'I ain't bitter at all': Louisville basketball coach Chris Mack and university part ways
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Chris Mack didn't know what he was allowed to say, but he got the message across.
His time as head coach of the Louisville men's basketball team is over, ending a tumultuous tenure short of four full seasons. Outside U of L basketball's Kueber Center Wednesday, Mack said he didn't know if he was "allowed" to speak to his job status — the university's Board of Trustees and Athletic Association board was set to meet at 4 p.m. Wednesday to discuss it — but spoke of his time with the Cardinals in the past tense.
"I’m not bitter in any way. I’m not bitter in any way," Mack said. "Loved our experience here. It was hard telling my girls. But I never will feel like a victim in anything I do.”
Mack, 52, ends his Cardinals career with a 63-36 record, 38-23 in the ACC. The move was confirmed following the board meeting later Wednesday with a release from the program.
“Coaching transitions are always difficult, especially during the course of the season, but Chris and I agreed that it is in the best interests of our student-athletes that he step aside immediately,” interim athletics director Josh Heird wrote. “We will always prioritize our student-athletes and do all that we can to ensure that they have an incredible experience at Louisville. I want to thank Chris and his family for their service to the University and we wish them the very best in their next chapter.”
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It was a sudden end to short stay for a coach long thought a logical fit to guide Louisville when the Rick Pitino era ended.
“I think it’s just, it’s been building," Mack said. "Obviously, we all want the best for Louisville, and I still do, that’s not gonna change. So, it’s not really important ‘when?’ or any of that stuff, what’s important is these guys need to be able to be connected and I’m humble enough that if I’m not the right person, all good, man, just want the best for them. They’re great kids. I’ve loved my time in Louisville. My kids love it here. I harbor no bitterness.”
Mack on Louisville interim coach Mike Pegues
In his statement later Wednesday, Mack thanked the fans and expressed confidence in interim coach Mike Pegues, saying he was "lucky to have been a part of this university’s storied history."
“It is with that sense of appreciation that I have made the decision to no longer be your coach," Mack wrote. "I know that I will miss the daily interactions with our student-athletes, coaches and my university colleagues, but after 25 years of coaching, including the last 13 as a head coach, it is time for me to focus on my family and spend more time being a dad. I don’t know what my future holds, but I do know that I take away from here only the cherished memories and friends we have made in this community and this university."
Mack made his name coaching at Xavier in Cincinnati, where he went 215-97 and reached eight NCAA Tournaments in nine seasons, advancing to an Elite Eight and three Sweet 16s. His wife, the former Christi Hester, had grown up in Louisville and was a basketball star at Holy Cross High School in Shively.
He had the coaching pedigree, she the local tie, and even before Louisville fired Pitino in 2017, many saw Mack as his successor someday.
After a season under interim coach David Padgett, Louisville named Mack its new head coach on March 28, 2018. Near the end of a long opening statement that day, Mack said at his introductory news conference that he’d told his new players, “This is my last stop.”
There would be no other universities, he said, no NBA jobs.
Mack’s first U of L team, still finding its footing after the scandal that ended Pitino’s tenure, lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But by year two, he started to look like a guy who could be the Louisville lifer like he promised.
The Cards went 24-7, got to No. 1 in The Associated Press poll. They finished second in the ACC at 15-5. Louisville was a lock for the NCAA Tournament — until there wasn’t one. The COVID-19 pandemic canceled March Madness.
Mack wouldn’t reach another.
The Cardinals went 13-7 doing a COVID-shortened 2020-21 season, twice halted by long pauses for positive tests in the program. They missed the NCAA Tournament — an ending few fans or bracketoligists saw coming — and that bursted bubble in hindsight was the beginning of the end of Mack’s tenure.
The ensuing offseason was marked by change and marred by controversy.
In March of 2021, Mack began to overhaul his coaching staff, firing assistant coaches Luke Murray and Dino Gaudio. But the decision to move on from the latter would prove problematic.
Gaudio threatened to expose NCAA rules violations within the program — related to the production of recruiting videos — unless Louisville paid him 17 months of salary or a lump-sum payment.
