Mack in Your Face

By pushing his players to the edge, Chris Mack had Xavier men’s basketball in position for its best season yet. Then the brawl stole the team’s mojo. Now it’s up to Mack to recapture the Xavier Way.

Cincinnati knows Chris Mack as an award-winning coach with local roots. But to really know Mack—to understand him—it helps to start with McAuley High School, circa 1993. Because before Mack became the celebrated (and well-compensated) coach  of the Xavier University men’s basketball team, he coached at that small all-girls school in College Hill. Before he stalked the sidelines of the $46 million Cintas Center, he  led the McAuley Mohawks junior varsity in a gym with no air-conditioning and a ceiling so low full-court passes made both teams nervous. Before he became one of those hot prospects bigger schools lust after—just like Xavier ex-pats Thad Matta and Sean Miller—he hustled straight from his job at Home City Ice to McAuley’s cramped locker room. (No AC there, either.)

Mack coached the Mohawks JV for two seasons, and over the next few years, his players moved up to varsity and placed second in the district three years in a row—easily the best run in school history.

Chris Mack did a terrific job at McAuley High School. And then he went somewhere else.

It’s Friday, December 30, and today is Mack’s 42nd birthday. In interviews, even during games, he seems affable and relaxed—the kind of guy who reflexively praises his players, who peppers his press conferences with ’80s pop culture allusions, and who shows up to tape promotional videos wearing a jacket, tie, and Xavier gym shorts. But today is also Xavier’s final practice before playing the Gonzaga Bulldogs on New Year’s Eve, and while Mack’s still wearing shorts, things feel markedly different.

This is in part because, as one NBA scout says, Mack runs “the most brutal practices in the country.” The team works through a rigidly choreographed series of drills, scrimmages, and scenarios—18 sets in 84 minutes. Mack even looks different in practice. His face seems harsher, his arms longer as he paces along the X logo at center court, projecting the focused, joyless intensity he demands from his players. “Brad Stevens and Butler got their asses beat by Gonzaga,” he reminds them. They respond by diving (or being shoved) to the ground, by barking instructions at each other on defense, by perpetrating hellacious box-outs—all a day before the game, when most teams are jogging through plays and shooting free throws.

The Musketeers always practice this hard. (When they don’t achieve his desired intensity, Mack will switch up his starters—making, say, star guards Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons face each other.) But today seems especially important given the match up against Gonzaga, a program, like Xavier, that’s seen as a “mid-major,” a good team in a bad conference. Mack is concerned about Gonzaga’s post players—especially seven-footer Robert Sacre—and he works up a sweat showing his big men how to get better, lower position on defense. “We gotta be fireplugs down here,” Mack tells Travis Taylor. “We’ve worked on it for two days.”

The team also works on offense, especially getting out on fast breaks. (“I want Sacre to run his ass off,” Mack hollers.) But it always comes back to defense. During a three-on-three drill for the guards, Mack makes his players go again and again until they see just how far he wants them to sag on weak-side defense. At one point, a loose ball squirts out to half-court, and both sides ease up. Mack starts screaming, staccato: “Play it! Play it! Play it!”

When practice ends, Mack brings his players together and urges them “to get back that nastiness, that edge.” That’s another reason the Gonzaga game matters: Three weeks ago, Xavier and Cincinnati ended the Crosstown Shootout with an ugly brawl. Since then, Xavier has fallen apart, losing at home to Oral Roberts before dropping two of three at the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic—and going from Final Four dark horse to unranked near-disaster.

On Monday, the team took an 11-hour flight from Honolulu to Cincinnati, and Mack spent the time watching just the team’s defensive possessions on his laptop. While the players got Tuesday off, Mack kept watching Xavier tape. “We really concentrate on our own team,” he says. He didn’t watch his first Gonzaga film of the season until late Tuesday night, when he also wrote the minute-by-minute practice plan for the next day.

