ROCK HILL, S.C. – It was one of the saddest days of his life, one of the saddest in recent college basketball history, but Pat Kelsey will talk about it. He’ll talk about it openly, eagerly, thoroughly – even without being asked. He mentions every heartbreaking detail, including the part where he got into the driver’s seat of an ambulance and moved it in front of the Wake Forest basketball offices in the vain hope that he could do something, anything, to help. He couldn’t. His mentor, boss, father figure, former coach, Skip Prosser, was gone at age 56.
It was five years ago Thursday.
Kelsey, 37, wants to talk about it. He points to the couch in his coach’s office at Winthrop University, reliving the moment. Let’s say that’s where Coach was sitting when it happened, he says. Prosser was just back from a run and was wearing his ratty yellow shorts. He loved old clothes. He had an opened newspaper on his face, and Kelsey never will forget the color of that face. It was blue.
Kelsey wasn’t the first to find him. But Kelsey was close behind. He remembers what people said. First, “Where’s Mr. Prosser?” Then, “Call 911!” Then, “Hurry! Hurry!” Then, “It’s not good, Kels. Not good, Kels.”
He remembers the paramedics saying they would do everything they could, which he knew was code for “There’s nothing we can do.” Driving the ambulance probably was illegal, and definitely useless, but Kelsey would do anything and everything to keep Skip Prosser alive.
And that’s why Kelsey is talking about the day he died. He does it without reluctance or anger becausethat’s part of his mission now, five years later. He needs to keep this man alive.
Even though doing so nearly cost him his own career.
“The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
Skip Prosser loved that saying. Thomas Payne wrote it in 1776, about those who fought for the American cause only during the good times. Prosser had no use for summer soldiers or sunshine patriots, and that message got through to Pat Kelsey even when he was a young director of basketball operations at Wake Forest.
Kelsey is a Cincinnati boy, the son of a car salesman who taught him how to think creatively until it hurt, smile until it hurt and work until it hurt. It was some sort of miracle that Kelsey found a coach and leader who had the same belief system.
Kelsey had been the consummate grit guard at Xavier under Prosser after transferring from Wyoming, a fearless player who leveraged his scant talent into hard-earned points and rebounds.
Kelsey was destined to coach, but happier than most in the profession. Prosser was like that, too. He was all summer and sunshine, but he kept the faith in the dark times, too. Especially so.
“I don’t know anyone who didn’t like him,” Kelsey says. “He was the best coach in basketball who didn’t have an enemy.”
That’s what made his passing so horrible for the college basketball community. Prosser was the happy workaholic, the guy who shined even when the whole coaching enterprise seemed crusted in sludge.
Prosser succeeded right away at Wake Forest, a relatively small school a short drive from behemoth programs in Durham and Chapel Hill. He succeeded right away at Xavier, too, despite that school’s proximity to Cincinnati, Louisville and Kentucky. He somehow even succeeded right away at Loyola (Md.), even though the team went 2-25 the year before he arrived in 1993.
Prosser is the only man ever to take three teams to the NCAA tournament in his first season as coach at that school. He did it with unyielding energy that spread through every campus, turning Wake Forest, a school that had only decent fan support when he arrived, into a hoops inferno that rattled even the top teams.
“We’re going to make Wake a cool place,” Kelsey remembers hearing Prosser say in the middle of a game. The two came up with the idea to bring in the Demon Deacon mascot on a motorcycle before a game against Duke. Wake won in double overtime and fans stormed the floor. Prosser then got a call from the ACC office informing him that Mike Krzyzewski had complained about the exhaust fumes from the cycle. Prosser, always ready with a quip, shot back: “Are we allowed to beat Duke or are we not allowed to beat Duke?” That was Prosser – light-hearted but dead serious, always sunshine but always a patriot.
Krzyzewski could not have been happy that the former high school coach from West Virginia was eating his lunch, but Coach K was among the most distraught at Prosser’s funeral.
