Wednesday, April 25, 2001

Hard decision, harder job




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        Skip Prosser went to Mass Tuesday morning knee-deep in doubt. He sat in the campus chapel for the better part of an hour following the 8 a.m. service, debating the decision he could delay no longer.

        The Xavier basketball coach ultimately chose to take his whistle to Wake Forest, but his deliberations were so agonizing you'd think he was turning state's evidence against Tony Soprano.

        “It's been a very difficult 100 hours,” Prosser said.

        Career choices are always easier if you're not the one making them.

        From a distance, choosing Wake Forest over Xavier is like choosing apple pie over asparagus. Both provide neces
sary nutrients, but it's not really much of a taste test.

High expectations

        Wake Forest plays in the nation's pre-eminent basketball league, the Atlantic Coast Conference, and pays accordingly. Prosser's predecessor, Dave Odom, reportedly was earning $750,000 a year, roughly double the going rate at XU. Odom's predecessor, Bob Staak, was another Xavier coach who left Cincinnati because of the lure of Tobacco Road.

        “It's obviously a higher-profile stage,” Prosser said.

        What isn't altogether obvious is whether it's a better place to be. Wake Forest was ranked as high as No.4 in the nation this past season, only to finish fifth in the arduous ACC. Despite 11 straight postseason appearances, Odom was unable to negotiate a contract extension and skipped town for South Carolina.

        Odom succeeded in raising Wake Forest's expectations to the point they were no longer easily met. To a lesser extent, Prosser had the same problem at Xavier. Both men encountered criticism this season that would have been unimaginable during Staak's tenure at the two schools.

        The unfortunate reality of coaching college basketball is that fans are not always realistic.

        “Our expectations are probably higher than what other people's are,” Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski said. “But if you work in this business, you also have to be more realistic about what you can and can't get done.”

        Xavier won at least 20 games in each of Prosser's last five seasons. At some places, that's plenty. That it is no longer enough to mollify all Musketeers fans reflects a change in perception about the program.

Impervious to pressure

        Reaching the NCAA Tournament once was considered a triumph at XU. But as the Musketeers have moved up in class — to the Atlantic 10 Conference and the spiffy Cintas Center — their constituents have been eager to shuffle off their mid-major coil and achieve national power.

        Some of Prosser's friends sensed the Xavier community was starting to take him for granted. Some of those closest to the program saw Prosser becoming more sensitive to outside pressures.

        Before the Muskies were eliminated in the first round of the NCAAs by Notre Dame, Prosser complained that the regular season was becoming obscured by tournament obsession. For the first time in his Xavier tenure, Prosser sounded as if he felt trapped by his circumstances.

        Tuesday's move, however, would suggest Prosser is impervious to pressure. The ACC makes a lousy hiding place for a basketball coach.

        E-mail tsullivan@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/sullivan.

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