That’s one way the week leading up to the Gonzaga game is pretty typical for Mack: He never seems to stop. Wednesday’s practice ran from 2 to 5, after which he lifted weights, showered, threw on sweatpants, and drove to the T.G.I. Friday’s in Kenwood for his weekly radio show on 55 WKRC. He also stopped by Kenwood Towne Centre to buy some belated Christmas presents for his assistants, then watched more Gonzaga—live, this time, as they thumped Portland—and made another midnight practice plan. At the end of Thursday’s practice, Xavier’s players sat down for their first film session—a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation on the opponent’s personnel. Each player gets a slide and some game footage. (The slide for Gonzaga point guard Kevin Pangos included these bullet points: “Phenomenal three-point shooter,” “Good ball-handler, not great ball-handler,” and “Freshman.”) Earlier that day, Mack also called Holloway to his office for a one-on-one meeting. (“We talked about his role,” Mack says, “being a leader.”) That night, he drove to Dayton to watch some potential recruits play in a high-school tournament.

Today brings more media time—Mack tells reporters Sacre is “like RoboCop: If you peeled his face off, you’d see wires”—and more practice. When they’re finished, the players spend another 15 minutes watching film on the opponent’s tendencies or “themes.” Mack keeps it purposefully simple, choosing three or four clips for each theme. He also makes sure never to be in the room during a film session. “I don’t want them to think, ‘Coach Mack is so consumed with Gonzaga,’” he explains. “I’m consumed with what we do.”

He’ll spend his birthday night at another high school game, but not before recording a radio interview, then sitting down with Jon Sciambi, the ESPN2 announcer for tomorrow’s game. By now, Mack’s reverted to his pre-practice self, cracking jokes and asking about Sciambi’s Christmas. At the end of their conversation, though, he turns serious. “Hey, Jon, do me a favor,” he says. “Don’t use the word mid-major when you broadcast.”

Every story about Mack notes that he played two seasons at Xavier. But the truth is more interesting—and more painful. Mack grew up in North College Hill. “I was that kid in third grade who read the sports page,” he says. While he followed the Reds and the Bengals, he played basketball “six and eight hours a day.” That practice paid off: He became a star at St. Xavier High School, winning the Greater Cincinnati League Player of the Year, and went on to play at the University of Evansville.

YouTube doesn’t exactly teem with footage from the late-’80s Midwestern Collegiate Conference, but Mack is remembered as a versatile and aggressive player. Still, he was miserable under Evansville’s Jim Crews. “He was a hell of a coach,” Mack says. “But he’d really degrade you. He didn’t really take the time to find out about the person.”

Despite averaging 10 points and six rebounds as a sophomore, Mack decided to transfer, choosing Pete Gillen and Xavier over Bob Huggins and UC.

After sitting out a year under NCAA rules, Mack seemed ready to break out at Xavier. He won another MVP—this one in the Deveroes Summer League—and scored 32 points in the Musketeers’ blue-white scrimmage. On November 11, 1991, when Xavier played its first preseason game against a team from Portugal, Mack started at forward. The visitors won the tip, and Mack found himself guarding a baseline drive. When he planted to take a charge, he heard a pop—the sound of his ACL snapping, eight seconds into his Xavier career. Mack rehabbed hard and returned in time for the next Deveroes Summer League—only to blow out his other knee. With more rehab, he made it back halfway through his senior year, but played just five minutes a game.

After graduation, Mack joined a European team until his knees ended that, too. So he returned to Cincinnati, where his sister, Carrie, was a senior guard at McAuley High School. At the time, the head coach was running both JV and varsity; when he heard Carrie mention that her brother Chris was back home, he told her to offer him the JV job. “We went 18–2,” Mack remembers, “and I fell in love with coaching.”

Coaching was never something Mack planned to do. But he took cues from the coaches he had played for, drawing on the negative example of Crews—and the positive one of Skip Prosser. He admired how Prosser, first as Gillen’s top assistant, then as Xavier’s head coach, interacted with people. “It didn’t matter if you owned the arena or swept the arena,” Mack says. “He treated everyone the same.”

In 1995, Mack landed the head job at another all-girls school, Mt. Notre Dame. The Cougars were coming off a 7–14 season, and athletic director Mark Schenkel received only a few applications. But in Mack’s first year, MND’s record jumped to 19–4. He also made improvements off the court. The team played in one of those old gym-slash-auditoriums, and Mack turned the empty stage into his student section, installing used couches, lining up pizza for halftime, and posting fliers around the school for the “Rage on the Stage.”

