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College Basketball : PROSPERITY AT CHAPMAN : Prospero, at 25, Makes the Best of His Unexpected Promotion

Times Staff Writer

A year ago, Rich Prospero was doing the laundry for Chapman College’s basketball team. Today, he’s the head coach.

If that sounds strange, consider the odd circumstances surrounding Prospero’s recent promotion. From soap suds to soap opera, Prospero has been dragged through controversy and confusion in becoming the Panthers’ coach.

“I remember last year when we were in a tournament at Puget Sound (and) I was in a Laundromat in Tacoma, Washington,” Prospero said. “It not only smelled bad, but it was freezing.

“College assistant coaches aren’t supposed to have to do these things--but there I was, at 7 a.m., washing our uniforms for our second game of the tournament.

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“When you’re trying to work yourself up the ladder, you’re going to have to do things you don’t want to do. That was definitely one of them.”

Prospero has moved up the ladder quickly. At 25, he is one of the youngest college basketball coaches in the nation, 15 years younger than the man he replaced, Kevin Wilson.

“There’s been a lot of transition, a lot of changes, a lot of adjustments,” Prospero said. “For the athletic department, the basketball program, for the team and for me, personally. I sure didn’t expect it.”

But then, who did?

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When school began in September, Prospero was an assistant coach for Wilson, as he had been the previous 2 seasons.

With only 6 years coaching experience--most of it on the high school level--Prospero was happy with his station in life. He was learning the ropes under Wilson and that was enough.

Then, on Oct. 5, Wilson announced his resignation, effective at the end of the season. Seven weeks later, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Wilson was fired after his published comments criticizing the Chapman athletic department broke an already-fragile relationship with Athletic Director Walt Bowman.

One game into the season, the Panthers had a new coach. But it wasn’t Prospero.

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Instead, Bowman named Lindsay Strothers, a first-year assistant for the Panthers’ women’s team, as interim coach. Prospero and the players were informed of the move in a meeting with Bowman after practice.

“My first thoughts were for Kevin, not myself,” Prospero said. “But I was surprised they named someone else as coach.”

Bowman said he didn’t know where Prospero’s loyalties were, with the program or with Wilson.

“Kevin and Rich had a very close relationship, so we didn’t know how involved Rich wanted to be,” Bowman said at the time.

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Neither did Prospero.

“If you would have asked me on that Wednesday, I would have said I wouldn’t have stayed on,” he said. “But my emotions were very strong. But I made up my mind Thanksgiving morning that, regardless of the situation, I was going to be a part of the program.”

Prospero talked with Bowman on the phone Thanksgiving morning and then met with him. After hearing that Prospero wished to remain, Bowman decided to make another change.

The following day, Prospero was named interim coach.

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“It was a tough situation for anyone to be put in,” said Estancia High School Coach Tim O’Brien, a close friend of Prospero’s. “He didn’t ask to be put there. I talked to him a couple times during the time, so I know he was torn. But I thought he showed a lot of character.”

Said Prospero: “Some of my friends told me I was wrong, that I should have walked. Others told me I had to stay for the opportunity. I stayed, but for the kids’ sake most of all. I love the kids and I wasn’t going to leave them.”

Prospero has always loved working with kids, even when he was a kid himself.

“My dad coached me all the way through Little League,” Prospero said. “I started helping him with the team after I was too old to play Little League.”

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It was his first coaching experience, but Prospero had no plans to make it a career. He was interested in playing sports, especially basketball.

At Tustin High School in 1980-81, Prospero--all 5 feet 7 inches of him--was the starting point guard on a team that reached the Southern Section 3-A championship game before losing to Corona del Mar. It was Tustin’s first appearance in a Southern Section final since 1937.

Tustin was led by “The Wall,” a trio of 6-7 front-line players. Yet it was Prospero who received most of the attention.

“I guess it was because I was the little guy,” Prospero said. “But they did all the work.”

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That’s not entirely true, according to former Tustin Coach Gary Larson, now an assistant at Fullerton College.

“Rich was like having a coach on the floor,” Larson said. “He took care of the ball for us, brought it up court, got us into our offense and held the defense together.”

In the quarterfinals, Tustin upset top-seeded St. Bernard’s, a team that included Corey Gaines, Bobby Thompson, Chris Washington--all of whom went on to play in the Pac-10. And it was Prospero’s basket that put the Tillers ahead to stay late in the game.

