Fewer distractions the better in UofL basketball locker room this season

Not long after Tim Sullivan tweeted about a University of Louisville basketball player not being around, Coach Chris Mack has made the locker room off limits to the media after games. A good move, as far as the Observer is concerned, removing some unnecessary distractions. 

Tim Sullivan and friends lose media access to Louisville basketball locker room (Charlie Springer photo).

Sullivan, a Courier Journal sports columnist, was doing his thing following Chris Mack’s first game as UofL’s head coach — the beginning of what could be an eventful career. Never one to let negative news go to waste, Sullivan was interested in asking V. J. King about some FBI recruiting notes. King wasn’t around, having departed before the media arrived.

Nothing really wrong with asking questions, wanting a quote, it’s what Sullivan does. He thrives on being a cynic, putting people on the defensive, exposing alleged transgressions, pointing out shortcomings, bringing darkness to light. A sports columnist or a frustrated evangelist, take your pick.

To place the blame on Sullivan is probably not fair but he wouldn’t hesitate to point a finger or to cast doubt on other people if he himself wasn’t the most obvious suspect. Always the somber one, a walking thesaurus of doom and gloom.

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Not that it has received any credit but Louisville has for years been one of the few remaining basketball programs allowing media into the locker room. Mack never allowed the media into the locker room when he was at Xavier, never even considered it. Despite misgivings, he tried it for one game in UofL’s opener, only to reverse the policy in the next game.

The sports media is complaining about lack of access, of course. The least of their concerns is a new coach implementing a new system with a new group of players. That’s a group of players facing the toughest schedule in the program’s history. With players in a program that is more likely than not to face NCAA scrutiny in the near future for the screwups of the previous bosses.

There is, in fact, the possibility that this young team is facing a seven-game stretch during which wins will be hard to come by. If the worst were to occur, the last thing a coach need for pundits to be poking around in the locker room after a series of losses. Or following a series of upset wins for that matter.

Mack’s job will be further complicated if and when the NCAA follows up on the FBI’s NCAA accusations. Still another media circus seems inevitable. He has the responsibility of protecting players as much as possible from the gloom emanating from allegations of previous recruiting violations. 

The media will, of course, have plenty to say about the perceived slight. There’s no one around to temper them, to reason with them or to muzzle them for that matter. Complaining attracts readers and viewers, stimulates bitching and arguments, provides fodder for talk shows and such, a never ending cycle. Freedom of the press, yes, but don’t ever expect the media to self-impose any limits.

While one can understand the media’s desire to get unfettered access to the players, there’s an equally strong case to be made for Chris Mack wanting to protect his players. Here’s a vote for his taking charge of the situation, doing what he thinks is in the best long-term interest of his team. 

A very long season is looming for Louisville basketball. The fewer distractions in the locker room the better.

Ed Peak: Succeeding the Godfather comes easy for Chris Mack

Cindy Rice Shelton photo

No light show. No banter. No saluting “The Godfather” of Louisville men’s basketball. Chris Mack walked onto Denny Crum court at the KFC Yum with his assistant coaches before their exhibition game with Bellarmine with little fanfare.

No pomp or circumstance. Just Coach Mack. You might have an idea that I didn’t care for coach Rick Pitino’s grand entrances. “Oh, your kicking a guy while he’s down.” Or, “It’s a part of college basketball’s pageantry.”

I’m saying Mack is a regular guy. Less ego. Easier to deal with. He’s already proven that with his Twitter feeds day and night. Fans love it. It’s the wave of the future. Pitino has one now, too.

There was never a man or woman in the University of Louisville press room that wasn’t on guard, particularity after a Cardinals’ loss, anxious that Pitino would explode after a question he didn’t feel had merit.

Yes, the sports media has reporters that have their own their own agenda. I’m sure in my years of reporting I’ve asked some doozies. I understand there is a lot of pressure on coaches and players, especially after a tough loss.

