CRAWFORD | Mack on the move in first days as Louisville coach, sits down with WDRB
New Louisville coach Chris Mack sat down with WDRB's Eric Crawford and Tom Lane to talk about recruiting, his current roster, his background in basketball and the kind of team people can expect.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Since becoming coach at the University of Louisville, Chris Mack hasn’t had much time to sit still. He stopped long enough on Wednesday to spend about 15 minutes with WDRB News. As with everything these days, he packed quite a bit into a short time.
Over the past six days, he has made the rounds at the Final Four in San Antonio and worked to complete his staff (reports today that former Wake Forest head coach and current ESPN analyst Dino Gaudio has been selected as his third assistant are, Mack said, “a possibility, but I wouldn’t say done. We’re trying to head that way.”)
In the midst of recruiting and assessing and everything else, Mack said Job One has been sitting down with Louisville’s current players and trying to get to know them. Those talks, he said, have been wide-ranging.
“Everything,” Mack said. “From individual player meetings to, ‘Tell me about your experience at Louisville. Why'd you choose Louisville? What don't you like? What do you like?’ To informal sit-downs, to being in the gym with our players to eating dinner with them, breakfast with them, just spending time, having them understand this isn't just about employee-employer, player-coach, I want to get to know them on a different level, and I want the same. I want them to know who I am and what's important to me. It's just takes time. You don't build a relationship in a couple of days, and I think we're heading in the right direction.”
Already, one Cardinal has left the nest. It was no surprise when junior forward Ray Spalding on Tuesday announced that he’ll submit his name for the NBA Draft and will hire an agent, precluding a return to Louisville. It wasn’t a surprise to Mack, either. He said he didn’t get to spend a ton of time with Spalding, but that the two know each other pretty well.
“It's sort of a whirlwind on the day of the press conference,” Mack said. “You get 45 minutes to meet as a team, and I had a few minutes with each player, and because I had known Ray and he'd been on so many different visits to Xavier over the years, I just sort of gave him a nod that I'd be in touch. We texted all that night and the next day, and I really started getting a sense after talking to Ray, after talking to Coach (Mike) Szabo at Trinity, I wasn't surprised, let's put it that way, that he kept his name in the draft, and hoping for really good things for his future.”
What players will learn about Mack is that he’s straightforward. They’ll learn about his own playing career, the impact of two catastrophic knee injuries that effectively ended his career as a player but, unbeknownst to him, launched his career as a coach.
He didn’t grow up the son of a coach or in the midst of an AAU circuit. He played whatever sport was in season, often with his dad, an attorney, finding time to be a coach or assistant coach for his team.
“I wouldn't call him a basketball coach,” Mack said. “I didn't grow up with my dad as my varsity coach, he was just the attorney who said, 'OK, I'll be the baseball assistant,' or 'I'll be the rec league basketball coach.' He was awesome. I don’t remember as much about the skills he taught me. It was more the life lessons of competing, being a good sport, handling winning, handling losing. I looked up to him like every son does to his father, and I'm very, very appreciative the older I get, how much time he spent coaching our various teams, soccer, baseball, basketball teams. For an attorney that has his own practice to do that says a lot about who my dad is.”
When the time came, Mack made an effort to coach his oldest daughter’s basketball team, even as a head coach at Xavier. One game was memorably caught by columnist Gregg Doyell here. But his experiment as third-grade coach at Blessed Sacrament School didn’t last very long.
“I tried to,” Mack said. “I got fired after the first year. It was kind of funny to watch some of the grade school coaches on the other sideline when they beat me, their arms up in the air. It was already hard enough to lose to the Seton Halls and Villanovas of the world, now I'm losing to Mother of Mercy and different grade schools around town.”
Still, Mack’s career began in the girls’ basketball coaching ranks, almost by accident, when his sister’s high school needed a junior varsity coach and Mack happened to be available. He spent four years as a successful varsity coach in Ohio before becoming director of basketball operations under Skip Prosser at Xavier.
“My sister was on a varsity team at McCauley High School, and they were without a JV coach, and the varsity coach said, 'Hey, I know your brother's in town, do you think he'd want to coach JV?' Who the hell wants to coach JV girls' basketball?” Mack said. “But you know, I realized very quickly it was a chance to still be around a team, and there's something special about that. I feel bad for people who play competitive sports their whole life and the only sense of team they may get is the company they work for. It's just not the same. Some companies are, but it's just not the same as the sport you fell in love with, so that's why I've stuck with it. I just can't give it up, and couldn't give it up. I never thought it would be a full-time job. I thought I'd be a guy doing sales calls and then figuring out how to get to a JV or varsity practice later on in the day. But I got lucky.”
Now he’s at Louisville, taking on a challenge of epic proportions, following a Hall of Fame coach who was dismissed after becoming implicated in an FBI investigation into college basketball corruption. Rick Pitino won at a high level at Louisville. The fan base isn’t likely mentally prepared to do otherwise. But Mack inherits a damaged brand that is hoping for his energy and approach to repair it.