That Prosser died on the job, in his office, with family nowhere around, was unbearable to fellow coaches who fear the same fate but figured Prosser would be the last to meet it. And it came at the end of July, the most brutal month of the coaching calendar.
Prosser had a genetic flaw that led to a massive heart attack, so it’s unfair to say his job killed him, but it was impossible for his friends not to think along those lines after Prosser (and almost all coaches) had criss-crossed the nation on no sleep for weeks, trying to see and woo every recruit. The last words Prosser spoke to Kelsey came at an airport, as the protégé dropped the mentor off for yet another flight, on the way to locking up the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation: “To the hunt!”
So optimistic, energetic, so Skip. And yet so foreboding, too. Was the hunt lethal?
“Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.”
That was another favorite Prosser quote, this one from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Kelsey found exactly that someone in Prosser. Perhaps no one made it a mission to continue Prosser’s leadership more than “Kels,” who quickly became obsessed with his mentor’s unfinished business.
The season before he died, Prosser took Wake to Colorado to play Air Force and lost by 44 points. It wasan historic drubbing for an ACC team playing out of conference. Afterward, in the team hotel, Prosser was more upset than Kelsey ever had seen him. He was disheveled, crumpled, laid out.
“Kels,” he said. “We got these guys in 12 months.” Prosser vowed to get revenge the next season – a season he wouldn’t live to see. But Kelsey picked up the baton and made it his mission to get back at Air Force. It wasn’t a crucial game; it wasn’t against North Carolina or Duke, or even Georgia Tech. But to Kelsey it was everything, and he spent so many hours watching tape from that road loss that he could all but recite the entire game from memory.
“Nobody was prepared for a game,” Kelsey says, “like I was prepared for that game.”
The new season came, and Air Force visited, and Wake Forest won. After the final horn, Kelsey – then an assistant to Dino Gaudio – returned to the coaches’ office, laid on the floor and burst into tears.
Every single game that winter was taxing on the coaching staff; a win was bittersweet and a loss was taken as a miserable failure. While the rest of the coaching world mourned and moved on, Prosser’s staff was overwhelmed emotionally and physically. Kelsey pushed through it the way his mentor and his father always did. But it was catching up to him. He always was easily motivated, then suddenly he struggled to motivate himself. The internal pep talks – “Be tough, be a man” – weren’t working. On some mornings, it became hard to get out of bed.
“From the moment Coach died,” Kelsey says, “it was like a downward spiral. You’re lying there at 2 a.m., and you start doubting what you do and the lifestyle. I don’t want to get a divorce, never see my kids, die of a heart attack and never set things right.”
Kelsey kept going and took an assistant’s job at Xavier in 2009 under Chris Mack. But inside, the wheels were coming off.
“Prosser was a father figure to him,” says Brian Thornton, who was another assistant at Xavier. “He didn’t have the time to grieve that he needed to.”
One day last year, Kelsey found himself in a mall parking lot, running a simple errand for his wife, Lisa, and he couldn’t move. He sat behind the steering wheel, paralyzed. He wanted so badly to be like Skip, but he wanted equally badly to not be like Skip.
Kelsey did not want to lose his identity in the profession where he found his calling. He called his dad, and he couldn’t believe what he was saying to his idol: “I’m miserable.”
Kelsey’s dad’s reply was soft but sure: “I can’t help you anymore.”
So Pat Kelsey, on the fast track to be a head coach at a top Division I school, decided to quit the profession.
He was 36.
“The older I get, the faster I want to play.”
That was another Skip Prosser quote, and it certainly applies to Pat Kelsey. He does everything fast. He speaks without pause, leans forward in his chair, points and gestures when he needs to make a point. He almost looks as if he’s sitting on the bench during a game even when he’s sitting in his office during the offseason.
But at this point in the conversation, he’s quiet. He sits back in his chair. He looks around. Kelsey’s unsure. Taking time away from coaching never was part of his plan, especially at such a young age. He knows he probably could have had a big-time job if he’d stayed at Xavier. And – this is the hardest part – he worries other coaches might use it against him if they know he spent time in therapy.