But don’t make things worse. I know some journalists will persist. Some should, others should not. Coaches are going to tell you what they want you to know. Most everything has a smoke screen anyway. I’ve always thought the facts support themselves.

Louisville struggled to beat a good Bellarmine team, especially in the first half, but did win. After the game it took Mack about 20 minutes or so before he arrived in the press room.

“I apologize for being late, the Bengals were kicking a field goal to win the game,” said Mack who drew laughter from the assembled media. “I have no problem with that. Or do I have a problem with Pitino who would watch the end of Minnesota’s games that his son coaches.

I’m sure coaches and players don’t appreciate the media second guessing every move they make. I could only imagine after a two plus hour basketball game of running jumping and having someone yell at you asking “Why didn’t you block out, or you ran the wrong way off the screen,” gets old.
Then comes the questioning from these so-called experts who never played the game, much less sprinted up and down a basketball court 45 to 50 times during the game.

So when Mack walked on the floor for his first time as UofL head coach what did he feel? “For the first four minutes when we didn’t have a basket, I wanted to go sit up I the stands with my wife and kids,” said Mack.

“No. It’s special I’ve said that any time I’ve interviewed. It’s one of the reason I’m sitting here before you guys how much this means to all of college basketball and certainly to the Louisville community and the University.”

I think it does mean a lot to Mack. He left his alma mater, Xavier, and Louisville basketball is somewhere in the top 10 or even top five of college basketball’s pecking order. “I coach with a lot of pride,” said Mack.

Mack remembered an exhibition game coaching against Bellarmine and coach Scott Davenport in 2010. His Xavier team led by 10 points at halftime only to lose to the Knights at the Cintas Center, 63-61.

“We lost to Bellarmine in nearly the same circumstances (as last Sunday),”said Mack. “They evaporated that lead and our guys didn’t play well that day. Most important thing is learning from it and moving forward.”

Davenport’s son, Doug, coached at Xavier in 2012 where he earned his Masters degree. He knows what Louisville fans should expect.
“I think what people will get from coach is they will become a very, very sound basketball team,” said Davenport. “A team you have to beat that won’t beat themselves. More games are lost than are outright won when you beat someone. More often or not one team loses.

“He’ll get his team so solid where you will have to beat them and that’s difficult to do. That’s difficult to do. Now I look at the polls and I just shake my head. Whoo, it is difficult.”

Now I know Mack is probably going to have his moments where he is unhappy with his team and the media, fans, etc. But one thing for sure. No more pomp and circumstance from The Godfather.

Expect Chris Mack to thrive but with no help from schedule

Cindy Rice Shelton photo

Nobody in their right mind believes the job is going to be easy for Chris Mack at the University of Louisville. He has already proven, however, that he’s fearless,  ready to tackle challenges that would have sent lesser individuals ducking for cover. 

Taking the UofL job even though the program was in the first year of a four-year probationary period with the NCAA. Taking it despite the fact that UofL was in the crosshairs of an FBI investigation. Taking it though he would be staring down the barrel of still another NCAA inquisition in the not-too-distant future.

Chris Mack knows what he's up against, just as he did when he first accepted the Louisville job.

There’s no way of predicting when the NCAA will act, and when it does, how the organization will deal with the basketball program. Despite the fact that University has replaced its president, athletic director and head basketball coach since then, the governing body could still come down hard on UofL.

Expecting the NCAA to recognize everything the school has done to transform itself would be an exercise in futility. Oversight committees generally  consist of academic bureaucrats and conflicted attorneys eager to show how tough they can be, especially with schools who make the investigations so easy for them.

The specter of harsh penalties possibly hanging over the program had fans and pundits predicting that it would be next to impossible to recruit blue chip talent to Louisville. A frequent refrain among UofL partisans was to encourage fellow fans to enjoy the current level of talent because it would take years for UofL to get back in the chase.

Then there was the notion of succeeding a man some considered a legend before all the scandals caught up with him. Rick Pitino is one of the best college basketball coaches ever, winning national championships at two different schools and taking three different schools to the final four. Equally impressive, spawning a coaching tree that has included more than 40 head coaches.

