fan, mentor, and to everyone he ever met, a friend. He won championships, turned boys into men, vitalized programs and communities, and in true Emersonian ideal, ultimately made a lot of people do what they could.