An appreciation: Skip Prosser lived by his convictions
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Barry Watch: Day 6. Goodbye to an old friend.
One thing that happens when you are on a long-term assignment like this Barry Bonds home-run chase is you become consumed by it. You lose perspective. You shut out the outside world. The Olympics are like this. When you are covering the Olympics you start to believe that everyone in America is (like you) thinking pretty much nonstop about Michael Phelps or Sasha Cohen or the U.S. soccer team or whatever.
Here on the Barry Bonds chase, it's easy to believe that this is what sports is all about, this brazen chase of glory, the suspicions that infect the air, the passionate arguments on both sides, the unmistakable fact that Bonds' former trainer is in jail for refusing to testify, Hank Aaron's silence and grace, Bud Selig's rather pitiable attempt to disentangle himself from the steroid era he directed and so on.
But, of course, there is so much more to sports and life -- this isn't the real world. I want to tell you a story about someone else, a story that I had promised I would not share. But I think this is the right time. A few years ago, I was a columnist in Cincinnati, and one of my favorite subjects was Xavier basketball coach Skip Prosser.
It's funny, a few of us friends were talking about Skip on Thursday, and we kept coming back to the same description: He was a "real guy." Carnegie native Prosser grew up in Pittsburgh, and he liked Pittsburgh things: the Steelers, good friends, chipped ham, beer, hard-working people, the way Downtown looked just as you came out of the Fort Pitt Tunnel.
"It's the most beautiful sight in the world," he said.
"You know," I said, "there's Paris in the springtime, there's 17 Mile Drive in Monterrey, there's the Sydney Opera House overlooking the harbor ..."
"Give me Pittsburgh at night," he said.
Skip became a college basketball coach the hard way -- he started in high school as a freshman coach, then junior varsity, then varsity. He became an assistant coach at Xavier, he got a head coaching job at Loyola (Md.), went back to Xavier as head coach and finally got the closest thing he ever got to a big-time job, at Wake Forest. He stayed with it for all the usual reasons. He loved being around young people. He wanted to teach. Skip was one of those guys who would call you up to tell you about some great quote he had just read from Plato or Chuck Noll.
"Think about that," he would say, whether he was quoting, "Death is not the worst that can happen to men," or "The thrill isn't in the winning, it's in the doing."
Oh, he wanted to win. Needed to win. I sometimes think this is the one defining quality of a successful coach ... these are people who need clarity and plain answers. Prosser once told me that the best part of his job was that at the end of the day, the team wins or the team loses, and there is no ambiguity, no excuses, no way to delude yourself.
For these reasons, though, Skip took losses hard. They all do, of course, all coaches, but I saw it up close with Prosser. I saw the way he would stare out at nothing after losses, the way he sat at a table, uneaten food in front of him, and he just glared at the wall.
In those moments, he seemed to despise himself. I asked him once what he thought about when he was in one of those funks. Was he replaying the game? Was he thinking about strategies he might have used?
"No," he said. "I'm just feeling sorry for myself."
Prosser was brutally honest, too.
Anyway, before Xavier played in an NCAA tournament game, one of his players got in some sort of serious trouble. I don't remember what the trouble was, and it isn't important, but I remember that Prosser seemed torn about what to do. This was a player who mattered. Prosser wanted very much to win a tournament game -- he felt as if his team deserved that. His hunger for victory was always about them. Whenever people would ask him, "What's your career record?" he would always say, "I don't have a career record. The players win the games."
He wanted his team to have that experience of winning in the tournament. But Prosser was a principled man, too. And he refused to make an announcement. When asked what he was going to do, he simply said, "I haven't made up my mind yet."
I was a young newspaper columnist then, much more certain that I understood right and wrong, and I wrote a scathing column saying that Prosser needed to do what he knew was right and suspend the player. It just seemed obvious. It always does when you're young.
Skip called me and yelled at me for a while about that one.
Then, much later, long after the game had been played, he called me. He wanted to tell me about what had happened. He had agonized over the decision. He explained that his players had worked so hard all year to make the tournament, and they had begged him to keep the player on the team. They desperately wanted a chance to win a tournament game and show all of America what they were about. He wanted that so much for them.
Then he called around to all the coaches he knew in the business -- dozens of them. He asked them, "What would you do?" He said that all of them but one said they would play the kid. That would serve the better good, they said.
The one who said "No," happened to be Skip Prosser's best friend.
So Skip thought about it. He did not sleep. He did not eat. And he decided.
He suspended the player. And his team lost in the first round.
"It's like Adlai Stevenson said," he told me. "He said, 'There are worst things than losing. It's worse to lose your convictions.' "
Thursday, Skip Prosser went jogging at Wake Forest and then collapsed in his office. Medical technicians could not revive him. He was 56 years old. All the newspapers report that his career record was 291-146, but he would have told you that was the players' record, not his. His record was in the way he lived. Skip Prosser died with his convictions.A makeshift memorial honoring Skip Prosser stands on the Quad at Wake Forest's campus in Winston-Salem, N.C., yesterday. Prosser led the Demon Deacons to their first No. 1 basketball ranking three seasons ago.
First Published July 27, 2007 11:22 pm