Not an easy decision for any of the above reasons. Chris Mack admitted, however, the Louisville job was “a new and unique challenge that I could not turn down.” Not with UofL’s long and storied tradition, a loyal fan base with an extraordinary level of passion, and so many resources, including sparkling new athletic facilities. A $4 million annual salary and a seven-year contract didn’t hurt either.

Mack has quickly earned high levels of respect from UofL fans for his willingness to take the job. But he has also endeared himself to former players and coaches, wanting them to be a part of the program, encouraging them to attend practices. He and his wife Christi recently hosting many of them at his new Louisville home.  Something that never happened during Pitino’s 11 seasons.

The 49-year-old UofL coach has been equally impressive on the recruiting trail, with a class that currently includes five 4-star players among the six recruits. At last check, the 2019 Louisville class was ranked No. 1 in the nation — something that never ever happened during Pitino’s tenure.

Now comes the tough part, with the beginning of the 2018-19 season starting next week. The schedule is probably the strongest ever for a Louisville team, with a slate that includes seven of college basketball top 10 all-time winningest teams. And with a roster still heavily loaded with players from last season’s 22-14 team.

Not the best conditions for his debut, Mack is faced with the toughest schedule in the nation. There’s a steep learning curve ahead, and the likelihood of more valleys than peaks for a roster that has only 10 scholarship players.  

Chris Mack knows what he’s up against, just as he did when he first accepted the Louisville job. Based on his performance thus far, however, this observer expects the new UofL coach to continue exceeding all expectations. Enjoy the ride.

Mending wounds of old friends important to healing at UofL

One of the great things about the growth of the University of Louisville over the past couple of decades was that one always felt like he or she was an integral part of helping to transform UofL from a sleepy urban school to a dynamic and growing university.

It hurt and hurt deeply when some of the architects of that movement, the people in leadership roles, the people one got to know so well, the people one respected as friends and visionaries, were unceremoniously dismissed despite of what they had accomplished at UofL.

'They really didn’t care (about the loss in donations). UofL in the Atlantic Coast Conference became a crown jewel; they wanted it and they got it.'

Not surprising that some influential individuals in the community would want to exercise control over the University. Not surprising either that many supporters want to keep an arm’s length from people who forced  change, sometimes traumatic, upon the institution.

Dr. Bob Hughes, former chairman of the UofL Board of Trustees and the UofL Foundation, often indicated that the “wine and cheese crowd in the East End” was behind the upheaval at the school, wanting their own people in charge. 

“That was the goal from day one when they came on,” he told Card Game in a recent email. “It is only becoming more obvious with time; however, the delta on donations from the negativity it took to take control is about $50 million annually in donations to the foundation. They really didn’t care. UofL in the Atlantic Coast Conference became a crown jewel, they wanted it and they got it.”

With the Board of Trustees now under the thumb of J. David Grissom, a financial advisor to many of the community’s wealthiest families, Hughes’ theory definitely has credibility, even given all the charges of financial mismanagement and malfeasance that has been alleged. There’s no denying that UofL is now under much different oversight.

Not that that is necessarily a bad thing. Getting the community’s blue bloods invested in the future of the school would be a very positive development. Opening up new relationships and even deeper purses may be just what the University of Louisville needs to achieve higher levels of excellence. Some have criticized the school’s success in athletics, believing it may have impacted UofL’s lack of respect in academic circles. Some believed Tom Jurich’s fundraising success in athletics was crippling contributions to academics. Ironic coming from John Schnatter, who pledged $19 million in Papa John’s stock to UofL athletics.

The board most prominent recent hire, that of Neeli Bendapudi as the school’s 18th President, appears to have been a master stroke. She’s an individual with a successful track record of fundraising at the University of Kansas. But equally important, she seems to have the ability to communicate effectively with people from all walks of life. Plus, she has indicated that she very much wants UofL’s success in athletics to continue.

