Day 8: Wake Forest | Traveling Violations
WINSTON-SALEM. N.C. – From Carnegie, Pa., where he grew up, to Wheeling, W.Va., where he became a high school coach, to Cincinnati, where he enjoyed great success at Xavier, Skip Prosser's home had always been blue-collar river cities.
He liked shot-and-a-beer joints, didn't mind cold weather and didn't pay much attention to the superficial aspects of life.
"I'd be just as happy today if I was still the coach at Wheeling Central Catholic," he often says and always means.
But Wednesday night here at the fine Village Tavern, on the immaculate grounds of an old Southern plantation that is now part of Wake Forest University, Prosser couldn't have looked much more content.
When Prosser moved from Xavier to Wake Forest four years ago, people said he was nuts to try and battle North Carolina, Duke and Maryland from a small private school. As recently as 18 months ago Prosser appeared headed back to Pittsburgh. Yet here he is, sipping a well-pulled pint of Guinness, making the most of it in the South.
He coaches the preseason No. 2 team in America. He has an All-American point guard who doubles as the all-American kid. He has built his program into a Final Four contender that doesn't take a back seat to anyone.
"I can't imagine why any kid would not want to come to Wake Forest," Prosser said on Wednesday. "I tell recruits all the time, 'This is not the University of North Carolina at Winston-Salem. If you want to see 100,000 people in the Horseshoe on Saturday, like at Ohio State, then this isn't the place.'
"'But you will graduate from one of the most prestigious universities in the country, and you will graduate because we make sure everyone does. And you will play in the most passionate league in the country.'"
That recruiting pitch has worked well for Prosser, who has one of the deepest and most talented teams in the country. This is at a school that few thought could consistently attract in-state talent (such as star point guard Chris Paul) up against Duke and Carolina and N.C. State.
Maybe more importantly, Prosser's spiel worked on himself. After Ben Howland left Pittsburgh for UCLA in April of 2003, Prosser's return to his hometown was all but set.
"Nobody loves the 'Burgh more than me," he admitted at the time.
But leaving Wake wasn't so easy. In two years he had grown fond of the place, and had begun seeing its uniqueness as a strength, not a weakness. The feeling was mutual.
"The students and the players, the academic adviser, the fans – they made a very compelling argument to stay. It wasn't all like, 'Hey Coach, what are you doing?'
"Chris Paul's father called me and said, 'Chris came to Wake Forest to play for you, but we're just praying this works out for you and your family.' Justin Gray said, 'No matter where you go, you'll always be my coach. But here is why I hope you don't [go].'
"It became an issue of: Are you willing to walk away from all of that, just to go home?"
Prosser wasn't. He returned as committed as ever, led Wake to the Sweet 16 and now leads perhaps the best team in school history into what may be the most anticipated season in school history.
Joel Lawrence Coliseum, once the library of Tobacco Road, is now jammed and jammin' for games. There's a waiting list for the 2,250-member student booster club (the entire student body is only about 4,000 undergraduates). Recruiting is strong (three more signees Wednesday). Media attention is at an all-time high.
"I don't think we could be getting more media coverage," Prosser said. "Chris Paul is on more magazine covers than Jessica Simpson."
There is little doubt the 54-year-old will finish his career here.
The coach who counts reading as his chief hobby, who truly believes he is an educator first and who starts every practice with a notable quote – example: "If you can't be on time, be early" – has found this prestigious school in an old tobacco town the perfect fit.
He is a long way from his Steelers. There isn't an Irish bar on each corner. But he has disproved all the naysayers who thought it wouldn't work out for him here at Wake.
Home, it appears, is where you make it.
"I couldn't feel more fortunate," Prosser said.