Despite having not had much in the way of experience with these things, the University of Louisville has a rather enviable record when it comes to hiring men’s basketball coaches.
Before Wednesday, the school had hired just two since 1971. Both Hall of Famers. Denny Crum was the first. And the confident Californian and John Wooden assistant won a pair of NCAA titles before retiring in 2001. Next came Rick Pitino. And the former Kentucky coach brought the Cards another NCAA crown, since vacated, before being forced out in 2017 after a series of scandals.
“I know,” said Chris Mack, the now former Xavier coach hired to take over Cardinals basketball, “I have some big shoes to fill.”
Right now, those shoes are covered in mud. The school just lost an appeal of NCAA sanctions that yanked down the school’s 2013 championship banner. Overhead hang the allegations from an ongoing FBI investigation which alleges the school was involved with a shoe company that offered monetary benefits to the family of a prospective recruit.
“I was told enough,” said Mack when asked what he was informed about U of L’s current difficulties. “It didn’t scare me off.”
If that handicapped Vince Tyra’s efforts to lure a quality coach to the River City, you’d have to say Louisville’s now permanent athletic director did quite well for himself with his first hire.
Mack is a proven commodity, the all-time wins leader at Xavier, having gone 215-97 in nine seasons after succeeding Sean Miller in 2009. Eight of those nine years the Musketeers made the NCAA Tournament. Four of the nine they reached the second weekend, including an Elite Eight berth in 2017.
Xavier not only won the Big East outright this year, besting current Final Four participant Villanova by a game, but secured the school’s first No. 1 seed in an NCAA Men’s Tournament. Alas, Mack’s men were upset by No. 9 seed Florida State — “One of the toughest losses I’ve ever experienced,” he said Wednesday — in the round of 32 in the West Region. Still, X finished 29-6.
And then Mack was gone. Born in Cleveland, the 48-year-old played his high school basketball in Cincinnati, then began his college career at Evansville before transferring back home to Xavier. He played for Pete Gillen at X and was later an assistant for Skip Prosser and then Miller before becoming the head coach. Naturally, some were surprised he would leave his home base.
“I thought I was a Xavier lifer,” Mack said.
Louisville is a chance to coach in the ACC, however. It also means more money, reportedly $4 million a year over a seven-year contract, the same number of years C.M. Newton gave Pitino to clean up Kentucky’s mess in 1989.
Mack’s Xavier tenure was not without warts. There were some off-the-court headlines. Two of his players have shown up in those FBI documents. Though Mack and Mick Cronin, the coach of cross-town rival Cincinnati, are longtime friends, their annual meetings have included a 2011 brawl and serial sniping.
In fact, when Mack penned a farewell letter to Xavier fans, he couldn’t resist throwing one more barb at the Bearcats.
“Like every former player from X, I will be cheering for the Muskies every chance I get,” wrote Mack, “especially on that night once a year we beat those guys from Clifton.”
Perhaps that was part of Mack’s appeal to Louisville — he’s known as a rabid competitor — though the coach admitted he holds John Calipari in high regard.
“He’s been awesome to me,” Mack said. “I beat him once — in fantasy camp. No, he’s been great. He does a terrific job. He’s one of the best coaches in the entire country. I’m looking forward to the challenge of playing him.
“I’ve lived in Northern Kentucky for the last 10 years so I’m certainly aware of Big Blue, but we’ve got something special here of our own.”
It is now Mack’s job to kick off the mud, and make it special again.