It’s going to take a while for Vince Tyra to  be loved by Louisville fans as much as Tom Jurich. But Tyra has been effective in retaining successful coaches and unquestionably wants UofL athletics to continue competing at the highest levels. Consider the school fortunate to have such an individual eager to step up when UofL needed him most.

Chris Mack, the new UofL basketball coach, is the exact opposite of Rick Pitino in many ways. But like Pitino he’s certainly not bashful when it comes to challenges while acknowledging the Louisville job and fan base as among the best in the nation.

Even some of the board’s most ardent critics have admitted that these hires were great choices, giving many of them second thoughts about the motivations of some board members. Could it be that the old money crowd actually knows what it’s doing, cares about the school and wants UofL to pursue even higher aspirations?

The people currently in control have had much to deal with over the past two years, making some difficult decisions. They’ve done it in a difficult environment, and their decisions have not always been popular.  Be they business or civic leaders, they are responsible to putting UofL back on the right path to respectability and prosperity.

Grissom recently decided the board, having successfully dealt with many of the school’s issues, would no longer have to meet monthly, going back to the old schedule of meeting quarterly. That’s another good sign, indicating that the Board of Trustees has high levels of trust in Neeli Bendapudi’s leadership abilities.

Now with so many of the problems in the past, the University can begin to restore many of the relationships that made the progress possible in the past two decades. Bendapudi may be the right person in the right place at the right time, with her unique ability to relate to the old money crowd and the everyday fan and supporter.

Time to look forward again, this time with a deeper base of support.

Let the Chris Mack era begin at Louisville

While acknowledging some issues, Chris Mack chooses to look forward at Louisville (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

All the flack endured by the University of Louisville over the past couple of years was unfortunate but none of the issues did anything to dampen Chris Mack’s admiration of the UofL basketball program. His respect was such that he would leave his hometown and give up a nine-year coaching stint at his alma mater to take charge at Louisville.

Three-year-old Brayden vied with the press with his father’s attention during Chris Mack’s introductory press conference at the University of Louisville (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

“This is an awesome and exciting day for me and my family, the opportunity of a lifetime,” he told the crowd of approximately 350 people at his introductory press conference at the KFC Yum! Center. “Standing here before you representing a school that has had two permanent basketball coaches since 1971., two hall of fame coaches, multiple final fours, multiple national championships, and multiple All-Americans … “

The new UofL coach was accompanied on the stage by his wife Christi, his daughters, Hailee, 11, and Lainee (12). His 3-year-old son Brayden also was there but not long, wandering the back of the meeting room where he was heavily pre-occupied with  Play Doh.

Former UofL Coach Denny Crum tells Chris Mack that he made a good decision to move his family to Louisville (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

If Mack sounded like someone living the dream, it was because he has long admired UofL basketball. “I told the UofL players it was not easy to leave a situation in which less than 24 hours ago I was in another locker room with another group of players with a lot of tears,” he said. “To leave Xavier to come here, this place had to be pretty special. And it is, very special.”

Chris Mack became Vince Tyra’s first major hire since assuming athletic director responsibilities at UofL (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

Sharing his enthusiasm is his wife, the former Christi Hester, who grew up in the Louisville area. She was runner-up for Miss Kentucky Basketball as a senior at Holy Cross High School in 1996.  Runner-up to Jaime Richey, the sister of Jeff Walz, who coaches the UofL women’s basketball team.

During his nine-year tenure at Xavier University, Mack was considered a candidate for some other major coaching jobs, but chose not to leave. “Some people say, ‘Why go there (to Louisville?). He’s crazy’. I have never been afraid of a challenge. I faced a lot of adversity during my playing years (including ACL injuries in both knees).  It was a tough decision but in my heart I knew it was the right decision.”

Mack said it was not his job to look backwards but to look forward.  “I told these guys (the UofL players) that this is my final stop,” he said. “I’m never going to coach at another university, not in the NBA, or in high school. I can’t wait to get started.”