ROCK HILL, S.C. (AP) — Pat Kelsey is finally glad his Winthrop players have an NCAA Tournament moment to celebrate. Many feel the same way for Kelsey, the Eagles young coach whose time in the spotlight up until now has been filled with heart-wrenching experiences. Kelsey was a rising assistant at Wake Forest a decade ago who watched his mentor, Skip Prosser, be carried out his office by paramedics after a fatal heart attack in 2007. It was a loss so devastating that Kelsey gave up the game for nearly a year to make sense of it.
ROCK HILL, S.C. (AP) — Pat Kelsey is finally glad his Winthrop players have an NCAA Tournament moment to celebrate. Many feel the same way for Kelsey, the Eagles young coach whose time in the spotlight up until now has been filled with heart-wrenching experiences.
Kelsey was a rising assistant at Wake Forest a decade ago who watched his mentor, Skip Prosser, be carried out his office by paramedics after a fatal heart attack in 2007. It was a loss so devastating that Kelsey gave up the game for nearly a year to make sense of it.
Now the 41-year-old Kelsey is standing in the tournament spotlight for the first time as a head coach.
"You can see how much this means to him," senior forward Roderick Perkins said.
The 13th-seeded Eagles (26-6) will take on No. 4 seed Butler (23-8) in a South Regional first round matchup on Thursday.
"He had a very special relationship with my father," said Winthrop assistant Mark Prosser. "This is going to be very special. It'll be fun."
Kelsey wants the spotlight on his players, who came up short in three straight Big South title games before cutting down the nets on their 10th overall NCAA appearance and first since 2010.
"It's not about me," he said amidst Sunday's selection gathering at the Winthrop Coliseum. "It's about us. It's about this program."
But it also is about Kelsey, and his journey to the tournament.
His future seemed fast-tracked as one of Skip Prosser's top staff members at Wake Forest, first as director of basketball operations and then as a fulltime assistant. He helped the Demon Deacons gain earn five NCAA Tournament berths during his time at Wake Forest, a time that was forever impacted by Prosser's death.
Kelsey had seen his boss out recruiting the day before. He had returned to Wake Forest and, hearing from others that something was wrong, rushed to Prosser's office where he found him unconscious and his face blue. Kelsey watched as paramedics tried to revive Prosser to no avail.
Kelsey acknowledged suppressing the loss, heading back on the recruiting track to help new Wake coach Dino Gaudio continue the school's successful run. Kelsey left Wake Forest before the 2009-10 season to become associate head coach at Xavier, his alma mater, under Chris Mack. After two years, Kelsey knew he still hadn't gotten past or accepted Prosser's death and took time away with the school's support.
Kelsey sought professional help over the next 10 months and spent quality time with his family (wife, Lisa, daughters Ruthie and Caroline) until he was ready to get back into coaching, and got the call from Winthrop in the spring of 2012.
It was only a month into that first year when Kelsey stepped back into the national spotlight, this time with an emotional speech following a loss to No. 4 Ohio State — that had nothing to do with basketball. It was four days after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting where 26 people — 20 of them children — had been killed.
Kelsey spoke how he'd return home, walked into his daughters' pink bedrooms filled with teddy bears and give them hugs and kisses. There are 20 families in Connecticut, he continued, "who'll walk into a pink room with a bunch of teddy bears with nobody laying in those beds and it's tragic."
Kelsey called for then President Obama, then Speaker of the House John Boehner, parents and leaders from every walk of life to prevent further massacres.
The coach later befriended the Kowalski family, whose 7-year-old son Chase was among the Sandy Hook victims. The Kowalskis attended a Winthrop game in March 2014.
Wofford coach Mike Young said Kelsey did not need this year's run to the tournament to validate his career.
"But he's very deserving," Young said, "and it's good to see."
Follow Pete Iacobelli on Twitter @PeteIacobelli