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.