By Dave Glenn,
ACC Sports Journal
April 7, 2003 WINSTON-SALEM Just two years ago, Ron Wellman faced an image-defining moment for his basketball program. Wellman, the veteran Wake Forest athletic director, had just seen the most successful coach in school history leave for a mediocre SEC program. That's right, a coach who had won consistently in the ACC just walked away, saying he couldn't win big in a program with Wake's little-engine-that-could image.
Well, truth be told, Wellman helped Dave Odom pack in 2001 by not offering him a contract extension. The AD boldly had decided that Wake's image needed a change. Then Wellman stuck his neck out further by hiring a coach many fans didn't want. Some saw Skip Prosser of Xavier as a man on the wane in his coaching career and, if a bigger name couldn't be landed, preferred someone such as John Pelphrey, a young and hungry assistant with deep roots at traditional power Kentucky.
From his arrival in Winston-Salem, Prosser has aimed high. He talked about it, and he backed it up with his actions. He rarely went a week without saying something that never would have come out of the mouth of Odom, who often spoke of the disadvantages of recruiting against state universities and other tradition-laden powers.
We need NBA players, Prosser said. I think the teams that win the ACC have the most NBA guys. When Wake Forest had Tim Duncan, Wake Forest won the conference. We need to find those guys and sign those guys.
A month ago, Wellman already seemed 10 years distanced from his decision to hire Prosser. The old man had led Wake Forest to its first outright league title in 41 years, and Wellman was pretty confident that his image of Wake basketball had won out against Odom's. Little did Wellman know that the image would have to undergo another test so quickly. Prosser recently was linked to the Pittsburgh job left open by Ben Howland's jump to UCLA. Other schools are sure to inquire as well.
So what is Wake? A winning program that's a consistent figure in the postseason and on the rise to more? Or a program whose disadvantages always will keep it one step from greatness, a team that got a sniff of more this season only because a mildly recruited player developed into a superstar in a down year for the conference? Is it the kind of program where its coach can be named the best in the tradition-rich ACC yet still see more opportunity somewhere else?
Stay tuned this spring and beyond.
Born in Pittsburgh, Prosser still has deep ties to the area. Sources close to him said he's realized how much of a big-city guy he is since he left Cincinnati. He can't exactly leave Joel Coliseum at 2 a.m. and have his pick of ethnic restaurants. Pittsburgh's also a two-newspaper town, guaranteeing the type of media coverage Prosser misses from Cincinnati. The Panthers clearly have money, as reports indicated they upped an offer to Howland to $1.1 million a year. They wouldn't mind someone with area roots. Plus, they'd like a big strike, and what could be bigger than stealing the ACC coach of the year?
Pittsburgh boasts a new $100 million on-campus arena, where the students ring the floor (yet another thing Prosser misses from Xavier) to act as a recruiting tool. It's a state school (read: easier admission standards) that has a student body that won't force recruits to be entertained on a nearby campus. The Deacons often find their fun at nearby Winston-Salem State.
In the bigger picture, of course, it's not just about Pittsburgh. It's about Prosser's view of Wake Forest his happiness, his hopes, his chance for success. Other programs are certain to come calling, but the most important question is this: Why would he leave Wake?
After all, Prosser has a pretty good thing going. He put the Deacons among the nation's top teams this year, and he's virtually guaranteed that they won't slip for at least a few years, despite losing the league's top player. The team he fields next season will be together the year after as well. Three years from now, he should be leading a team that has Justin Gray, Chris Paul, Trent Strickland and Eric Williams as its foundation.
Prosser already has had plenty of chances to show his greatest strength: blending a team together and motivating it. He pulled a strong showing out of a moody group in 2002, pushed Josh Howard into stardom and a leadership role, and blended a talented freshman class without incident this season.
The coach's staff handles much of the Xs and Os, and they are a particularly hard-working bunch. Their biggest decisions for the future appear to be what style the Deacons will play and who will lead.
Prosser always has favored a faster style than he's shown at Wake, and next year's team will be his deepest and most athletic. Yet the Deacons also will feature a true low-post center in Williams. How will the staff marry those two thoughts?
As for leaders, Gray obviously will be the heart of the program for the next three years. The question is whether any others will develop from what is a very laid-back group. Prosser hopes Paul can join Gray as a dominant player and personality.
Of course, the biggest variable for any college program is how it recruits, and the early returns look good for Prosser. He's landed two McDonald's All-Americans (Williams, Paul) in two years, and Wake is battling for more highly regarded players than at any time in the past. The Deacs wasted no time making in-roads in North Carolina, another reason Prosser may not want to leave so quickly. He took a couple of Odom-like chances on Todd Hendley and Kyle Visser this year, but perhaps this staff will prove to be a better judge of talent than the past regime.
Off the court, Prosser has made great strides in many areas that remained unchanged for years before his arrival. He energized the marketing staff and the student body, moves toward making Wake Forest a more difficult place for opponents to visit. He initiated numerous changes to Joel Coliseum, including locker-room improvements, to make it more of Wake's home instead of the city's arena.
But of any area of the program, this still leaves the most to be desired. Support of the Deacons is still shaky 73 percent of capacity this season and there aren't enough crazy students on hand. The program still hasn't grabbed the community's heart, either.
Wellman, however, seems to have picked the right person to get this part of the job done as well. The AD continues to hope that his image of Wake Forest basketball is in line with his coach's these days.
After two seasons of Prosser, that certainly appears to be the case.