Why Chris Mack and Louisville are both taking a big risk on each other

Yahoo Sports

Cliff divers don’t plummet head-first into unknown waters. They know how deep it is, where the rocks are, what the risk is.

If Chris Mack were a cliff diver, he’d be one of the most daring of all-time.

Under normal circumstances, taking the plunge from Xavier to Louisville would be a no-brainer – reward easily outweighing risk. Louisville wins national titles and goes to Final Fours and puts 22,000 fans in the stands while competing in the best of all basketball conferences, the ACC. Xavier, while a very good program, has none of those things.

But these are seriously abnormal times at Louisville. A national championship banner was taken down last month. A Hall of Fame coach and celebrated athletic director were run out of town last fall. First it was strippers in the dorm, then it was an alleged six-figure payment scheme – the scandal cycle has been a doozy. A second major NCAA investigation in less than three years, and a second set of major sanctions, appear inevitable.

So, Chris Mack, is taking this Louisville job a leap of faith? Or a leap of foolhardiness?

The waters he’s diving into are troubled. The map of what’s beneath the surface may have changed. Dashing an accomplished career onto the rocks seems to be a potential outcome here.

The money and job security are great: seven years at $4 million a year. Mack is believed to be one of just seven coaches in college basketball now making an annual salary of $4 million or more. That will buy plenty of house in his wife’s hometown.

Chris Mack will make $4 million annually on his seven-year contract after agreeing to become Louisville’s head coach. (AP)
Chris Mack will make $4 million annually on his seven-year contract after agreeing to become Louisville’s head coach. (AP)

But all coaches are hardwired to win, and Mack already was winning at a high level at Xavier – he just took the Musketeers to a Big East title and an NCAA tournament No. 1 seed. And there are major questions about when league titles and No. 1 seeds will again be within Louisville’s grasp.

Things should eventually get better, but they also could get considerably worse before they get better. “Eventually” is dauntingly open-ended where Louisville is concerned.

If the Cardinals are nailed by the NCAA in the fallout from the ongoing federal investigation into corruption in college basketball, the school certainly would be labeled a repeat violator – having the distinct dishonor of committing major violations while already on probation for a previous set of major violations. That would leave the program susceptible to the strongest penalties the NCAA can administer.

Yes, that includes the so-called death penalty. Complete suspension of the program for a season or more.

Some NCAA rules experts I’ve talked to don’t believe it would come to that for Louisville – that the school’s complete house-cleaning since the second scandal came to light would be a mitigating factor. (SMU football was dealt the only real death penalty in the 1980s because the same people went back to committing the same violations after the first sanctions were handed down. There was a complete lack of penitence.)

Still, it would hardly be a shock to eventually – this will all take a lot of time, maybe several years – see the Cardinals hit with another postseason ban. Not to mention scholarship reductions, fines and who knows what else as the NCAA further attempts to turn penalties into actual deterrents.

Turns out Mack is no fool – his contract calls for additional years to be added to the deal in the event of any postseason bans. So he’ll be protected contractually.

His leap of faith is that, no matter how bad it might get, Louisville will rebuild quickly.

In that respect, Mack taking the Louisville job bears some resemblance to Bill O’Brien going to Penn State. It’s an entirely different set of issues, but a similar gamble by the coach: that whatever NCAA sanctions are looming in the future, they won’t destroy the program long-term.

O’Brien’s gamble was right – Penn State came back more quickly than most envisioned. (In part because the NCAA walked back its own ill-conceived sanctions.) But O’Brien wasn’t around to see it, bailing for the NFL’s Houston Texans after two seasons. James Franklin finished the rebuilding process, winning a Big Ten title and going to the Rose Bowl five years after the Jerry Sandusky revelations destroyed the Joe Paterno Era.

It is, also, easier to rebuild in basketball than football. You don’t need an entire offensive line; you need one or two instant-impact recruits who can change a program’s trajectory. And Louisville has all the necessary selling points in terms of facilities, conference affiliation, fan support and tradition.

But until the extent of this next wave of NCAA issues is understood, will those instant-impact recruits want to come? Mack would be asking them to take a similar leap of faith into unknown waters, without the millions in salary – and the best players will all have attractive other options.

So, a wished-for renaissance could take a while. Maybe even longer than a seven-year contract.

Then there is this to consider: Louisville is taking its own gamble with Mack, and it has nothing to do with his coaching ability. Last month, Yahoo Sports viewed some of the documents seized by federal authorities in its corruption probe. Among the roughly 25 players from 20 schools who were named in expense reports and balance sheets seized from ASM Sports Agency were two of Mack’s at Xavier: Edmond Sumner and Semaj Christon.

Of particular concern were the Sumner entries on ASM Sports associate Christian Dawkins’ expense reports – multiple mentions of cash advances paid to Sumner and his father, Ernest, while the player was still at Xavier. The advances totaled at least $7,000.

Sumner and Christon both became ASM Sports clients after turning professional. After the agency became implicated in the federal probe, they left ASM Sports.

Mack issued a statement to Yahoo Sports at the time of its Feb. 23 story: “I have no relationship with Andy Miller or any of his associates. He plays no role in the recruitment of potential student athletes on Xavier’s behalf. Beyond that, our staff has never created a path for him to foster a relationship with any of our student-athletes while enrolled at Xavier. Any suggestion that I or anyone on my staff utilized Andy Miller to provide even the slightest of financial benefits to a Xavier student-athlete is grossly misinformed. We are prepared to cooperate with any and all investigations at any level.”

Louisville is an investigation-weary school. The idea of hiring a coach whose program is in any way tied to the feds’ probe of ASM Sports should be a concern – perhaps it was, and Mack answered all questions in a manner that put any university concerns at ease.

So there is something of a mutual leap of faith today, as Louisville and Chris Mack consummate a deal. These are risky times to hire anyone, and risky times to take on a new job. Time will tell whether both parties have a safe landing from their leap.

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