But he did. He worked hard on healing, on “understanding the perspective that I could both coach and be a family man.” When he started seeing a therapist, he wasn’t sure that was possible. But over months, he convinced himself.
“I’m gonna be engaged in playing with my 2-year-old,” Kelsey says. “When I was with her before, I wasn’t with her. Now, if she wants to play princesses, I’m in.”
Gradually, with his wife’s blessing, he started getting back into the basketball atmosphere. He took a job at a company that ran camps. He attended practices at all levels of the game. He got back in touch with coaches – both assistants and head coaches. And when the Winthrop job opened after the program suffered two subpar seasons in the Big South Conference, Kelsey knew. So did his wife. His oldest daughter, Ruthie, ironically due the day Prosser died, was almost 5. He had another daughter, Caroline, who is now 4. He had soaked up the time at home with them and now it was time to make them proud in another way.
Winthrop wasn’t Xavier or Wake Forest. But this was a winning program, used to going to the Big Dance more than once in a while. The Eagles have won nine conference titles in the past 14 seasons. And Kelsey could build a staff there that would reflect the best of what Skip taught him.
That staff would have one very special ingredient.
“We’re undefeated. We love everybody and everybody loves us.”
That’s a Prosser quote too. But it’s uttered not by Skip, rather by his son, Mark. If you haven’t met Skip, meeting the son gives you a good feel for his dad. He has the wisps of light hair, the strong voice, the pigeon-toed stride, the seriousness of purpose but also the levity.
And he’ll make you laugh. Asked how he’s different than his father, he says, “I’d like to go to the Final Four.”
Mark’s strongest memories are from before his dad was a Division I coach – when he was a history teacher and ninth-grade coach in Wheeling, W.Va., changing light bulbs and painting the floor in the gym. “Great father, great husband, great person,” he says.
But he was also a great coach, and he kept getting great jobs. Mark says he had a terrific childhood and a “wonderful” mother ndash Skip’s first wife – but admits, “It got harder and harder as he progressed.”
They spoke every day, all the way until the end of Skip’s life, but Mark remembers how hard his dad took the losses. He remembers the double-overtime loss to West Virginia in the 2005 NCAA tournament. That was his best team, with Chris Paul, losing to a school from his home state.
“I think that loss still affects him now,” Mark says, “wherever he is.”
Mark Prosser cannot recall all the details of the day his father died because he wasn’t in Winston-Salem. He was in Orlando, recruiting for Bucknell, where he was employed as an assistant. He and his dad had dinner the night before at an Ale House, and of course they talked basketball. They talked about the Pittsburgh Pirates, as both were over-the-top Steeltown fans. (Is there any other kind?) Then the next day, Mark got a call. His dad had had a heart attack.
It wasn’t clear at first how serious. Then it became clear. And Mark had to walk back into that gym where his dad had been just the day before, and tell his boss what happened. Word spread quickly, and other coaches left the bleachers in shocked silence.
It could have been any of them. But it wasn’t any of them. It was Mark’s dad.
Mark was on a plane to North Carolina that night, and he says it didn’t really hit him until he checked into a hotel and saw his father’s face on a television.
He knows the question is coming: Does it bother you that your dad spent so much time away, that he spent so much time chasing teenage basketball stars all over the country even when you were a teenager waiting for him at home?
And yet Mark became a basketball coach himself. A good one, in fact. So good that he helped design an offense at Bucknell that nearly beat his dad’s team in a game at Wake Forest. Mark confesses that one of the hardest moments of his life was standing on a sideline in his dad’s home gym, watching his team dismantle his father’s. Many sons would delight in that – sticking it to the old man. But Mark feared the fallout. What would it mean for his dad, he thought that night, if Wake loses to a Patriot League school? Mark admits he was relieved when Wake rallied and won.