Mack remained close to Prosser. (When the coach died in 2007, he sat near the family at the funeral.) He sometimes took his girls to Xavier practices, and in 1999, after MND won its fourth straight Greater Cincinnati League championship, Prosser hired Mack to be Xavier’s director of basketball operations—though not before calling Schenkel to ask for permission. In 2001, Mack followed Prosser to Wake Forest, but returned to Xavier in 2004 as Sean Miller’s top assistant. “Chris is comprehensive as a coach,” Miller says today. “He has a great basketball mind.”

When Miller left for Arizona in 2009, Mack interviewed for Xavier’s top spot with athletic director Mike Bobinski, and made a nine-point presentation about the “Xavier Way.” To understand Xavier’s success, you have to understand both this concept and the impact of Bobinski.

When he arrived in 1998, Bobinski saw that Xavier already had everything it needed to reach the next level. “We’ve been good,” he remembers thinking, “but we have a chance to be great.” Part of this came from the Cintas Center, which opened in 2000. Xavier doesn’t just sell out the 10,250-seat arena—it runs a premium-seating program in which fans make annual donations for the privilege of paying even more money for the best seats (and “best seats” now includes about half the arena). There’s also the “All For One” booster club, along with steadily increasing TV and ad revenues. “If we were in the Big East right now,” Bobinski says, “we’d be in the top five in terms of basketball revenue.”

Bobinski has put much of that revenue back into the team. The school has regularly upgraded the new arena and the team has scheduled more difficult opponents—despite the added expense of, say, a tournament in Hawaii. They started staying in multi-star hotels and flying on chartered jets, too—and their coaches started using chartered jets for recruiting visits, which would certainly impress your average 18-year-old. Even more impressive: Xavier’s new big-time contract with Nike.

All told, Xavier now spends a larger percentage of its athletic budget on men’s basketball than all but a handful of schools in Division I. Sean Miller says that, in terms of resources, he had everything at Xavier he now has at Arizona. And those resources have paid off: Even in their relatively brief tenures, each coach in the Matta-Miller-Mack era has won more NCAA tournament games than Skip Prosser did in his entire Xavier career.

That’s one reason the “mid-major” label seems so silly. Xavier wins, spends, and profits like one of the top programs in the country, which makes sense: A big part of the Xavier Way is athletic success. Even so, people inside the program seem equally concerned with academic and personal success. “It’s not just about winning games,” Bobinski says. “It’s about how we win games.” That might sound a little pious if it wasn’t backed up with such strong results. Since 1986, 83 Xavier seniors have played basketball —and all 83 have graduated.

It all ties together: The basketball program lets the school broadcast its academic message. Father Michael Graham, Xavier’s president, likes to tell a story about Mack’s first year as head coach. After Xavier made the NCAA tournament, The New York Times published an effusive front-page story on Sister Rose Ann Fleming, the team’s academic adviser. The perfect graduation rate, the Xavier Way: All of it was right there on A1 (and was quickly picked up by other media outlets). “The stories couldn’t have been better written,” Father Graham says, “had we written them ourselves.”

It’s New Year’s Eve, and Mack stands next to the dry-erase board in the locker room, preaching about “kills.” As the clock counts down to tipoff against Gonzaga, Mack makes the same point he does before every game: If the team gets seven kills—one “kill” equals three consecutive defensive stops—it has a 96 percent chance of winning the game.

Kills have become so central to Xavier’s identity that when the team gets two straight stops, the bench starts chanting “kill time.” During Xavier’s 8–0 start, they had seven or more kills seven times. In Hawaii, they didn’t get seven kills once.

After Mack’s speech, the Musketeers run on to the Cintas Center’s court, wearing their gray alternate uniforms from Nike. It’s a terrific and toxically partisan crowd—one that goes crazy when, on Gonzaga’s first possession, Frease stops Sacre from getting deep position, then forces him to shoot an air ball.

But Gonzaga nabs two offensive rebounds after Sacre’s shot, and the Musketeers struggle with bad calls, bad box-outs, and some smart play by the Bulldogs and their coach, Mark Few. None of this seems to rattle Mack. When an out-of-bounds call goes against the home team, the crowd erupts in boos—but Mack’s too busy lecturing Holloway about defense to argue with the refs a few feet away.

Defense keeps Xavier in the game. Their ball pressure is frightening—hand-checks, handfuls of jersey, frantic hedging on pick-and-rolls. They also do a terrific job keeping Gonzaga out of the lane. At one point, Travis Taylor gets so low against Sacre that it looks like he’s ready to deadlift him. The Bulldogs normally protect the ball, but Xavier’s weak-side defense picks off a number of passes. Pangos doesn’t score his first basket until the end of the first half, which makes it Gonzaga 35, Xavier 31.

