Commentary

Xavier might just have a keeper this time

With Chris Mack, a mid-major power turns to one of its own to keep the winning going

Originally Published: May 15, 2009
By Brian Bennett | ESPN.com

CINCINNATI -- Never heard of Chris Mack?

Don't fret.

Unless you're a hard-core basketball insider or a longtime Xavier fan, you probably don't know much about the Musketeers' new head coach.

[+] EnlargeChris Mack
Frank Victores/US PresswireAfter Sean Miller (foreground) left for Arizona, Xavier turned to his top assistant for the top job.

All you need to know is that he must be a good coach, because Xavier hired him.

Look at the school's track record on this stuff. The past four men tapped to lead this program were Pete Gillen, Skip Prosser, Thad Matta and Sean Miller. Talk about a coach-hiring grand slam.

"Xavier doesn't make mistakes," Miller said.

That quartet has something else in common, though: Each one left for allegedly greener pastures. Gillen went to Providence, Prosser moved to Wake Forest, Matta took the Ohio State job and Miller bolted for Arizona in April.

That history is something of a sore point for Xavier fans, who feel their program is too big and too accomplished to remain a launching pad into the coaching carousel. That's why they're hoping the 39-year-old Mack is something more than just the latest shrewd personnel decision. Maybe Mack -- a Cincinnati guy and former Musketeers player who served two terms on the basketball staff, including the past five as Miller's right-hand man -- can win big and stick around for the long haul.

"There's every reason to believe that there may be a different dynamic here than we've had before," said Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski, who hired Matta and helped bring Miller to campus. "And that would be great with me."

Mack doesn't fit the profile of a mere ladder-climber. Just 10 years ago, he was coaching a high school girls' team. Most of his professional life since then has revolved around finding a way to lead his alma mater.

"We'd always joke as assistant coaches that you'll see a guy in the gym wearing a polo one day, and two weeks later the same guy is wearing a different school logo polo," Mack said. "He might be a great recruiter, but what is he really selling?

"For me, I firmly believe in this place. I recognize that I'm fortunate to be the head coach here. I really am."

His timing could hardly be better, either. Mack might well inherit the best roster of any first-time head coach in America. The Musketeers lost only two seniors off last year's NCAA Sweet 16 team and add Indiana transfer Jordan Crawford. Forward Derrick Brown is testing the NBA draft waters but has not hired an agent. If he comes back to school, Xavier could be a preseason top-10 team.

Mack vividly remembers the Musketeers' first-ever win in the NCAA tournament. After the Byron Larkin-led 1987 team upset Missouri in the first round, Mack and friends drove to Indianapolis, bought tickets from a scalper and sat in the top row of the Hoosier Dome to watch Xavier's second-round loss to Duke.

He was a high school sophomore then, and a pretty good point guard. But his hometown college showed him only lukewarm interest, so he headed off to Evansville, where he started right away as a freshman.

Two years later, he decided to come back home. Following a year off due to transfer rules, his Xavier teammates voted him as captain for the 1991-92 season.

[+] EnlargeChris Mack
AP Photo/Al BehrmanMack once sold industrial fluids to pay the bills. He's now the head coach of his alma mater.

"I was the guy at the gym until midnight or 1 in the morning every night, and I dragged those guys along with me," he said. "I think they knew I was ready to have a big season."

That never happened, however. Eight seconds into Xavier's first exhibition game that year, Mack tore the ACL in his left knee. He missed the entire season. The next summer, he injured his right ACL and couldn't play until January of his senior year, when he came off the bench and averaged five minutes per game.

Though Mack says the injuries were the toughest thing he's ever had to go through, he grew close to then-assistant Prosser during all that time on the sidelines.

"Maybe that planted a seed that I didn't really think about at the time," Mack said. "I saw his passion, his love for being able to coach our guys and mentor them. I eventually realized that I wanted to do that as well."

Mack played for short stints in Europe and South America and on Athletes in Action after graduation, but he could never stay healthy. Meanwhile, his sister, Carrie, was playing basketball at McAuley High School in Cincinnati, which needed a new girls' JV coach. The varsity coach learned about the background of Carrie's brother and asked whether he would be interested in the job. Mack decided to give it a try and paid the bills by working for a company that sold industrial fluids to manufacturers in the region.

"I remember driving to different accounts, and I'd be drawing up out-of-bounds plays," he said. "I just knew that I had a lot more passion for basketball than I did for hydraulic oil."

The following year, Mack became the girls' varsity head coach at Mount Notre Dame High School. He would often take his team to watch the XU men practice under Prosser, who succeeded Gillen. That connection paid off when Prosser hired Mack as his director of basketball operations in 1999. When Prosser left for Wake Forest in 2001, he elevated Mack to a full-fledged assistant coach for the Demon Deacons.

Before the 2004-05 season, which Wake Forest entered ranked No. 2 in both preseason polls for Chris Paul's sophomore year, Mack felt the tug of home again. He left Winston-Salem to go back to his alma mater as an assistant for the new Xavier coach, Miller. Mack was the key recruiter for many of the current Musketeers.

"As I began to hire my staff, I found out what a great teacher he was and what a great mind he had for the game," Miller said. "He was a big part of why we became so successful. He has great passion for Xavier and really believes in Xavier."

When Miller left, Bobinski was flooded with calls from interested coaches. And why not? The program has a sparkling on-campus arena in the Cintas Center, has been to two Elite Eights since 2004 and offers a private school atmosphere in the midst of a big city. Bobinski interviewed several candidates, but he'd had five years to watch Mack audition. What sealed the deal was when Mack talked in his interview about not just maintaining Xavier's recent success, but taking it to the next level and finally crashing a Final Four.

[+] EnlargeChris Mack
AP Photo/Al BehrmanXavier AD Mike Bobinski (left) called Mack a "living, breathing example" of the XU program.

Bobinski said Mack was the best candidate "in a vacuum," and his deep roots at the school only enhanced his value.

"He's a living, breathing example of our program," Bobinski said. "He's a great advertisement. When he goes to a living room and meets with a family, he can speak firsthand about what it means to be a Xavier basketball player."

Bobinski said he doesn't begrudge any coach for leaving for what he perceives as a better opportunity. No matter how successful it gets, Xavier probably won't dive into the business of paying basketball coaches $2 million or more a year anytime soon.

Mack's wife, Christi, is from Louisville and played basketball at Dayton. They have two young daughters, and Mack says it's important that they be close to their grandparents. He seems to genuinely enjoy his community responsibilities, from meeting with donors to doing interviews. A secretary in the basketball office expressed amazement the other day that Mack actually reads and responds to all his e-mails.

Maybe Chris Mack is different. Maybe he's not just the next great coaching hire for Xavier. Maybe he's the last one for a while.

"I'm not Sean Miller. I'm not Thad Matta," he said. "Ultimately the proof is in the pudding, and whether a fan takes me at my word I don't know. But I know this: I chose to be at Xavier when a lot of assistant coaches thought I was crazy to leave the ACC. And I did that for Xavier and for my family. Those priorities haven't changed for me."

Brian Bennett covers college football and basketball for ESPN.com.

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