At small school, a big-time coach

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - The pachyderm in question has taken on a different context, but the riddle regarding enormous tasks remains operable in the world according to Skip Prosser.

How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time.

Prosser posted that inspiration in his office at Loyola College 11 years ago, and he has dusted it off at Wake Forest. Then, it was an allusion to the wildly improbable, the NCAA tournament. Now, the imagery visualizes the daily grind required to aspire to that which goes unspoken.

"We don't talk about trying to win the national championship," Prosser said. "All the things people are saying about us, what's going to happen in March, what's going to happen in April ... we're just trying to take another bite out of the elephant every day."

The fourth-ranked Demon Deacons will try to take a bite out of Maryland tonight at the Lawrence Joel Coliseum. For four seasons under the coaching hand of Prosser, they have gnawed at the generations-old binds that tie most of Tobacco Road's consciousness to three other Atlantic Coast Conference teams.

Prosser spent 16 years in a pretty good college basketball town in Ohio, but found a different ambience here, where Wake Forest has watched wistfully as Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State have combined to win eight NCAA titles.

"The ACC," Prosser says, "has been inculcated in people's lives, not that everybody in Winston-Salem is a dyed-in-the-wool Wake Forest fan. We're dealing with Duke fans, Carolina grads, State grads. In Cincinnati, people tell you where they went to high school. You don't have a very long conversation with anyone in this area without them telling you where they went to college.

"I wasn't in Baltimore long enough to know which connection they make there."

Too short a stay

Prosser spent enough time at Loyola to make history, not absorb it, a twist for a man who coached ninth-grade basketball as a fine-print item when he signed on as a high school history teacher in 1971. He got the Wake Forest job off his work at Xavier, where nine years as an assistant and seven as the head coach were sandwiched around one incredible winter at Loyola.

In 1993-94, Prosser stopped at Charles Street, got some fifth-year seniors eligible and brought the Greyhounds a berth in the NCAA tournament off three wins in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament. Loyola has combined to win that many times in 14 other MAAC tournaments, and two of those came in play-in games to the quarterfinal draw.

It was the Greyhounds' only winning season in the past 17.

No similar miracles were required when Prosser came to Wake Forest, where the program wasn't broken, just in need of an adjustment on the recruiting trail.

Dave Odom lamented the national reputations of Duke and North Carolina, threw in his ACC towel in April 2001 and moved to South Carolina. Wake's high-water mark remains the 1962 Final Four. The Demon Deacons came close in 1996 with Tim Duncan, the best player ever out of the Caribbean, as Odom developed obscure talent and steered clear of McDonald's All-Americans.

Prosser dived into that field.

"We're very stubborn," he said. "We try to recruit the best players we can. We're going to recruit those players until they tell us no."

Staying close to home

Two years ago, the best prospect in the state was a slick guard from a high school 10 minutes from the Wake Forest campus. In decades past, a player like Chris Paul would have headed to Chapel Hill. This time, he remained in the neighborhood and is a contender for national Player of the Year.

North Carolina also wanted junior center Eric Williams, who's from a Raleigh suburb. Justin Gray, Paul's running mate, is a junior out of Charlotte. The top four scorers are from the state.

"They wanted to do something different," Prosser said, "something that hadn't been done before."

Wake Forest wouldn't be this stable if not for a seamless transition from the Odom regime, which signed the senior class that includes Taron Downey, Jamaal Levy and Vytas Danelius. As sophomores, they went 13-3 and finished first in the ACC regular season.

Last year, the Demon Deacons got Prosser his first trip to the Sweet 16. With everyone back, Wake Forest was No. 2 in the preseason and assumed the top spot for the first time in its history on Nov. 22. The sensation lasted nine days and was destroyed by Illinois in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

"I trust my guys implicitly," Prosser said of Paul, Gray and sixth man Downey in the backcourt. "I liken it to a quarterback in football. You can have the best defense, a great offensive line and tremendous special teams play, but if the quarterback throws five interceptions, it doesn't matter. I feel very comfortable with all three of those guys."

Combating coziness, Prosser has disciplined five players for a series of minor offenses. When the effort wasn't good enough against Elon last month, he damaged a locker room door.

His players are accustomed to dealing with a 54-year-old original - Prosser went to college to become a seaman.

Instead of spending college summers working camps in the Poconos, Prosser docked in Barcelona and Rio de Janeiro on working cruises out of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. He works at one of America's best golf colleges but doesn't play. A voracious reader, Prosser offers references from Davy Crockett and William Faulkner to Genghis Khan and Elmer Gantry.

"I'm sure there are still some things they [his players] walk away from and are too polite to say, 'What are you talking about?' That's OK," Prosser said. "Sometimes, the best word I can think of to describe something has more than two syllables. Make them look it up."

Staying put at Wake

Arizona State, Notre Dame, Rutgers, Seton Hall and South Carolina are among the programs that have pursued Prosser. After Year 2 at Wake, he flirted with Pittsburgh, but the appeal of his hometown was negated by the chance to coach Paul and a renegotiated 10-year contract worth a reported $1 million a year.

That April 2003 soap opera played out in public, against Prosser's persona. When Loyola somehow became his first NCAA team, he leaned back on the scorer's table and soaked in the scene. If Wake Forest ever won a national title, he would not run around looking for someone to hug, a la the late Jim Valvano.

"There are no airs about him," Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman said. "He fits in well here. He's told our students over and over: This isn't his team, it's theirs. He's changed the environment at our home games drastically, tripled the number of students, 800 to 2,400, at our games."

Prosser has spent his entire college coaching career at small, private institutions. With 3,600 undergraduates, Wake Forest is slightly larger than Loyola, and he works in one of the smallest NCAA tournament-host cities.

"The people are exceedingly friendly," Prosser said. "I hope this is the one place where the friendliness ratio is not in direct proportion to your winning percentage."

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