It’s striking how Mark Prosser’s devotion mirrors Pat Kelsey’s. They both put aside personal needs and interests for Skip. That’s what’s so incredible about what’s going on now at Winthrop. After months of soul-searching, Kelsey came out of semi-retirement to become the Eagles’ coach in late March. And he convinced Mark Prosser to leave his first head-coaching job, at Division II Brevard (N.C.) College, to be his assistant.
It wasn’t an easy choice. Mark loved being a head coach. He loved his players. He didn’t want to leave. And he wants to be a head coach again. But he saw Winthrop as a chance to work with a man who knew his father in ways he didn’t.
“With Coach Kelsey, I could learn more about my dad,” he says. “I’m jealous of that. I envy the people who got to do that with him.”
Mark wants to hear all the old stories. He wants to learn coaching from his dad in the only way he could with him gone.
“I wouldn’t have done it for anyone else in the country,” Prosser says. “My dad spoke so highly of Coach Kelsey. He’s tireless, relentless.”
And yet tireless and relentless is not always a good thing.
Mark, 33, is in a tricky spot. He has a baby daughter, Ava, who has Skip’s reddish hair and blue eyes. She never met her grandfather, so Ava is a daily reminder of what Mark wants to be and a reminder of what he wants to avoid.
So it comes back to the same question posed by so many coaches when Prosser died: Is this profession even possible?
“When he died,” Mark says. “A lot of people said, ‘Wait a minute, what are we doing here?’ “
Urban Meyer, when he retired briefly as football coach at Florida, pointed to Prosser’s death as a factor in his decision. We are five years from Prosser’s passing and the recruiting calendar has been made saner, but how could it ever be sane enough?
If you are Pat Kelsey, or if you are Mark Prosser, how can you honor your hero without putting every ounce of your soul into leading, teaching, winning? And if you are Pat Kelsey, or if you are Mark Prosser, how can you honor your hero without spending more time with your wife, your family, your loved ones?
“He would say, ‘Get on the road,’ ” Mark says. “He would want me in that [Orlando] gym at 8 a.m. That’s what we do.”
And yet …
“You have to have great balance,” Mark says. “After every season, my wife and I talk and ask, ‘Do you want to keep doing this?’ If you don’t have great balance –– that’s what scares me.”
Does he have great balance?
“I hope so.”
Coaching as a tribute to Skip Prosser – that’s hard. But not coaching as a tribute to Skip Prosser? That’s impossible.
Pat Kelsey is dancing, and not in the March Madness sense. He’s standing in his office, dancing. He learned a step routine to perform at Winthrop freshman orientation. And he’s practicing it. There he goes, thrusting his elbows and clapping and pumping his legs. There he goes, clapping exactly 13 times. He looks … earnest. He looks like he’s trying really hard to make it look like he’s not trying hard at all. And it’s working. The kids are going to love it. They are going to come to the games. This is going to be a little Winston-Salem in South Carolina. There will be winter soldiers and snowstorm patriots in Rock Hill.
Kelsey sits back down. He’s beaming. He’s going to coach his own team for the very first time.
“I’ve never called a timeout before,” he says.
But he’d never recruited a player before when Prosser walked into his basketball operations office in Winston-Salem and said, “Kels, are you ready?” Kelsey didn’t even have to answer. Nor does he have to answer now.
“It’s fate that I’m here,” he says.
He’s still intense, but not in the same way. “I see a different Pat Kelsey now,” says Thornton, who left Xavier to assist Kelsey at Winthrop. “More jovial, excited, happy.”
The tragedy of Skip Prosser’s life is that he couldn’t be in two places at once. But the miracle of his legacy is that those two places, home and work, have become one.
Pat Kelsey never got to say goodbye to his old coach, so it’s hard when he’s asked what he would say if given the chance. But as usual with Kelsey, the words come quickly.
“I’d tell him I love him,” Kelsey says, welling up. “And I hope you’re proud of me.”
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