LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The entourage had arrived, but the centerpiece of the group was missing.
Friends and relatives of Chris Mack rolled in to Rooster’s restaurant late last Wednesday night for the usual postgame ritual: bar food, beer and a lot of laughs. They took a dozen chairs near the Christmas tree in the sports bar on the north end of this city, a place with 25 TVs interspersed between bipartisan wall trappings—some Louisville, some Kentucky. A Secretariat poster is probably the only thing in the place that every patron can agree on.
But where was Chris?
The answer dropped into phones a few minutes later in the form of a picture: Mack, still in the suit he wore on the sideline of the Yum Center earlier in the evening, was pushing a car that had run out of gas. He was alongside his agent, Jason Charney, and childhood friend Kevin Barnett, the trio putting some muscle behind the vehicle of a random stranger. They pushed the car about half a mile to a gas station in 25 degree weather, then walked back to the bar and arrived with sweat shining on their foreheads and smiles creasing their faces.
The Christmas spirit was alive and well. And the car owner had no idea that a guy who might be the biggest deal in the city had helped him out near midnight on a frigid night.
The previous full-time coach of the Cardinals is a charismatic and generous guy. But the idea of Rick Pitino pushing a stalled car through the streets of Louisville is about as realistic as him wearing cutoffs on the sideline during a game.
Blue-collar Chris is a different guy. The kind of guy who will get his hands dirty. The kind of guy who is far less likely to be found drinking an expensive bottle of wine in an upscale restaurant—Pitino’s hangout was Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse downtown—and far more likely to be drinking a Miller Lite in a sports bar.
After almost every home game, Mack and his posse can be found in exactly that kind of venue. Rooster’s has become the go-to choice this season. Among the group on this night: Louisville athletic director Vince Tyra and his wife, Lori; Mack’s parents, Tom and Bonnie; his in-laws, Danny and Debbie Hester; and his wife, Christi.
This has been a regular ritual for most of Mack’s coaching career, dating to his time as an assistant to Sean Miller at Xavier from 2004-09. (Although, back then, Miller was known to order postgame staff film sessions if the Musketeers didn’t play very well—that can kill a party before it happens.) Mack continued it when it was the head coach at Xavier, with the go-to spot a place called Longnecks Sports Bar across the Ohio River in Northern Kentucky.
“It’s just kind of a tradition for us,” Christi said. “He has a lot of friends and support, and this is his chance to spend time with them.”
The game that night was a late tipoff to suit the needs of the fledgling ACC Network, an 8:30 p.m. start against Miami (Ohio). After flailing for about 30 minutes, Louisville hit its stride late and wound up burying the RedHawks, 70-46.
That raised the Cardinals’ record to 11-1, their best 12-game start since Pitino’s last season in 2016-17, heading into a 10-day break that includes a brief holiday trip home for the players. So the mood is buoyant when everyone arrives at Rooster’s—which had a midnight closing hour but extended service to 1:30 a.m. to accommodate the group.
But everyone in the Mack party knows what’s looming next: a trip to rival and nemesis Kentucky Saturday. The Wildcats have won six of the last seven in the series, and the Cards haven’t won in Lexington since 2008. Last time they were there, they lost by 29.
In case anyone needed one more reminder: when Mack arrived at near-empty Rooster’s, 22 of the 25 TVs are tuned to Kentucky’s late game in Las Vegas against Utah. Not that Mack initially paid much attention to Big Blue. The two things foremost on his mind were food and fellowship.
“This is just my way to unwind,” Mack said, sprinkling salt into his beer. “When people come into town for games, this is my chance to talk to them. Before the game I’m focused on coaching.”
Pregame, the 49-year-old wants to keep his mind as uncluttered as possible. That includes not thinking about what to eat. It’s the same every time: a turkey sandwich with cheddar cheese.
Louisville switched caterers for its pregame meal this season, Mack’s second on the job, and the spread before the first game was nice: salmon, asparagus, pasta. The coach’s response: “I don’t see any cold cuts.”
So he didn’t eat. By the next game, there were cold cuts (specifically, turkey) on the buffet.
The postgame ritual had been chicken wings, but Mack is trying to be more health-conscious.
“I’ve gotten a little soft,” he said.
So the order last week was naked chicken tenders with “the hottest hot sauce you’ve got” on the side. Mack wasn’t soft while thoroughly dunking his chicken into the hot stuff.
The conversation, meanwhile, was notably free of postgame Louisville analysis. Chris and Christi kidded each other about which was the better basketball player—Christi was runner-up for Miss Basketball in Kentucky, then scored more than 1,200 points collegiately at Dayton. They also joked about who was going to get up early and get the kids—teenage daughters Lainee and Hailee, and 5-year-old son Brayden—off to school. (Christi regularly draws that duty.)
Mack had thoughts on Louisville’s performance playing on a quiet loop in the back of his mind, but not coming out of his mouth.
“You’re constantly thinking about what we could have done better,” he said. “I’m thinking about a few specific plays. I went over the box score pretty thoroughly. That will be the focus tomorrow, then we put that game away.”
At the moment, the focus was a quick FaceTime call with Christi to the girls at home. (They checked in on homework and studying for finals, then Christi chastised them for eating Ramen in bed.) Eventually, attention turned to the game on the overhead TVs and the score ticker running underneath.
“I’m a junkie,” Mack said. “I watch every score.”
He chattered about almost every score that ran on the ticker, not to mention college football and the NFL. There was an animated discussion of the Saint Mary’s-Arizona State game, in which Sun Devils reserve Alonzo Verge somehow scored 43 of his team’s 56 points in a blowout loss.
When it came to Utah-Kentucky, one of the few things Mack had to say was noting the venue.
“This is where Conor McGregor boxed Floyd Mayweather,” he said.
Any thoughts he had on the upcoming opponent—THE opponent to Louisville fans—remained unspoken. When Utah finished off its upset of Kentucky, Tyra signed the bill and the party shoved off.
For a brief window of time on a cold December night, Chris Mack was just another guy in Louisville—pushing a stalled car, eating chicken, drinking beer, talking sports. There would be Miami (Ohio) film to break down in the morning, and then onward to the game that matters most to Cardinals fans.