CULLOWHEE — Members of the Western Carolina basketball team were still in elementary school when Skip Prosser died, so it’s understandable that they don’t know much about the late Wake Forest coach.
What they do know was enough to help Prosser’s son Mark gain immediate respect the moment he walked into the locker room for the first time as the Catamounts’ new coach last spring.
“Chris Paul played for him,” the younger Prosser said of his dad, who led his team to the NCAA Tournament in four of his six seasons with the Deacons. “That will perk guys up. That helped them understand my background and where I come from.”
While Prosser’s bloodline played a role in gaining his new players’ attention, it’s the impressive resume he built on his own as an up-and-coming young assistant that led WCU athletic director Randy Eaton to describe his hiring as “a slam dunk.”
“We didn’t find a guy,” Eaton said on March 27. “We found the guy. Mark Prosser has everything we were looking for in our next head coach.”
While Prosser said he often draws on the influence of his colorful father, who was famous for quoting Emerson and Nietzsche while comparing basketball games to things such as the Peloponnesian War, he said his coaching style is very much his own.
“He enjoyed what he did — the games, the X’s and O’s, going back through the tape and beating yourself up over that last play call — but he was good at putting that all away and enjoying time with his family,” Prosser said. “I’ll enjoy that the same way.”
As for those obscure quotes and references, the son said he’ll leave those up to his dad.
“I’ll quote his and take them as my own,” he said with a chuckle. “He was very well-read. I’ll get in front of my team and say, ‘I don’t do this often.’ I’ll tell them something my father used to say and they’ll roll their eyes.”
A 40-year-old who began coaching while still an undergraduate at Marist after a knee injury ended his playing career in 2001, Prosser spent the past six years as the top assistant to Pat Kelsey at perennial NCAA Tournament qualifier Winthrop. There, he earned a reputation for being an effective recruiter and a knowledgeable teacher of the game.
Prosser was brought in to replace longtime coach Larry Hunter, who retired after more than 700 victories at Wittenberg, Ohio University and WCU.
The transition figured to be a smooth one until the beloved Hunter suffered a stroke and died only a few weeks later. It was a situation eerily similar to the one involving Prosser’s father, who succumbed to a massive heart attack at the age of 56 after his regular afternoon jog in July 2007.
Because of that experience, Prosser turned out to be the right man at the right time in more ways than one.
“It was really hard at first, especially for some of the juniors and seniors who had been with (Hunter) for two or three years,” said sharpshooting sophomore guard Matt Halvorsen, the team’s leading scorer at 14.5 points through four games. “But coach Prosser and his staff were there for us back in the spring and all summer to help us get through everything that was going down.”
Prosser said that the solid foundation Hunter left after 13 seasons with the Catamounts played a major role in helping him and his players get through those emotional first few weeks.
“When you have a program that’s in very good shape because of who he was as a coach and a person, it doesn’t make it that difficult,” Prosser said. “We have phenomenal young men and they’re about the right things. We’re doing things a little differently. Our systems are a little different than they’ve been in the past — not better or worse, just different. So that’s been a bit of adjustment.”
It’s an adjustment that has yet to show results in the win-loss column.
While the young Catamounts have showed plenty of effort playing with a rotation featuring six freshmen, sophomores and junior college big man Carlos Dotson among its top seven scorers, their only triumph in their first four games was a 94-55 rout of non-NCAA member Hiwassee College.
“I’m proud of the way our team is fighting, but our program isn’t going to be about moral victories,” Prosser said. “At the end of the day, it’s wins and losses. We can build off some of the things that have happened, but our ultimate goal is to win and be successful.”