“I think they had 10 guys from that team go on to play Division I basketball,” Prospero said. “They should beaten us by 20. But every bounce went our way and everything that had to go right for us did.”

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Tustin then defeated Estancia in the semifinals. Before the game, Prospero was named the Southern California amateur athlete of the year by an Orange County radio station.

After graduating from Tustin, Prospero went looking for a place to play. It wasn’t easy, because very few colleges are interested in 5-7 guards.

He visited Lafayette College, a Division I school in Pennsylvania, and Wagner College on Staten Island. But neither interested him.

“I just couldn’t leave California,” Prospero said. “From the first day we moved here, I loved it. It was 90 degrees and I was out in my shorts playing baseball until my mom came and got me. I would have a problem moving.”

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So, Prospero enrolled at Fullerton College.

He played for the Hornets’ basketball team for the first semester and then quit.

“I had always been the type of player who had to work harder than everyone else,” Prospero said. “I was playing with guys who were All-CIF in high school. I just wasn’t running sprints hard enough. Looking back, it was probably a mistake. I should have stuck it out and I learned a lesson from it.”

“I always joke with Rich that he should have stayed,” Fullerton Coach Roger See said. “He was the 14th man at the start of the season, but by the end he would have been playing.”

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But Prospero had lost his desire--or, rather, was channeling it in another direction.

During his first semester at Fullerton, Prospero took a Theory of Basketball class, taught by See. He became interested in the specifics of the game and started thinking about coaching.

“I don’t think anyone says they’re going to be a coach when they’re 8 years old,” Prospero said. “That class had a lot of influence on me. Maybe that’s why I lost my hunger to play.”

Prospero started coaching that winter as an assistant for the Tustin junior varsity. He then coached the Tillers’ freshman team for 2 seasons, the girls’ varsity for 2 seasons and the boys’ junior varsity for 1.

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At the same time, Prospero was finishing his college education at Chapman. He began hanging around the basketball office. For hours on end.

“I mean, I was always there,” Prospero said. “Kevin would have to literally throw me out if he wanted to make a private phone call.”

Prospero scouted a few games for Wilson in 1984, while he was coaching at Tustin. The next season, he scouted almost full time as Wilson did not have an assistant coach.

“Kevin was testing me, I think,” Prospero said. “Not necessarily my knowledge, but my loyalty and also to see what kind of person I was.”

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In 1986, Wilson asked Prospero if he wanted to be a graduate assistant coach. He would get his tuition paid and a small stipend.

It was a perfect job for Prospero.

“When I started in coaching, I wanted to get to the college level,” he said. “I didn’t want to become a high school coach, teaching 5 periods a day and running a program. I think a high school varsity coach is the toughest job in the world.”

Prospero did little coaching his first season under Wilson. He handled recruiting, scouted games and was in charge of promotions. He also washed uniforms on the road and swept the gymnasium floor at home.

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“It was great learning experience,” Prospero said. “Kevin made you work hard. He gave me a lot of responsibilities and guided me through them.”

But there was no one to help this season, when the situation around the Panther athletic department became combustible.

After Wilson announced his resignation, his relationship with Bowman over the next 7 weeks deteriorated to a point where the two barely spoke, according to Prospero.

“It was tough trying to stay out of the line of fire,” Prospero said. “Several people in the athletic department were in the middle of it. I was one of them.”

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Prospero became the middle man between Bowman and Wilson. He would talk with one, then the other.

“I would be talking to Walt about things I had no knowledge about,” he said. “The program, travel, recruiting, scouting. Kevin didn’t want to talk to him. It was a big breakdown in communication.”

When the ax fell, Prospero was torn.

“I had a loyalty not just to Kevin, but others,” he said. “I had a loyalty to the kids, to the program and to myself, I guess. Where would I have been on Thanksgiving Day if I hadn’t? I would have been just twiddling my thumbs and going to U-Tote’em to apply for a job.”

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Which still might happen. Chapman is off to a 5-1 start--4-1 under Prospero--but Prospero is, after all, the interim coach.

What does Prospero expect to be doing a year from now?

“Honestly? Right now?” Prospero replied. “It’s day-to-day. I don’t where I’ll be next season.”

At least he found a way out of the laundry room.

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