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.

Basketball just can’t wait for college football season

The unveiling of a new University of Louisville basketball schedule inevitably brings mixed feelings for this observer. The schedule release always occurs early in September, diverting attention away from the college football season only three weeks into the schedule.

When Rick Pitino was here, the schedule always seemed to be announced just a couple of days before the opening football game. Seemingly intentional timing, like someone wanting to remind local fans of the most worshipped sport in Louisville, football be damned.

 Probably has something to do with the fact that the city and the state have never enjoyed sustained success in football, the sports fanatics having little choice but basketball for any notoriety. And why state schools, including UofL, despite some notable achievements in football, are still considered “basketball schools.”

Not necessarily a bad thing, despite the taint swirling around college basketball these days, FBI investigations and such. But lack of overall success in football can detract from a school’s overall national reputation. UofL football was close to breaking through the perceived barrier a couple of years ago before its offensive line collapsed, knocking the program out of contention for the college football playoffs. 

It has always taken this observer three or four weeks into the schedule to get over football and get excited about basketball.  The transition could take even longer this year with the opening exhibition game against Bellarmine coming three days before Halloween.  The earlier part of the schedule also will include no names like Nicholls State, Southern, Central Arkansas, Kent State and Robert Morris.

For some reason, someone at the NCAA believes the college basketball season should start earlier and earlier every year. The Cardinals will already be playing teams like Tennessee, Michigan State, and Kansas or Marquette by the end of November. The NCAA as an organization does not own college football like it does basketball, and apparently wants to milk the sport for every possible dollar.

Among the good things on the UofL basketball schedule is the fact that the Cardinals aren’t playing Kentucky on New Year’s Eve this year, with that game set for Saturday, Dec. 29th. Also nice that slackers like Pittsburgh and Boston College are each on the schedule twice this year. Louisville will also play two games against North Carolina.

The bad news is UofL also plays Virginia twice again this season, with games at home and on the road. Never good to see the Cavaliers as the final game of the regular season, especially at Charlottesville. By then, however, college basketball will have captured our full attention, having gradually worked it way back to becoming the center of the sports universe. 

2018-19 University of Louisville basketball schedule

Mickey Clark constant companion at numerous UofL Final Fours

Back in 1982, the  family made the 12-hour trek to New Orleans for the second Final Four appearance in three years for University of Louisville basketball team.  Along with many other fans, as part of a caravan some of the way, enjoying the UofL camaraderie, genuinely fun times.

Mickey Clark was a constant companion for many UofL fans on NCAA trips.

Much of the time we were entertained by the music of Louisville’s own Mickey Clark, a country entertainer who composed and recorded his own version of “The Battle of New Orleans.” A musical tribute  to the 1981-82 basketball team, recapping the highlights while saluting the individual players.

The Springers arrive at a motel about 80 miles away on a Friday night before the game. Sleeping late the next day, only to realize that New Orleans is on central standard time. Pushing the gas pedal to the floor, arriving in the vicinity of the Super Bowl to discover there are no parking spaces. Panic stricken the observer winding up in the main U.S. Post Office parking lot, very close to the unloading level. Have to gamble that the car will still be there after the game.

We hustle over to the Superdome, finding our seats on the next last row in of the upper end zone for the Louisville-Georgetown game. Somehow making the tip off. Thankfully there’s a video screen above because the players are little more than specks on the floor.  UofL would lose the game 50-46. All was not lost, however, because the car was still in the same place after the game. And the Cards will return to the Final Four, held in Albuquerque the next year.

Mickey’s cassette tape will be played and replayed, before, during and on the return trip to Louisville. His music an integral part of the memories and the total experience. He would come out with numerous different recordings for various basketball trips over the next 30 years, including the UofL’s third national championship in the 2012-13 season.

Clark passed away Sunday night in Louisville, surrounded by his family. He will always occupy a special place in the hearts of many UofL fans.

Other music is available on Brennan Clark’s (his son) YouTube account.