Why Chris Mack is willing to risk it all at Louisville

Chris Mack speaks after being introduced as new men’s basketball coach of the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaab/teams/laq" data-ylk="slk:Louisville Cardinals">Louisville Cardinals</a> during a press conference at KFC YUM! Center on March 28, 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Getty)
Chris Mack speaks after being introduced as new men’s basketball coach of the Louisville Cardinals during a press conference at KFC YUM! Center on March 28, 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Getty)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Jack Fry’s is as old-school Louisville as it gets, a landmark restaurant in the city’s Highlands neighborhood that was opened during the Depression by its namesake, a gambler/bootlegger. Everyone who is someone in town will eat there eventually, surrounded by black-and-white photos of champion thoroughbreds and athletes and socialites from another time.

The newest someone in the city slipped into a seat there last week without fanfare. It took until the end of lunch for Chris Mack to be approached.

“Glad to have you in the city,” said Jackie, our waitress, with a bright smile. “Welcome. Sorry about the blue tie today. This is the only blue I wear.”

Mack knows the color scheme of his new home: blue is Kentucky, red is Louisville, and the divide between them is deep and abiding.

“No problem,” Mack shot back. “You didn’t know we were showing up. I’ll expect a red one next time.”

If the coach of the Louisville Cardinals wants red ties on servers at Jack Fry’s and any other restaurant in Louisville, area department stores should expect a run on red ties. It’s his town now.

Mack has been given big money (seven years at $4 million per) to do a big job (navigate a daunting scandal cycle of unknown length). If he does it well, he will be the latest big deal at the greatest of urban basketball programs, a place that is accustomed to larger-than-life coaches.

Denny Crum made Louisville a destination job, staying 30 years, winning two national titles and going to six Final Fours. Rick Pitino maintained and even enhanced the program’s stature in his 16 seasons, winning the 2013 national championship* (until it was vacated) and helping the school rise to membership in the Atlantic Coast Conference. With those two in charge, Louisville was the most profitable basketball program in the country.

Now comes Mack — and while the 48-year-old’s résumé is not currently Hall of Fame material like the men who came before him, the school should feel wildly fortunate that a coach of considerable ability would embrace its basketball job at this toxic point in time.

“It might not be the perfect time for Louisville basketball,” Mack said, “but it was the perfect time for me.”

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Not long ago, another Power Five conference program with considerable resources and tradition made a run at Chris Mack. The Xavier coach was on vacation with his family in Turks and Caicos at the time of the call. His response: “Thanks, no thanks. Let’s go to the beach.”

“I think people would be surprised if they knew some of the opportunities we let come and go,” Mack said, declining to identify the school that couldn’t even get him to put off snorkeling long enough to consider its job. “They didn’t move the needle at all.”

So why did Louisville, coming off one major NCAA investigation and now toiling under the looming cloud of another, spike the needle on Mack’s personal coaching seismograph? Why is a program that was rocked by a stripper scandal, shaken by complete leadership turnover and implicated in the federal investigation of college basketball the place Mack couldn’t turn down? Why should a coach with eight NCAA appearances in nine years, four Sweet 16 appearances, a No. 1 tourney seed and a Big East title take on the leaning tower of risk that is Louisville?

Because it’s a bedrock basketball school with all the advantages of a football school. It’s one of the few places that cashes major-conference revenue checks and still cares more about hoops than anything else. If you’re a basketball coach and want to be king, Louisville is one of maybe half a dozen Power Five addresses where you can do it.

“I always wanted to take that next step at a place that truly cared about basketball,” Mack said. “Sometimes coaches talk among themselves about being at a place where football is more important and they leave you alone. I don’t know. At Xavier, we were at the forefront — basketball was it. I didn’t want to go to a place where they didn’t necessarily passionately care about basketball. That’s no disrespect to football at Louisville, which has been great, but there’s a huge commitment to basketball. And I always thought the ACC was the best basketball conference in the country.

“Really, there aren’t many Louisvilles out there.”

Chris Mack finished 215-97 in nine seasons as Xavier’s head coach. (Getty)
Chris Mack finished 215-97 in nine seasons as Xavier’s head coach. (Getty)

While that statement is true in the context of commitment and passion, the same can also be said for its precarious future. There aren’t many Louisvilles out there wearing a bigger potential NCAA bull’s-eye.

If the FBI video surveillance and wiretaps become NCAA enforcement property, the Cardinals could be on the hook for a six-figure, pay-for-play scheme for one player and a separate six-figure scheme to land another player. With staff involvement, and in cahoots with the school’s apparel provider. Potentially most damaging of all, those schemes were allegedly concocted at the latter stages of the stripper scandal or shortly thereafter, when Louisville theoretically would be on its absolute best NCAA compliance behavior.

