Wiedmer: Steve Prohm has his Racers ready to go

Wiedmer: Steve Prohm has his Racers ready to go

March 15th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Murray State head coach Steve Prohm yells out to his team from the bench in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012, in Murray, Ky. (AP Photo/Stephen Lance Dennee)

Murray State head coach Steve Prohm yells out...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Twenty-three years ago, Murray State's Steve Prohm was a long way from becoming the nation's hottest first-year college basketball coach. Instead, he was one of two new teenagers to move to Driver Lane in Cohutta, Ga.

"Steve was from Vienna, Virginia, and I was from Vienna, W.Va.," said Barrett Coffman. "Suddenly, we were next-door neighbors. Moving at that age can be very difficult. It was such a blessing to have him come there at the same time."

Basketball junkies both, they soon made the Northwest Whitfield High School varsity under coach Allen Carden. Coffman graduated a year ahead of Prohm in 1991.

"I was a power forward who couldn't jump," said a laughing Coffman, the minister at Southside Church of Christ in Lexington, Ky. "Steve was a 3-point shooting guard. And he could really shoot."

Two decades later, Prohm hopes his sixth-seeded Racers can shoot their way into the third round of the NCAA Tournament's West Regional by outlasting No. 11 seed Colorado State at 12:15 today inside the Yum! Center.

A win would propel them to a Saturday date with the Marquette-Brigham Young winner and a spot in the Sweet 16. Despite 14 previous NCAA appearances, the Racers have never reached the tournament's second week.

"Colorado State is very good, we have a tremendous amount of respect for them," said Prohm during Wednesday's press conference. "But we are here to win and advance and do something extremely special for our program and our community."

Coffman will make today more special for Prohm, win or lose. He intends to be in the stands, along with several more of the coach's buddies from his time at NW Whitfield.

"It means a lot to have Barrett come to the game," said the 37-year-old coach earlier this week. "We've been great friends for a long time. I still keep up with several of those guys -- especially Keith Bingham and Kelly Scruggs. We're still pretty close."

The Racers, of course, were achingly close to perfection this season, winning their first 23 before falling at home to Tennessee State. They beat TSU the next two times they played -- including the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament title game -- to reach 30-1.

To show you what a small world it is, Coffman long believed Prohm would make his career in sports, just not necessarily as a coach.

"He just had such enthusiasm and passion for anything to do with sports," Coffman said. "I thought he might become a commentator. Dick Vitale was his hero back them."

So who showed up to do Murray's BracketBuster win over Saint Mary's on Feb. 18? Dick Vitale, of course.

"A big thrill," said Prohm.

For Murray State fans, Prohm has made the whole winter one of the biggest thrills of their lives. When Syracuse fell in early February to make Murray the last unbeaten, the local Kroger store announced the Syracuse defeat over its intercom system.

Prohm's weekly "Hey, Coach," radio shows have drawn three times as many folks to the Big Apple Café as in previous years.'

"Five-year-old children to 85-year-old women have gotten caught up in this," said Prohm on Tuesday. "It's been incredible."

It's certainly been incredibly rewarding for Coffman, who took his four children to watch Murray win at Morehead State earlier this season, and also caught an 11-point Racers victory at Western Kentucky, which will play No. 1 Kentucky tonight at the Yum! Center after coming from 16 down with five to play to stun Mississippi Valley State in Tuesday's play-in game in Dayton, Ohio.

"It's been tremendous fun," Coffman said. "Very exciting."

Asked to remember his favorite fun times on Driver Lane, Coffman recalled a water balloon fight during a Prohm birthday party and the summer they wore weighted shoes all summer to increase their vertical leaps.

"I don't know about Steve, but I don't remember it helping me much," he said. "But we tried. We really loved basketball."

Now basketball is loving Prohm back. After graduating from Alabama in 1997, where he worked as a student assistant coach and manager for former Tide boss David Hobbs, Prohm worked with current Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy for 12 years at stops ranging from Southeastern Louisiana to Centenary to Murray State. He also spent a season on the Tulane staff.

When Kennedy got the A&M job last spring, Prohm assumed he'd follow his mentor to the Lone Star State.

"The first couple of weeks after Billy got the job I was trying to figure out who we'd recruit at Texas A&M," said Prohm. "Then I got the call, May 23. I've been extremely blessed."

Thirty wins in 31 contests later, he's already being rumored for bigger jobs -- South Carolina, perhaps? -- even though he chuckled earlier this week, "Where am I going to go? People barely know who I am."

Maybe. But win twice inside the Yum! Center this weekend and the pride of Driver Lane just might become almost as well-known as his hero Vitale.