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The Chris Mack Era Was a Surprising Failure. Who Can Louisville Turn to Now?

With pending NCAA sanctions still hanging over the program’s head, the Cardinals’ candidate list will be fascinating.

Chris Mack arrived at scandal-racked Louisville as a proven coaching commodity considered capable of both calming the chaos and restoring the prominence of a powerhouse. He leaves having added more to the tumult than the trophy case, a failure few saw coming in the optimistic days of 2018.

The school and Mack will make their parting official and immediate Wednesday. Tuesday was for hashing out the details, most notably how much of his buyout he’ll receive—it likely will be less than half of the $12 million that he could have been owed. He leaves having coached 99 games at the school, recording a winning record but becoming the tradition-steeped program’s first full-time coach since World War II to have won nothing of note.

No conference titles. No conference tournament titles, or even so much as a semifinal appearance. No NCAA tournament victories. Every season got worse as it went along.

Louisville coach Chris Mack

Mack went 62–37 at Louisville.

And the bad headlines kept coming instead of stopping. Mack was hardly a leader in COVID-19 awareness, his team losing blowouts after coming off two long pauses during the 2020–21 season. Then there was the Dino Gaudio affair, which added another baroque and bewildering chapter to Louisville’s succession of eccentric scandals.

While this season quickly became an untenable debacle, the destabilization began months before practice began. When Louisville missed the NCAA tournament last March, Mack hit the panic button and detonated his staff, with disastrous consequences for all involved.

Firing longtime friend and mentor Gaudio resulted in a furious backlash from Gaudio, including a threatening conversation that Mack chose to record and turn in to the administration. That set in motion an FBI investigation that resulted in extortion charges for Gaudio, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation. It also resulted in Louisville admitting to NCAA violations and slapping Mack with a six-game suspension to start the season.

At a school still mired in a major NCAA investigation, the last thing Louisville needed was another set of compliance problems. While the violations under Mack pale in comparison to strippers in the dorm and a six-figure deal for a recruit, they still added fuel to a fire the Cardinals have been desperately trying to contain. Using impermissible staff members in practice could be considered Level II violations, which would trigger dismissal for cause in Mack’s contract.

Ultimately, though, Mack’s fireable offense was embarking upon his fourth season at the school with the worst Louisville team in more than two decades. The current Cardinals are 11–9 and have lost five of their last six, none of them to teams ranked in the Ken Pomeroy top 50. Louisville’s first losing record since 2000–01, Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum’s final season, seems inevitable.

Coming out of the 2021 season, Mack threw together a staff that flopped and a roster that failed to coalesce. Assistant coach Ross McMains arrived with an international résumé and a reputation as an offensive tactician; the Cardinals currently rank 185th nationally in offensive efficiency, the worst ranking the program has ever had in Ken Pomeroy’s 25-year-old metrics. And a team with seven newcomers has exhibited a palpable lack of chemistry and camaraderie.

Ultimately, this feels a little like football coach Rich Rodriguez’s tenure at Michigan, where a proven winner (Rodriguez at West Virginia, Mack at Xavier) unexpectedly turns out to be a bad fit. In both cases, coaches who were confident and competent in less-pressurized jobs quickly showed their insecurities. When things began to go bad, they didn’t have the ability to turn the tide and stop the program slide. In terms of administrative and booster support, they found themselves alone in the fox hole.

Now Louisville heads into a coaching search that is complicated and risky.

Start with instability that is plaguing the university from the top down: There is no full-time president and no full-time athletic director, with both of those people leaving the school in December. The favorite buzzword in coaching today is “alignment,” meaning a shared vision between a head coach and the school’s leadership. It’s impossible for the next Louisville coach to know what alignment would even look like, since he doesn’t know as of this moment whom his bosses will be.

Then there is the NCAA cloud that has hovered over Louisville for more than six straight years, from when the stripper scandal broke in the fall of 2015 until now. A major infractions case is languishing in the dead letter office that is the NCAA’s Independent Accountability Review Process, for several more months at least. What star coach wants to dive into the job with a hammer of unknown size and weight poised to fall on the program?

Yes, a contract can be constructed that gives extra years to offset any postseason bans. (Mack had one of those himself, and never got to see things through to the point of knowing what Louisville’s fate would be.) And if the first IARP case to be decided—North Carolina State—is any indication, maybe there is leniency at the end of the tunnel. But Louisville also has the repeat violator status that could thrust it into a realm of more severe sanctions.

Despite all that, this is a Cadillac job. Louisville will be good because it has a fan base that demands it be good, passionate enough to fill 22,000 seats and produce the most revenue of any basketball program in the country for many of the past several decades. And it will pay something very near top dollar for the right person.

So we are about to find out how much the Louisville brand has been battered vs. its potential to withstand scandal and eventually return to heavyweight status. The candidate list will be fascinating.

An early Louisville fan favorite who would seem to stand no chance is Auburn’s Bruce Pearl. This is a school under a massive compliance microscope; hiring a coach who has been sanctioned twice in the last 11 years ain’t happening.

Same goes for Rick Pitino, despite the wizardry he is currently performing (again) at Iona. That’s a nonstarter, as is rehiring former athletic director Tom Jurich.

Kenny Payne will get some ardent backing. Currently an assistant coach with the New York Knicks, formerly an assistant at bitter rival Kentucky, but before that a star player for the Cardinals’ 1986 national championship team, Payne checks several boxes. One of the most significant ones: A program with a sizable Black fan base and a proud history of integration on the court has never had a Black head basketball coach or athletic director.

Matt Painter is in his 17th season at his alma mater, Purdue. Life is great there, but he flirted hard with leaving for Missouri once—and this could be the time to find out whether he wants to spend the rest of his career in one place.

Mick Cronin is poised to have a decade of elite teams at UCLA. But he’s also a Cincinnati guy, which is a mere 100 miles from Louisville, and a former assistant at U of L under Pitino. The guess here is that he wouldn’t be interested, but it’s worth asking the question.

Others who could be of interest: Wake Forest’s Steve Forbes, BYU’s Mark Pope, Ohio State’s Chris Holtmann, Seton Hall’s Kevin Willard, Connecticut’s Danny Hurley, Murray State’s Matt McMahon, Cincinnati’s Wes Miller.

But here is one more name to keep in mind, if Louisville is looking for a program steward who would invest in shepherding the Cardinals through the current NCAA uncertainty and leave the place better than he inherited it: Scott Davenport of Bellarmine.

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He’s the ultimate local, a Louisville native and alum who coached under both Crum and Pitino. But he has substance beyond familiarity, having won a Division II national championship at Bellarmine, a small Catholic school a few miles from the Louisville campus, and having guided that program into Division I with stunning results. In their first two seasons at this level, when newbies usually are getting their brains beaten in, Davenport’s Knights are 25–17 and 15–4 in the Atlantic Sun.

He just turned 66, so he’s not a 10-year answer. But if Louisville cannot land a big name and needs a proven coach willing to be the bridge from scandalous present to prosperous future, Scott Davenport could be the guy.

Surprisingly, Chris Mack never was that guy. A seemingly great hire dissolved with startling speed, leaving chaos-addicted Louisville still searching for stability.

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