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 of four full seasons. Outside U of L basketball’s Kueber Center on Wednesday, Mack said he didn’t know if he was “allowed” to talk about his professional status – the university’s board and the sports association’s board were due to meet at 4pm on Wednesday to discuss it – but spoke about 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. “I loved our experience here. It was hard to tell my daughters. But I will never feel like a victim in anything I do.”
Mack, 52, ends his career with the Cardinals with a 63-36, 38-23 record in the ACC. The move was confirmed after the board meeting later Wednesday with a statement from the program.
“Training transitions are always difficult, especially during the season, but Chris and I have agreed that it is in the best interests of our student-athletes that he step down immediately,” the athletic director wrote. acting Josh Heird. “We will always put our student-athletes first and do everything we can to make sure they have an incredible experience in Louisville. I want to thank Chris and his family for their service to the University and we wish them the best in their next chapter.
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It was the sudden end to a short stint for a coach long considered a logical choice to guide Louisville through the end of the Rick Pitino era.
“I think it’s just that it’s building,” Mack said. “Obviously we all want the best for Louisville, and I always do, that’s not going to change. So it doesn’t really matter ‘when?’ or any of that what’s important is that these guys need to be able to connect and I’m humble enough that if I’m not the right person it’s okay man I just want it best for them. They are big kids. I 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 his confidence in interim coach Mike Pegues, saying he was “lucky to have been a part of this university’s rich history.”
“It is with this feeling of appreciation that I have made the decision to no longer be your coach,” Mack wrote. “I know I will miss the daily interactions with our student-athletes, coaches and fellow college students, but after 25 years of coaching, including the last 13 as a head coach, it’s time for me to focus about my family and spending more time being a dad. I don’t know what my future holds, but I know that I only take away from here the precious memories and the friends we made in this community and this university.”
Mack made a name for himself coaching at Xavier in Cincinnati, where he went 215-97 and reached eight NCAA tournaments in nine seasons, rising to one Elite Eight and three Sweet 16s. His wife, the former Christi Hester, grew up in Louisville and was a basketball star at Holy Cross High School in Shively.
He had the coaching pedigree, she the local connection, and even before Louisville fired Pitino in 2017, many saw Mack as his successor one day.
After a season under interim coach David Padgett, Louisville named Mack its new head coach on March 28, 2018. Near the end of a lengthy opening statement that day, Mack said during his introductory press conference that he told his new players, “This is my last stop.
There would be no other colleges, he said, no NBA jobs.
Look: Chris Mack’s first press conference as Louisville coach
Mack’s first-team U of L, still finding its footing after the scandal that ended Pitino’s tenure, lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But by sophomore year, he started to look like a guy who could be the Louisville lifer he promised.
The Cards went 24-7, ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll. They finished second in the ACC at 15-5. Louisville was an NCAA Tournament lock – until it was gone. The COVID-19 pandemic canceled March Madness.
Mack wouldn’t hit another one.
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The Cardinals went 13-7 in having a COVID-shortened 2020-21 season, twice interrupted by long breaks for positive tests in the program. They missed the NCAA Tournament — an ending few fans or parentheses saw coming — and that bubble burst in hindsight marked the beginning of the end of Mack’s tenure.
The ensuing offseason was marked by change and marred by controversy.
In March 2021, Mack began to revamp his coaching staff, firing assistant coaches Luke Murray and Dino Gaudio. But the decision to miss the latter would prove problematic.
Gaudio has threatened to report NCAA rule violations within the program — related to the production of recruiting videos — unless Louisville pays him 17 months’ salary or a lump sum payment.
Mack recorded a meeting in which Gaudio made threats. Gaudio was later sentenced to one year probation and fined $10,000 for attempting to extort the program. But the alleged violations he raised raised new issues for the NCAA, already investigating Louisville for alleged rule violations under Pitino.
The NCAA sent Louisville a revised Notice of Allegations that included three alleged Tier II rule violations by Mack and his staff. The U of L is still awaiting a decision from the Independent Liability Review Process for one alleged Level I violation – when Pitino was the coach – and six alleged Level II violations, including those in the revised advisory .
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Additionally, the U of L suspended Mack for the first six regular season games this season, saying in a statement that despite being the victim of Gaudio’s extortion attempt, Mack “didn’t 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 went from assistant to interim head coach at Louisville, going 5-1. Mack returned for a loss at Michigan State on Dec. 1, and the Cardinals won 6-8 as head coach.
Of those seven losses, there were six to teams ranked outside the top 75 on college basketball analytics site KenPom.com, including three under 100 teams. On Tuesday night, Louisville ranked 113th in Division I at KenPom and 115th in NCAA NET rankings.
The Cards appeared to hit rock bottom in a 65-53 loss at Pittsburgh on Jan. 15, the team’s third straight loss. Louisville scored what was then a season-lowest point total against a Pitt team that had not previously led an ACC game by 10 or more points this season.
“It’s extremely frustrating at this point, but it falls on deaf ears,” Mack said after the game. “Until I can figure out what drives our group, I don’t see much change. It’s frustrating.”
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It came just days after a 79-63 home loss to NC 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 constantly reevaluating,” Mack said. “I don’t know what I get when I put a player on. Usually when you put a guy on, you know what he’s going to bring to the table. To have three of five starters with zero points (in the first half), be outscored 31-6 by the top five, then go out and go 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 — the day Louisville retired former All-American Russ Smith’s jersey — some fans at the KFC Yum Center booed the Cardinals as they left the ground. Others shouted from the stands at Mack.
“I’m frustrated too,” Mack said. “I appreciate everyone for coming out tonight. They care deeply. They care deeply. They want Louisville to win. We want Louisville to win. Believe me, we’re trying to do everything we can to improve ourselves, to improve ourselves.”
After Mack spoke, center Malik Williams was asked if the Cardinals were still responding to the coaching staff or if they cut it and after a pause he said “I don’t have a comment for that. ”
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Mack played down the cryptic quote after Monday’s loss to Virginia, saying he spoke to Williams and his center “was asked a tough question the other day and didn’t really know how to answer.”
But the damage was done.
Louisville’s struggles, coupled with what appeared to be – to say the least – a player’s reluctance to endorse Mack, sparked college basketball talk about the Cardinals.
Speaking on a YouTube Field of 68 broadcast, stadium analyst Jeff Goodman said he viewed Notre Dame’s postgame as “the beginning of the end” for Mack. Co-panellist Doug Gottlieb, a Fox Sports radio host, told Goodman, “I think he’s most likely going to get 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, with an interim college president and athletic director making its coaching search protocol uncertain. The timeline for an IARP decision on alleged NCAA violations is also unclear.
Both of those factors matter for the Cardinals’ next permanent head coach, and parting ways with Mack in January gives Louisville a lead, some time to seek a successor comfortable with the pros and cons of the job, no matter what. either his state.
No matter how this search turns out, no one could have expected to need it so soon.
Hayes Gardner, editor of the Courier Journal, contributed to this report.