One thing Mack is known for is running an open program. His practices at Xavier were open for former players and media. On his website, coaches could get notes on his coaching philosophies, practices and individual plays and offensive sets he ran at Xavier. He has been, from a coaching standpoint, as open a book as you can get. He said he hopes to continue that at Louisville.
“It's just a culmination of my experiences,” Mack said. “No. 1, I was with arguably the best person who’s ever been in the sport in Skip Prosser. And coach was so genuine and so open with his time, open with his practices, and as the years have gone on, it's 2018, there are no secrets. If you don't want somebody to know your plays, they're going to figure them out watching Synergy or getting stuff online. It's just everywhere. So I would rather be more open with that. I'm always trying to learn. Trying to learn new technology, trying to learn new techniques, new programs, you name it. And I think other people are like that. So it's full disclosure here at Louisville. That's just how I've always been. Again, I know that there are a lot more eyes and a lot more ears and a lot more people who are following the program than where I came from, but I don't want that to change who I am and how I operate and how we operate.”
Not that there won’t be changes. Mack will consider putting on a Midnight Madness-type event at Louisville, and wants to introduce other wrinkles as he learns more about the program and the community.
“It's a possibility, but, you know, logistics, how that's seen, what's the tradition that they've had here,” Mack said. “I want to do some things that are different, and things that are new that will bring excitement to the fan base. But to say, ‘Hey these are the changes that are going to be made,’ if I haven't spoken to Vince about them or gotten the history from Kenny, we'll see how things sort of play out. But I can tell you, it was a great event for us at Xavier. We actually waited for a week, it wasn't the beginning of college basketball. I wanted our guys to practice, to have a sense of how we wanted to play, and then I wanted to see them out in front of fans, because if a guy is turning the ball over five or six times in Midnight Madness because he's deer in the headlights, we've got to address that, he's got to get better at it. So that was a way for us to see an audition before it really counted.”
Mack watched Villanova win its second national title in three years with admiration. He also watched it knowing that he coached Xavier to the regular-season championship in the Big East Conference, Villanova’s league. He has had a front-row seat to the ascension of Jay Wright’s program, and has chased its success at Xavier.
“They have a culture that is rarely seen, rarely seen,” Mack said. “They don't have overwhelming talent. Not one of those guys are going to be drafted in the top 5-10 in the draft. Mikal Bridges may be close, but he was a redshirt freshman who was too skinny to play as a true freshman. What they have is a togetherness, a tenaciousness, a culture that Jay has done an amazing job. I think it really starts with high-character kids that care more about, 'how is the team doing,' than 'how am I doing,' something that's hard to get. Envious. But at the same time, we're working in that direction here at Louisville.”
Finding that balance, for Wright, has been about learning which players not to take as much as which players to recruit, Mack said.
“He didn’t build that culture over night,” Mack said. “If you look at his career and the history of his teams, he was going along for a while and got to a Final Four, and then there was a dip. And during that dip, you know, he'll tell you, he took some of the wrong players. . . . You know, now he's taking a kid like Collin Gillespie, who is a little-used freshman this year but he played, I don't know how many Division I scholarship offers he had. Now, make no mistake, you need talent. Jalen Brunson was a McDonald's All-American for a reason. But you have to have, in my opinion, high-character talent, talent that is willing to be coached, and Jay has that, and that's what we're looking to get here at Louisville.”
Mack says he’ll take it in any way, shape or form, as he tries to figure out how best to round out his first Louisville roster; graduate transfers, other transfers, high school players. As he meets with his current players, getting a read on the makeup of the returning group will become easier.
Whatever the case, he knows how he wants to play, and he knows how he wants his Louisville teams to be known.
“I'd like to think that people, when they think of teams I've coached, would think, 'Man those guys are tough.' Both mentally and physically,” Mack said. “I want to make sure that's stamped in here in terms of our culture and how we're perceived. And I don't know if that's been said about the Louisville team here in the last year or two. So that's a big job. But I think that sort of encompasses a lot of other things. We want to be a team that pushes the ball, that does what the game tells us to do on the offensive end. Pushing the ball doesn't mean being reckless and throwing the ball all over the place. Playing together. How we play offensively will be dictated by what our players can do -- putting them in good positions to succeed. Defensively, we want to be primarily a man-to-man team that doesn't take chances, that doesn't take risks, because there's always a risk-reward, for every steal you get, there's always a layup. So we want to be more positional based, and be a tough team to score against and, again, a tough team on the glass. You're going to hear that word a lot -- tough.”
In the meantime, Mack will keep moving. He was on his phone in the minutes leading up to his interview with WDRB in the Yum! Center practice facility, and back on it the moment the interviews ended. As long as he’s moving forward, he’ll find support among fans eager to turn the page.
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