CRAWFORD | For a Louisville program under a cloud, Mack's arrival brings clarity
On the day he was introduced as University of Louisville basketball coach, Chris Mack said, "It's tie to turn the page and build something special once again."
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – All I know is this. When I arrived at the KFC Yum! Center for Chris Mack’s introduction as coach on Wednesday afternoon, the Ohio River was covered in a thick fog. You could just barely see the banks in Indiana as the Second Street Bridge disappeared into it.
By the time Mack finished talking, the fog had lifted and river was clear.
With any luck, that means something. With any luck, the clouds that have enveloped this program, the pride of a city, for the past several years are breaking up. If you squint, maybe you can see the faint outlines of the other side.
That’s what this day was, as much as anything.
“I know these past few months have been incredibly difficult,” Mack told a group of supporters and former players assembled. “They say the darkest clouds elicit the brightest lightning bolts. That lightning bolt is not me. It’s these guys.”
At that, Mack pointed at the Louisville players, standing against a wall at the side of the room.
Then he went on, “It’s time to turn the page and start building something special once again. I urge you, fill the Yum! Give these guys a chance. Let’s get this place rocking. I want you to take pride in your city and your team. My promise won’t come in wins and in banners, it will come in the sense that I will work my ass off every single day to make you proud of Louisville basketball.”
That is what is known in the business as the money line. It’s a line that drew spontaneous applause. It resonated. It’s a fan base that wants to be proud again. It’s a fan base that is proud of a great deal of what the program accomplished despite some of the unfortunate things that happened.
“It’s not my job to be the guy that looks backward,” Mack said. “I wasn’t here when a lot of the things transpired and written about, and I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t believe this place could shine once again. . . . My job isn’t to look back, it’s to look forward and I am excited about that. If I thought it was too overwhelming to do, then I wouldn’t have come.”
It’s a fan base that badly wants to feel good again, even if a dark cloud still hangs over the program from a federal college basketball corruption probe that still is under way.
But for a day, a new voice in a storied position helped them, maybe, glimpse the other side.
No group in the build was more relieved, however, than the players.
“I am happy, I’m excited, to get a coach that knows me, that knows how I play,” said freshman Darius Perry, one of several freshmen recruited by Mack, along with Malik Williams and Jordan Nwora.
Asked if he thought the freshman class would stick together at Louisville, Perry said, “I definitely think so. We all definitely like playing together, so knowing that we’ve got a good coach to coach us makes everything better. . . . We all just breathed a sigh of relief. We’re happy he got chosen as the coach and we’re looking forward to the season.”
Williams, asked if he plans to return next season, said, “Yes, I do. I believe these guys will stick it out. There was some worry about some of the guys, I had a little worry about myself. But now I believe that all 12 or 13 guys are locked in.”
Others spoke with less certainty. Ray Spalding and Deng Adel ducked out before doing interviews. But if Mack can hold the freshmen together, that’s a big start. Mack had a head start, because he already had met most of them, and recruited more than a few.
“I told these guys about a half hour ago, and I think a couple of them will start shaking their heads, I recruited about half of them,” Mack said. “And if they wouldn’t come to me at Xavier, I told them you’re stuck with me, I’m just going to come to you. There will be no, ‘Those are Pitino’s guys vs. Mack guys.’ I chose this group. You guys are my guys. I’m going to work every day to make you better, to make us better, to make Louisville basketball better. I see my job as a head coach as keeping the standard high, not lowering the standard when it is not met. It’s not going to be easy. I want our team and our players to be tough, together and unbreakable.”
Mack touched all the bases. He joked with Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum. Before taking the job, he called former coach Rick Pitino twice, and said Pitino was “awesome. He had nothing but great things to say about the city of Louisville, Louisville basketball, the players he recruited and his support of me.” He called former interim coach David Padgett Wednesday morning, and praised the job Padgett did, saying he, “did it with class, with integrity, and with putting players first.”
To the former players in the crowd and those watching on television, he issued an open invitation to practice.
“I want each of you to know, there are no different eras,” Mack said. “This is Louisville basketball and you are the part in making it what it is today.”
As for the nuts-and-bolts of the job, Mack said he’ll schedule meetings with current players. He’ll speak with their parents. He’ll put a staff in place. He said that in terms of recruiting, he’s been recruiting Louisville players for a long time, he just couldn’t get them all to Xavier.
“We went after a number of guys that ended up here,” Mack said. “So I don’t know how much of a profile we’ll change in terms of type of player that we want here at Louisville. I just think we’ll be able to get a few more of them. . . . I want guys that are very versatile, want players who are competitive, tough. . . . But I’m not naive. It will take a special person, a special family, to believe in this place just like I did.”
Today, that’s what fans of this place wanted. They wanted to reason to believe. Everything else will come later.
Mack can’t win games tomorrow. He can’t fix anything that has happened. He can just go to work. He can get out and interact with people. His wife, Christi, talked about her ties to Louisville. Her family was in the room, as were Mack’s parents. His daughters sat on the stage in Cardinal red. His 3-year-old son Braydon ran around the room in a little pair of adidas sneakers.
Everything about it was new. And by the time Mack was greeting people at the end, the landscape outside was clear. For this program, there may yet be rough waters ahead. Nobody expects clear sailing. But maybe the bridge out of these long, dark days really does lead out of them.
At the very least, maybe it will lead out of the fog and uncertainty.
On Day 1 for Chris Mack, it seemed possible.
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