With Louisville basketball struggling, is Chris Mack the Cards’ Billy G?

·4 min read

Update: Louisville has called a special athletics board meeting for Wednesday amid reports that Mack and the school are negotiating a separation agreement.

Being compared to Billy Gillispie is not a good thing. Not when you’re a basketball coach. Not in these parts.

Such is Chris Mack’s current fate. Mack is the University of Louisville basketball coach. For now anyway. His team dropped to 11-9 overall and 5-5 in the ACC with a 64-52 loss at Virginia on Monday night. It was the Cardinals’ fifth loss in its last six games and followed a disheartening defeat at the hands of visiting Notre Dame on Saturday. Up 45-38 at the half, Louisville lost 82-70.

Afterward, forward Malik Williams was asked if the team was still responding to the coaching staff. “I don’t have a comment on that,” said the fifth-year senior. Ouch.

As you might guess, Louisville fans are not happy. Some see Mack as U of L’s Billy G, the former Kentucky basketball coach hired in 2007 to take over a tradition-rich program, only to see it all fall apart quicker than anyone could have imagined.

Louisville is a proud program, too, of course. The legendary Denny Crum captured NCAA titles in 1980 and 1986. His successor, Rick Pitino won the 2013 NCAA crown. NCAA rules violations forced Louisville to remove the title banner, however, and when more possible violations surfaced in 2017 that was one too many Pitino scandals for the U of L administration to bear. By 2018, new AD Vince Tyra had lured Mack from Xavier to command the Cards.

The hire looked smart. In nine seasons, Mack had gone 215-97 at his alma mater. His Musketeers had made eight NCAA Tournaments, including four Sweet 16 berths and a 2017 Elite Eight appearance. His wife, Christi, is from Louisville, where she played basketball at Holy Cross High School before starring at Dayton. It was a chance for Mack to coach in the ACC.

It hasn’t worked out, however. Not to this point, anyway. The Cards were 20-14 and a first-round NCAA Tournament knockout Mack’s first season. They were 24-7 overall and 15-5 in the ACC his second, the year COVID-19 canceled the NCAA Tournament. And it has been all downhill from there.

Louisville’s 13 wins in 2020-21 were overshadowed by the seven losses. The Cards were crushed by 37 at Wisconsin (85-48), by 45 at North Carolina (99-54), by 14 in the ACC Tournament against Duke (70-56). Chronic COVID-19 pauses offered legitimate excuses, at least before bad became embarrassing.

After the season, Mack fired his assistant coaches, including longtime friends Dino Gaudio and Luke Murray. An irate Gaudio demanded to be paid or he would inform the NCAA of more potential violations. Mack taped the conversation. Gaudio was charged with extortion, for which he later plead guilty and was sentenced to one year of probation and a $10,000 fine. Meanwhile, U of L suspended Mack six games without pay for his handling of the matter. Everyone came out a loser.

Chris Mack is 68-37 in four seasons as head coach of the Cardinals
Chris Mack is 68-37 in four seasons as head coach of the Cardinals

The losing hasn’t stopped. This season the Cards have slipped into mediocrity. Attendance has plummeted. Louisville is 115th in the NCAA NET rankings, on track to miss its second straight Big Dance. Courier-Journal sports columnist Tim Sullivan wrote recently that a negotiated settlement made more sense than firing the coach, especially with the NCAA’s Independent Accountability Resolution Process still considering U of L’s most recent infractions case. Mack has three years remaining on his contract. For a firing without cause, Mack would be owed $12 million.

Can Mack turn it around? It won’t be easy. Tyra, the man who hired him, retired in December. The school is searching for his replacement. Meanwhile, Duke comes to the Yum Center on Saturday. North Carolina visits Tuesday. Then come back-to-back road games at Syracuse and Notre Dame. Down the stretch, the Cards play at North Carolina (Feb. 21), Wake Forest (Feb. 26) and Virginia Tech (March 1).

On the plus side, Louisville didn’t quit Monday night in Charlottesville. Down 27-8 early, it pulled to within 45-41 of Virginia with 11:54 remaining. “I think our guys are engaged,” said Mack, but the hole was just too deep to escape.

Will we soon be saying the same about the head coach?

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