Russell: Xavier is getting used to Chris Mack job rumors at this time of year
Shannon Russell | WCPO Contributor
12:39 PM, Mar 21, 2017
1:34 AM, Mar 27, 2017
This story was written last week before Xavier played in the Elite Eight.
CINCINNATI -- The coaching carousel and rampant speculation have infiltrated college basketball as the NCAA tournament continues, but no position has generated more buzz than the vacancy at Indiana created by Tom Crean’s dismissal last Thursday.
Indiana-bred Steve Alford, a perceived frontrunner, was asked about the job at an NCAA tournament press conference in Sacramento the day Crean was fired. The UCLA coach -- who was an All-American with the Hoosiers and led them to the 1987 national championship -- talked about his love for the Bruins and Los Angeles and eluded a point-blank question about whether he’d take a call from IU.
The next day, after Dayton lost to Wichita State in a first-round game in Indianapolis, Flyers coach Archie Miller -- always a hot name in carousel speculation -- was asked his thoughts on the Indiana opening. Said Miller: “No thoughts.”
(Update: Miller took took the Indiana job on Saturday.)
The price of being an elite-level coach is having one’s name bandied about, and Mack’s moniker is tied to public guesswork every offseason. Although the 47-year-old Northern Kentucky resident has been courted by programs from California to Tennessee, he has stayed at his alma mater and led four teams to Sweet 16s.
The eighth-year Musketeers coach went as far as to set the record straight nearly three years ago after Cal’s overture sparked rumors and misinformation. He praised Xavier’s administration, called his relationship with athletic director Greg Christopher “amazing” and said his decision to listen to Cal wasn’t about money.
Mack learned a lesson in finances from late coach Skip Prosser in 1999. Back then, Mack’s salary was $18,000.
“I remember him saying, ‘Mackie, college coaching isn’t about driving a Mercedes and making millions and becoming Dean Smith.’ He never thought it was, and I never thought it was. To me, it’s about developing and teaching kids. I didn’t get into it for reasons other than that,” Mack said in 2014.
Mack has not spoken publicly about other jobs since then and certainly won’t now with an Elite Eight bid on the line. He enters Thursday’s match-up against former Xavier head coach Sean Miller and second-seeded Arizona with a 185-90 (.673) record.
Does Indiana have Mack in its sights? I don’t know. Nor do I know his opinion on that job specifically. But when considering a coach’s motivations to leave for a new job, there are three key factors that may influence his decision.
Is the coach unhappy at his current job? Hard to imagine that one fits for the hometown coach. Mack went to St. Xavier High School and played the latter part of his college career at Xavier, where he earned his degree and gained his first big break on a college coaching staff.
His parents live here, his kids go to school in the area, and he and his wife, Christi (who’s from Louisville and played basketball at Dayton), started the Mack Family Foundation to help less fortunate children in this region. A couple of Mack’s staff members have ties to the university or region as well.
Last spring Mack was named the national coach of the year by three outlets. Xavier’s administration wasted no time locking up his contract through 2022, perhaps for dual reasons: A job well done and to keep poachers at bay.
NCAA tournament wins are expected. Mack has delivered, with seven tourney trips in his eight seasons.
While happiness is subjective, Mack certainly seems comfortable. His foundation recently dedicated a library in a school located on land where he used to play youth soccer. His ties to his hometown remain a rare distinction in a career that, for many, is transient.
Penny for your thoughts? A big payday may provide a powerful allure but Mack, as mentioned before, has not shown money as his prime motivation.
Quite simply, there’s always a bigger payday, a more high-profile job out there -- whether that’s the NBA for some coaches or openings at Power Five Conference programs -- ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12, SEC -- for others. While there something to be said about doubling or tripling one’s salary, there’s another argument for building a legacy at one school.
Xavier, as a private institution, is not required to release the details of Mack’s salary but a USA Today report listed Mack as the 36th highest-paid coach in the country in 2016. It said his school salary was $1,186,661.
Mack could have left long ago if it was all about the money.
“I’ve had several opportunities to make more money over the last four or five years,” Mack said in 2014. “Some of the opportunities have remained under the radar and some haven’t. I’ve always felt so much better about the entirety of the situation at Xavier than I have about any other perceived opportunities.”
It’s worth noting that Mack is the highest paid coach in Xavier men’s hoops history. He achieved that feat with a deal he inked 2011.
Can a coach win at the level he desires at his current school? If Mack feels he has an easier avenue elsewhere to get to the Final Four, then a speculative departure could become a reality.
Does Xavier pour resources into basketball? Absolutely. Mack also has access to a private jet. All Xavier team flights are chartered. Cintas Center is usually at capacity (and then some) for home games. Membership in the Big East Conference has opened recruiting doors like never before, and Xavier’s athletes eat, train and travel at the highest level.
In the meantime, facility renovations have become a microcosm of the battle to build the best programs. At Xavier, Cintas Center is undergoing a $25 million, seven-year renovation that already has included the unveiling of a 5,000-square-foot strength and conditioning facility for all athletes.
Several hundred miles away, Big East mate Georgetown recently opened the $62 million John Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletic Center. Villanova’s on-campus home, The Pavilion, is about to undergo a $60 million renovation. UC just launched an $87 million revamp of Fifth Third Arena.
It’s all part of a never-ending arms race in college basketball, where bigger is better and nobody wants to fall behind. Basketball programs in Power Five Conferences have the bonus of football dollars, too, creating separation at the very top.
Xavier, as a small private school, has come light years since its days in the old MCC. Now a fixture on the national landscape, is it the best basketball power it can be? Or is there more room for the university to help it grow?
Mack has lobbied for better compensation for his coaching staff but otherwise has focused public comments on basketball or his family foundation. In the meantime he has ascended to No. 2 on Xavier’s all-time wins list and led the Musketeers to more Sweet 16s than any other XU coach.
With a resume like that, the carousel speculation won’t stop anytime soon.
Shannon Russell is a freelance sports analyst and columnist for WCPO.com. Follow her on twitter @slrussell