Gaudio finds success as head coach after succeeding friend, mentor

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- The night last month when Wake Forest announced itself as a major contender this college basketball season by beating North Carolina, Dino Gaudio was handed a phone.

On the other end was Jo Prosser.

"I'm so proud of you," the mother of the late Skip Prosser, former Demon Deacons coach, told her son's successor.

The effusive 80-year-old resident of St. Clairsville, Ohio, calls regularly after Wake games. She watches almost all of them, one way or another. If the Deacons aren't on her cable package, she'll meet up with Skip's oldest son, Scott, across the Ohio River in Wheeling, W.Va., at a sports bar called TJ's.

Skip has been gone for more than 18 months now, taken at the age of 56 by a heart attack suffered while jogging. But that has never severed his family's bond to Wake Forest basketball -- or to Dino, the man who was his best friend.

"He's good to me," Jo said of Gaudio. "I had a habit of calling Skip, so I call him every once in a while to wish him well.

"I'm very proud of what Dino and his staff are doing. I'm so thankful they kept that staff together. This is their team, and I'm sure Skip would be very happy. I went to church recently and told people, 'He's up there flapping his wings.'"

Between flaps, Prosser is probably telling everyone that he knew Gaudio could do this. He knew Gaudio could coach at the highest level of college basketball, if he finally got a chance at a place where winning isn't impossible.

The tragedy is that Skip Prosser had to die for his friend to get that chance. The healing postscript is what Dino Gaudio is doing with that opportunity.

"It's been a long, hard climb," Gaudio said after practice one day last week. "Obviously, I wish it had never occurred, with respect to Skip. But life hands you some options you never expect.

"I'm glad I'm the guy following in Skip's footsteps. I'll never let him be forgotten at this place."

He has the clipboard in his hands. His shell-shocked players are gathered around him, undoubtedly wondering whether this collapse was really happening. It's time to improvise.

Lawrence Joel Coliseum is drenched in tension. Wake Forest has coughed up every last bit of a 13-point lead against visiting No. 1 Duke, but has the ball out of bounds beneath the Blue Devils' basket in a tie game. There are 2.8 seconds left.

Forget all the inbounds plays Wake runs repeatedly in practice -- Gaudio is drawing up a new play on the fly. He's calling for forward James Johnson to set a screen on the perimeter for leading scorer Jeff Teague, then slip to the basket for a pass from inbounder L.D. Williams.

If the play works, Wake will win and dethrone Duke. If the play fails, it's on to overtime with no momentum and little hope.

"It's been a long, hard climb. Obviously, I wish it had never occurred, with respect to Skip. But life hands you some options you never expect. I'm glad I'm the guy following in Skip's footsteps. I'll never let him be forgotten at this place.

--Wake Forest head coach Dino Gaudio

The play works beyond any Deacon's wildest dreams. The Devils rush to blanket Teague. Johnson rolls to the basket, unsuspected and unguarded.

Williams bounces a pass into his hands. Johnson lays it in the basket. Duke is defeated.

As the Wake students storm the floor, one thought floats invisibly above the celebration: Did an accidental ACC head coach who went 68-124 at Army and Loyola (Md.) College really just undress Mike Krzyzewski, the game's most accomplished active coach?

Yes he did. And back in St. Clairsville, Jo Prosser excitedly took notice.

"I was up and down like a yo-yo," she said, watching the ebb and flow of fortunes during the game.

And the next day, when ESPN was replaying highlights on various shows and talking about the job Gaudio did, Jo Prosser called Dino's dad, Joey, who lives just 25 minutes away.

"Joey," she said. "Turn on ESPN!"

Joey tried. Turned out he got so excited he was pushing the buttons on the phone instead of the remote.

Between beating North Carolina and beating Duke, Wake Forest had its own brief turn at No. 1. That ended swiftly and unceremoniously when the Deacons were shocked at home by Virginia Tech -- their first loss in 17 games.

After that game, the 51-year-old Gaudio did what coaches do. He stewed over the defeat.

His wife, Maureen, applied some perspective.

"If somebody said before the season that you'd be 16-1 right now, you'd take it," she told him.

Take it? Given the rutted coaching road Gaudio has traveled, he'd embrace 16-1 like a lost puppy. If somebody had said at any point prior to August 2007 that Dino Gaudio would be the head coach of the No. 1 team in the country, even for a week, the diminutive son of a steelworker would have laughed.

Heading into Wake's game Wednesday night against Miami, Gaudio had coached 241 college games from the lead chair. He has never once had a winning record. Started out 0-3 at Army in 1993, on his way to 20 losses that season. He has been fighting uphill ever since.

How tough was it to win at Army? Ridiculously tough. To this day, nobody has had a winning season there since 1984-85. The academic and military demands are so great that basketball is a distant afterthought to everyone on campus.

Everyone but the basketball coach.

"As you're going through it, it's hard," Gaudio said. "But nothing has prepared me better for this experience than going through that."

Gaudio remembers the year he signed six players for what he thought would be his breakthrough recruiting class. But even when you sign players at Army, you can lose them during the six-week summer grind that is Cadet Basic Training.

As the Military Academy's Web site says, "Extensive demands are made on new cadets as a test of their emotional stability, perseverance, and ability to organize and perform under stress." The cadets cannot use the phone for their first two weeks of training -- and when the basketball players finally got to make a call, the first one often went to their high school coach asking for a way out of West Point. That's how Gaudio lost half of his best recruiting class.