The Musketeers’ two biggest problems continue in the second half: They can’t make a three-pointer and they can’t keep Gonzaga off the glass. The Bulldogs also keep hitting long jump-shots. Sacre ends up with only two baskets, Pangos with only one three. But the rest of the Bulldogs shoot 7 of 12 from three-point range, propelling Gonzaga to a 72–65 win. In his postgame press conference, Mack remains calm. “I’m not going to lose my mind,” he says. “The season’s a lifetime.”

On the New Year’s Eve edition of SportsCenter, ESPN did a special “Sounds of the Year” segment. It included a (heavily edited) soundbite from Tu Holloway: “We got a whole bunch of gangsters in there…. We went out there and zipped ’em up.”

Those words, of course, came right after the Crosstown Shootout, and at this point, it’s clear that Xavier’s mid-season skid resulted directly from the brawl (and the subsequent suspensions). In a sense, that skid serves as a partial defense of the Musketeers—or at least a clue to their true character. After all, a fight wouldn’t bother real gangsters.

What’s been more problematic, though, is the response from Xavier’s community. Talk to Mack or Bobinski or Father Graham and you’ll get a detailed apology—followed by a prickly aside about the need for an apology in the first place. “The character of our kids was called into question,” Father Graham says, “and that hurt them and it hurt me.” Mack agrees: “This place has stood for so much good for so long that 10 bad minutes on a Saturday isn’t what we’re about.”

That’s certainly true, though it also seems to miss how the media works. There’s a downside to A1 hagiography: The same people who praise you for Sister Fleming will blast you for the brawl. But there’s a bigger problem here, and it gets at Xavier’s dirty little secret: The brawl has been a long time coming.

From the beginning, Mack’s been up front about wanting a nasty team. That’s why he practices the way he practices. (Mack pushed his players so hard in a January practice that he blew out his knee again while attempting a motivational dunk.) That’s why he recruits the way he recruits. You can find evidence of this from former players and coaches, from on-court incidents, and from opponents. But here’s a particularly telling example: In October, before the season even started, Jeff Goodman of CBS Sports stopped by a Xavier practice and noted how the team relied on a potentially combustible edginess. “We’re straight tough,” guard Mark Lyons told him.

Let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with this, especially in an area as competitive as the NCAA’s upper tier. But it’s an approach that will lead to players occasionally crossing the line. And those slip-ups will create tension with the Prosserian class most people associate with Xavier. Prosser was a competitive guy, but he was also famous for not swearing in practice. (Instead there was a hail of frickin’.) And that’s where Xavier finds itself, caught between two competing and unresolved images, trying to have it both ways.

People around the program say Mack has a lot of Prosser in him. The day after the brawl, Mack opened his office to concerned Xavier alumni. When a team of sixth graders showed up at one of his practices, Mack talked about what his team did wrong in the Shootout—then let them shoot around on the court.

Another thing Mack shares with Prosser is a passion for the university’s larger mission. “I believe in Xavier,” he says. But ask Mack if he believes the team can win a national championship, and he offers a slightly different answer. “I think…” Mack pauses. “I think a lot of things would have to fall in place. I don’t think it’s impossible.”

Sooner or later, Mack will get offers from schools that can do better than not impossible. Already, the University of Tennessee has tempted him with a rumored eight-year, $16-million deal. With prices like that, the coach’s salary remains the one area where Xavier can’t keep up. “We’ve developed a culture at Xavier,” Bobinski says, “and we’re set up to continue being successful.” Still, everyone at Xavier would love to retain a coach the way Gonzaga has retained Mark Few.

But keeping Mack—and maybe even continuing to be successful—will force Xavier to balance its two images. Unbalanced is a good word to describe this perplexing season: The same team that shut down the seven-foot Sacre has struggled with smaller, meeker big men in the Atlantic 10, losing to La Salle, Dayton, and St. Louis. Can Xavier handle a team that plays less like Cinderella and more like the angry stepmother? Can it tolerate a leader who’s part Prosser and part Mr. Nasty?

It won’t be easy, but it may be easier than finding yet another head coach.

Photograph by Jonathan Willis.
Originally published in the March 2012 issue.

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