Sports

At Louisville, there’s a new coaching staff that owes a big debt to Skip Prosser

Winthrop head coach Pat Kelsey remembers Skip Prosser’s sudden death in his Wake Forest office at age 56 as “the most traumatic thing I’ve ever seen or experienced in my life.” Dino Gaudio, then a fellow assistant on Prosser’s staff, still chokes up recalling that late-July afternoon.

Now, more than 11 years later, Chris Mack, yet another assistant groomed by Prosser, is about to embark on his first season as Louisville’s head basketball coach, Gaudio by his side. The duo’s presence on the sidelines is an implicit tribute to Prosser’s personal and professional teachings, constituting the Cardinals’ first flesh-and-blood link to the league they joined five years ago.

Mack lauds Prosser in a manner common among former associates. “He’s one of the best people to ever grace our sport, not just as a basketball coach but as a person,” he says. “He had that magic touch, whether he was talking to the janitors that cleaned up at the gymnasium or he was talking to the president. He just had a way with people. I think any time you’re in a leadership position you have a responsibility to inspire people, get them moving in the right direction. There’s no better way to do that than to connect with them.”

Prosser, a cerebral sort given to quick offense and a quicker wit, also was a better coach than is generally recognized.

Four of his six Wake clubs, three at Xavier, and his first and only team at Loyola of Maryland reached the NCAA tournament. He’s the only coach to lead three different teams to the NCAAs in his initial season at each school.

The detail-oriented Prosser won 65 percent of his games at Wake. (As a West Virginia high school coach he visited Chapel Hill to study Dean Smith’s exacting practices.) In 2004-05 he directed the Demon Deacons, paced by Chris Paul, to their initial top spot ever in the polls and to 27 victories, most in school history.

Mack, 48, played under Pete Gillen at Xavier in Cincinnati, his hometown. Then he worked for Prosser at his alma mater and at Wake (2002-04). He returned to the Musketeer program to assist and ultimately replace Sean Miller, now at Arizona. A high school girls basketball coach before joining Prosser, Mack has his own style, ratified by a .695 winning percentage and eight NCAA tournament appearances in nine seasons at Xavier. “A lot of the basketball things that we do aren’t necessarily derived from Coach’s system,” he notes.

In taking over at scandal-scorched Louisville, Mack became the fourth head coach to come directly to the ACC from Xavier, after Virginia’s Gillen (1999-2005) and Wake’s Bob Staak (1986-89) and Prosser (2002-07).

“Chris is brilliant, he is a brilliant basketball mind. Special, I believe, just a really, really high-level basketball thinker,” says Kelsey, 43, a Mack assistant at Xavier. “People say that he comes across as brash, but that’s just who he is. He’s very confident in his beliefs.”

Kelsey played point guard for Prosser’s Musketeers and worked for him at Winston-Salem. He, Gaudio and Mack played pickup ball almost daily on Wake’s campus, engaging in some “nasty” Chicago-style one-on-one-on-one action, according to Kelsey. The 6-5 Mack was bigger than the others and readily shot over them. So Kelsey confesses he and Gaudio “just fouled the crap out of him,” causing Mack to punish nearby trash cans when he lost. The trio remain close, taking joint family vacations.

Gaudio assisted Prosser at Xavier and Wake, and succeeded him as head coach of the traumatized Demon Deacons in 2007-08. The Deacs won at least 20 games and reached the NCAAs the following two seasons, but Gaudio was ousted.

Most recently he worked as a basketball game commentator. “In my time away, I’ve seen over 100 practices,” Gaudio offers, then adds meetings, shoot-arounds, film and scouting sessions, and of course games. “You’ve heard this before – I think everybody should take a year off to see how other people do things.”

Gaudio’s sabbatical lasted not one, but eight years. He becomes only the fourth ex-ACC head coach to return to the league as an assistant at another school. In a testament to the value of experience, three currently serve on ACC benches – North Carolina’s Steve Robinson (previously at Florida State); N.C. State’s James Johnson (Virginia Tech) and Gaudio.

The other former ACC head coach to take an assistant’s position at another league school was Press Maravich. After leading Clemson to the 1962 ACC tournament title game despite a losing overall record – the Tigers’ sole appearance in the final in the league’s first 54 seasons – Maravich moved to N.C. State.

There, as expected, he succeeded Everett Case, forced by illness to retire as head coach after two games of the 1964-65 season. Maravich was voted ACC Coach of the Year after leading the Wolfpack to the ’65 conference championship.

Mulling Gaudio’s unorthodox route to the UL bench, an unthreatened Mack says, “I’ve had future head coaches, but never a former head coach on my staff.” He continues: “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out he brings a lot of experience to the table. He’s well-versed in our league. He has a passion for coaching basketball. He understands the game. He’s worked with high-level players. He’s coached NBA players.”

The voluble Gaudio spent 30 years in college coaching before finding refuge with ESPN. Back in the ACC, he’s made note of Louisville’s Jan. 30 visit to Wake’s Joel Coliseum, where a banner with Prosser’s likeness hangs from the rafters -- and attendance, enthusiasm and competitive success have flagged since Gaudio left.

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