He and his assistants weren't allowed contact with their players during that time, so they'd treat it like recruiting at a camp. They'd position themselves near where the cadets were running at 5 a.m. and wink at them. Or they'd go by the cafeteria and pump a fist -- anything to encourage the players to stick it out.

When the cadets were allowed to come to the gym for physical activity, Gaudio would dispatch an assistant to sneak them a couple of McDonald's cheeseburgers.

"They'd act like it was a seven-course meal," Gaudio said. "They'd wolf it down."

He lost 20 games his first season at West Point, but incremental improvement allowed him to parlay four difficult seasons into the job at Loyola. Gaudio never got it going at Loyola, losing 21 games in his third season there and resigning in 2001.

That's when he returned to his career comfort zone, sitting next to his old friend Prosser. The benches changed throughout the years, but the relationship remained.

Before they first met in the summer of 1980, Gaudio spent two miserable years as an accountant at Wheeling Steel. He sat in his glass cubicle, crunching numbers and wishing he were somewhere else.

While working that job, he went to night school to earn an education degree. Then one day he saw a classified ad in the local paper in which Wheeling Central Catholic High School was seeking a business teacher and an assistant basketball coach.

Gaudio applied, interviewed with the principal and returned home. Ten minutes later, the principal called and offered him both jobs -- to the surprise and chagrin of the head basketball coach, Skip Prosser, who had someone else in mind.

"Who's Dino Gaudio?" Prosser asked the principal. "And how do you know he can coach?"

"He told me he could," the principal responded.

"Do you hire every teacher who tells you he can teach?" Prosser said.

Two nights later, the two men met for the first time at an open gym session at 14th and Eoff streets. Prosser quickly learned he got a guy who could coach, and he got a best friend for the next 27 years. Someone who one day would be his best man at his second wedding, while he one day would baptize one of Gaudio's daughters.

They worked together at Central Catholic for four years, before Prosser moved on to the college-assistant ranks and Gaudio succeeded him as the head coach. After three more years there, Gaudio left to rejoin Prosser on the bench at Xavier under head coach Pete Gillen.

Their career paths diverged when both became head coaches in 1993 -- Prosser at Loyola and Gaudio at Army. One was propelled ahead; the other began a seven-year cycle of losing.

Prosser caught lightning in a bottle at Loyola. After a 6-8 season in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the Greyhounds stunningly won the league tournament and went to the NCAAs at 17-13. That was enough to earn Prosser the head-coaching job at Xavier when Gillen left for Providence.

While Prosser was keeping Xavier at a high level, Gaudio was unable to break through on a much lower level. When he couldn't come close to replicating Prosser's single season of success at Loyola, Gaudio resigned and rejoined his friend on the Xavier bench in 2000. A year later, they moved in tandem to Wake Forest.

For Gaudio, it was back to life as a right-hand man, instead of being The Man. Back to preparing scouting reports and making the initial recruiting calls and sweating the small stuff for the smaller paycheck.

But that was OK, because he was working with Prosser and they were in the ACC and had a chance to compete for the biggest prizes in college basketball. And that might have been Gaudio's career path in perpetuity, until July 26, 2007.

That's when the immensely popular Prosser died after jogging. After a traumatic couple of weeks, Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman named Gaudio to succeed his friend -- and not on an interim basis. It was his program, no strings attached.

"Each one of the assistants came to me and said, 'Dino's the guy,'" Wellman said. "Every one of them threw their support behind him."

The record at Army and Loyola? It didn't matter. At last, Gaudio was going to get his chance.

"We talked for eight hours over the next two days," Wellman said. "I don't think in that time he gave the slightest impression of doubt that he could get it done."

The first thing Gaudio had to get done was to piece together a heartbroken team. When the Deacons won their opener on Nov. 9, 2007, it was Gaudio's first victory as a head coach since Feb. 13, 2000.

Wake persevered through an incredibly difficult season, going 17-13 and upsetting then-No. 2 Duke in February. Not even losing five of the last six could diminish what that team was able to do amid season-long mourning.

"Last year at this time, when we're getting ready to play Duke, the first game tape we put on is the tape from last year -- and there's Skip walking the sidelines," Gaudio said. "It was shocking to us at the start of the tape. Every tape was like that. You wonder, when these kids are watching that tape, what they're thinking."

Before every road game there was a moment of silence honoring Prosser. Wake wanted to remember him and celebrate him -- its practice gym is adorned with "Skip-isms" on every wall, and there is a marble plaque honoring him in the locker room -- but the constant reminders were emotionally taxing.

This season, at least, there are no ghosts on the videotape.

"If it's any easier, that part is a little easier," Gaudio said.

It is also easier on the court, with the addition of a stellar freshman class led by Al-Farouq Aminu. With increased size, depth and athleticism, plus the flourishing of Teague, Wake Forest has become one of the surprise teams of the season. Even an upset loss this past weekend at Georgia Tech has not knocked it out of the top 10.

Much of what Wake does is the same as it did under Prosser, but there are some key differences. The defense is improved, and the head coach is more likely to light up players in practice.

"Dino goes right at people's teeth," assistant Pat Kelsey said.

"He was more laid-back as an assistant coach," senior Harvey Hale said. "Now he's a totally different person. He'll let you know what he's thinking and how he's feeling."

"I'm a little more confrontational with kids than Skip was," Gaudio said. "I get an adrenaline rush, and out it comes."

What has come out on the court has been a triumph -- for a wounded program, and for a guy who never thought he'd see the inside of the top 10 as a head coach.

And hundreds of miles away in the hills of eastern Ohio, the 80-year-old mother of Skip Prosser is cheering for Dino Gaudio every step of this healing journey.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.