Gaudio stabilizes Wake Forest after a difficult year

It was mid-February and Wake Forest had just beaten archrival Duke at home, the most significant win since the death of Demon Deacons head coach Skip Prosser nearly seven months earlier.

Deep within Lawrence Joel Coliseum, associate head coach Jeff Battle, who worked under Prosser for 14 seasons at three schools, found a quiet spot to talk to Prosser as if he were right beside him.

"I was really excited, but I got by myself and just said to Coach, 'I wish you could be here,'" Battle said recently. "There were so many times during the season that brought back memories that would really affect me. I had so many mixed emotions. I'd be excited and then get sad. It was an emotional roller coaster, a very difficult year."

It was a year ago this past Saturday when Wake Forest was rocked by the news that Prosser had collapsed following a morning run upon returning to campus from a recruiting trip to Orlando, Fla. Mike Muse, then the director of basketball operations and now an assistant coach, tried in vain to resuscitate Prosser in his office. But at the age of 56, the beloved Prosser died from a heart attack.

It has been a difficult year for everyone -- Prosser's replacement and best friend, Dino Gaudio, the rest of the staff and every single player -- associated with the Wake Forest program and for others who knew Prosser well.

"I don't know if the program had ever been at a lower point," said Wake Forest assistant Pat Kelsey, who also played for Prosser at Xavier. "We were in shambles, emotionally -- the staff, the players, the Wake fan base, students. We had to quickly pick ourselves up and move on."

Every Wake Forest coach and player interviewed within the past week credited athletic director Ron Wellman for keeping the coaching staff intact. Less than two weeks after Prosser died, Wellman handed the reins of the program to Gaudio, 51, who received a five-year contract.

"We'd be in a different position if he would have brought in a different coach from the outside," junior guard Ishmael Smith said. "Coach Gaudio knew the system. It was the same system, just a different approach."

"[Wellman] moved so decisively, so swiftly, that it allowed Dino the monumental task of picking up the pieces and putting it all together," Kelsey said.

The emphasis was on our loss. There was a reminder of Skip in every game, and rightfully so.

-- Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman

Hiring Gaudio was only the first step. Gaudio had to re-recruit three verbally committed and talented high school seniors and also every Demon Deacon on the roster. He had to do this while also mourning the loss of his best friend.

"Dino had the most difficult job in America last year in terms of coaching and trying to deal with the loss of his mentor and friend," Wellman said. "At the same time, he had to find a balance and make this his team. He did a superb job."

There wasn't one defection, not from the team, not from the staff.

"He meant so much to me, and I cared so much about him," said Gaudio, who still has trouble talking about Prosser without getting emotional. "I was always giving him as much credit as I possibly could. If another coach had filled his shoes, he would have said what a great person, what a great coach Skip Prosser was. But after a point, he might have said he had heard enough about this guy."

Gaudio handled Wake Forest, the tragedy and the unenviable position of replacing Prosser by being himself. He found his own voice, something he hadn't had since his seven years as a head coach at rebuilding Army and Loyola (Md.) from 1994 to 2000. Gaudio was stern, while Prosser had more of a witty tact to his approach. Gaudio focused more on the defensive end, a sore spot for the Demon Deacons in previous years.

"The players knew Dino as an assistant, but once they saw him in that first practice as a head coach, implementing his philosophies, those kids' eyes got real wide," Kelsey said. "Skip was always more laid back. Dino got right in your teeth and is a ball of fire."

The Demon Deacons were one of the surprise teams in the ACC. Wake Forest started out 11-3, including beating eventual Mountain West champ BYU. Conference play in January started out rough with five losses in the first seven games, but the Demon Deacons' eventual 7-9 ACC and 17-13 overall records were decent for a team with no seniors among the top nine scorers. Wake Forest was led by a pair of surprisingly productive freshmen: forward James Johnson (14.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and guard Jeff Teague (13.9 ppg).

After a first-round loss to Florida State in the ACC tournament, Wake Forest was hurt because it didn't get an invite to the NIT.

"I really wish we would have gotten into postseason play," Gaudio said. "That was the only thing disappointing to me. We should have been in postseason play."

The season was more about the memory of Prosser, though. Wake Forest opened the season against Fairfield with a pregame ceremony featuring Skip's wife, Nancy Prosser, and the unveiling of a banner in the rafters bearing Prosser's likeness. Every ACC team honored Prosser prior to tipoff against the Demon Deacons.

"The emphasis was on our loss," Wellman said. "There was a reminder of Skip in every game, and rightfully so."

The approach has drastically changed this offseason. The players and staff know they won't be the sympathetic figures anymore. The expectations with the arrival of Scouts Inc.'s sixth-ranked recruiting class -- incoming frontcourt players Ty Walker, Al-Farouq Aminu and Tony Woods -- is for Wake Forest to be in the top five in the ACC, a regular Top 25 member and an NCAA tournament participant.

Junior guard L.D. Williams said Prosser instilled the toughness in his players to get through their mourning and handle the expectations of being a winner.

"You'll see a much more comfortable Dino this year," said Miami coach Frank Haith, a former assistant at Wake Forest under former coach Dave Odom. "But you could see the team taking on his personality at the end of last season with how they played. It will be even more this season."

And a year after the tragic loss, the Wake Forest program appears to be as stable as ever.

"We've already handled the trials and tribulations," Wake Forest senior guard Harvey Hale said. "We feel this is our time, our year. We have no excuses. We had a good year. We tried to [earn an NCAA berth] for Coach Prosser last year. We'll do it again for him this year and every other season for him, too."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.