In the foggy future — nobody knows when — the Cardinals could get slammed harder than any other program currently implicated in the federal probe. Why? Because Louisville would fit squarely in the “repeat violator” category. And with the Condoleeza Rice-led commission that studied college hoops issuing findings in late April that call for things like a five-year postseason ban, being a repeat violator would seem a very bad thing right now.

This is the ominously vague world Louisville occupies right now. And yet, Chris Mack up and moved into it.

“I always bet on myself,” he said. “I’d be naive to think there weren’t issues that preceded us that were going to be obstacles, but if I felt like they were impossibilities, I wouldn’t have taken the job.”

The irony of the situation is this: Mack took a very uncertain job, yet there was absolutely no uncertainty about the process. This was the least surprising, least dramatic job search in the country in 2018.

Even when Pitino was popular and entrenched, there was considerable speculation that Mack would one day be his successor. When Pitino’s career abruptly went up in flames last September and David Padgett became the stopgap replacement, that speculation trended more toward certainty. Even the turnover at the presidential and athletic director levels did nothing to diminish the seeming inevitability of Mack to Louisville come March.

“All year it seemed like a pre-arranged marriage,” said local radio host Drew Deener, whose morning show is probably the best place to gauge the Louisville fan zeitgeist. “There wasn’t the excitement of a coaching search, where different names are popping up — there was one name the whole time. If it hadn’t been him, I don’t know what plan B was. If they didn’t get him, that would have set off alarm bells. [The search] would have to have been deemed a failure.”

In addition to giving Mack a lot of time and a lot of cash, Louisville made one additional concession to the current predicament: There is a clause in Mack’s contract calling for him to get an automatic year added to the deal if the Cardinals are given a postseason NCAA ban.

However, there are no rollover years for players who would be affected by such a ban. Both Mack and the Louisville fan base have found out this spring how difficult it is recruiting with so much doubt surrounding the program’s future. The Cardinals have swung and missed on a handful of players since Mack arrived, both graduate transfers who would be immediately eligible and high school prospects.

By far, Mack’s biggest recruiting win to date at Louisville has been in player retention. Amid an epidemic transfer culture in the sport, the Cardinals retained seven players from the 2016-17 team, most notably starter V.J. King and the touted freshman class of Jordan Nwora, Darius Perry, Malik Williams and Lance Thomas. But juniors Ray Spalding and Deng Adel both left for the NBA and signed with agents — and then went uninvited to the draft combine. Which means there is no significant infusion of new talent to an NIT team, and future player procurement won’t be easy.

“Recruiting has been challenging at times, between perception and reality of what we’re dealing with,” Mack said. “The negative recruiting piece that people are going to use against you — I mean, that’s OK, it is what it is. We’re very, very comfortable with the product we’re selling, who we are as people, the resources we have available. All the reasons I chose Louisville are the same reasons kids have who choose to play for us.

“It’s more the unknown: ‘Why go to a place that, hey, you don’t know.’ But I look at it and say [recruits] have a lot of knowledge. You get to play in front of the most passionate fan base in the country, in the best arena in the country, best league in the country, and that stuff isn’t going to change.

“People may say, ‘Hey, they’re not going to play in the NCAA tournament.’ Which I don’t believe. But half the programs we recruit against must have a ban I don’t know about, because I never see them in the tournament. We’ll take our bullets and we’ll be all right. If we get the guys we’re targeting, who are tough and have a chip on their shoulder and want to develop, we’ll be all right.”

Don’t underestimate the chip on the shoulder. That’s definitely something Mack brought with him to town.

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Another summer family vacation. This time, the Outer Banks. Mack and his wife, Christi, were there with their three kids — Lainee, Hailee and Brayden. One day out at the beach, Chris drew a line in the sand and walked off 50 yards, then drew another line in the sand.

He challenged his daughters to a foot race. (Brayden, by far the youngest, isn’t ready for that yet.) Chris beat Hailee by half a step, a pyrrhic victory given the leg pain he would feel the next day. Then he gloated, building a gold-medal podium for himself in the sand and a smaller silver-medal podium for his daughter.

“I become too antagonistic,” Mack admitted. “I love to rub it in, and she didn’t like that.”

This is the new coach of the Cardinals, a man who labels himself “insanely competitive” and wants to surround himself with like-minded people. That’s the shoulder chip Mack brings to the job.

“Every team I coach, I want guys that when they play a teammate one-on-one and they lose, they instantly want to play again,” Mack said. “I don’t want guys who are like, ‘Ah, I didn’t really try,’ or you’re too cool to play one-on-one. I have no problem getting my ass kicked five times in a row and wanting to go a sixth. It can be a word game, a game of one-on-one, a board game with my kids. That’s how I’m wired.”

The ass kickings could come in bulk for Louisville in the years to come, if the NCAA uncertainty continues to make recruiting arduous. But this is what Chris Mack signed up for, betting on himself and believing that a bedrock basketball program will be rebuilt … eventually.

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