Mack recorded a meeting in which Gaudio made the threats. Gaudio later was sentenced to a year of probation and a $10,000 fine for attempting to extort the program. But the alleged violations he brought up raised new issues for the NCAA, already investigating Louisville for alleged rules violations under Pitino.
The NCAA sent Louisville a revised notice of allegations that included alleged three Level II rules violations by Mack and his staff. U of L still is awaiting an Independent Accountability Review Process ruling for one alleged Level I violation — while Pitino was the coach — and six alleged Level II violations, including those in the revised notice.
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In addition, U of L suspended Mack for the first six regular-season games of this season, saying in a release that while he was a victim of Gaudio’s extortion attempt, Mack “failed to follow University guidelines, policies, and procedures in handling the matter.”
Mack was suspended from practices and other team activities during that six-game span, and Pegues moved from assistant toas Louisville’s acting head coach, going 5-1. Mack returned for a loss at Michigan State on Dec. 1, and the Cardinals went 6-8 him as head coach.
Among those seven losses were six against teams ranked outside the top 75 at college basketball analytics site KenPom.com, including three to sub-100 teams. As of Tuesday night, Louisville ranked 113th in Division I at KenPom and 115th in the NCAA’s NET Rankings.
The Cards appeared to hit rock bottom in a 65-53 loss at Pittsburgh on Jan. 15, the team’s third consecutive setback. Louisville scored what was then a season-low point total against a Pitt team that had not previously led an ACC game by 10 or more points this season.
“It is extremely frustrating at this point, but that falls on deaf ears,” Mack said after the game “Until I can figure out what motivates our group, I don’t see a lot changing. It’s frustrating.”
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That came just days after a 79-63 homecourt loss to N.C. State, after which Mack lamented his players’ inconsistency, not for the first time this season but perhaps the most exasperated.
“I feel like I’m reevaluating constantly,” Mack said. “I don’t know what I’m getting when I put a player in. Usually when you put a guy in, you know what he’s gonna bring to the table. To have three starters out of the five with zero points (in the first half), to be outscored 31-6 by the starting five, only then to go out and get down 8-0 in the second half — I mean, I have no explanation.”
And still it got uglier.
Louisville fans boo after Notre Dame game
At the end of last Saturday’s home loss to Notre Dame — on the day Louisville retired the jersey of former All-American Russ Smith — some fans at the KFC Yum Center booed the Cardinals as they left the court. Others shouted from the stands at Mack.
"I'm frustrated too," Mack said. "I appreciate everybody coming tonight. They care deeply. They care deeply. They want Louisville to win. We want Louisville to win. Trust me, we're trying to do everything we can to get better, to improve."
After Mack spoke, center Malik Williams was asked whether the Cardinals still were responding to the coaching staff or had tuned it out and after a pause said “I don’t have a comment for that.”
Mack downplayed that cryptic quote after Monday’s loss at Virginia, saying he’d talked to Williams and that his center was “asked a tough question the other day and wasn’t really sure how to respond.”
But the damage had been done.
Louisville’s struggles, coupled with what came across as — at the very least — a player’s unwillingness to endorse Mack, sparked a college basketball discourse about the Cardinals.
Speaking on a Field of 68 YouTube show, Stadium analyst Jeff Goodman said he viewed the Notre Dame postgame as “the beginning of the end” for Mack. Co-panelist Doug Gottlieb, a Fox Sports radio host, told Goodman, “I believe he’s very likely getting fired.”
The Athletic’s Eamonn Brennan called the U of L program “a non-entity” in a column this week, writing that “Louisville might as well be Boston College. What a mess.”
It will be someone else’s mess to clean up.
Louisville’s leadership is tenuous, an interim university president and athletic director making its coaching-search protocol uncertain. Also unclear is the timetable for an IARP ruling on the alleged NCAA violations.
Both of those factors figure to matter to the Cardinals’ next permanent head coach, and parting ways with Mack in January gives Louisville some runway, some time to seek out a successor comfortable with the pros and cons of the job in whatever state it’s in.
No matter how that search goes, no one could have expected to need it so soon.
Courier Journal staff writer Hayes Gardner contributed to this report.