Chris Mack101Chris Mack

The New Steward of a Xavier Tradition

By Josh Katzowitz

The office is clean. The work space is organized. The family portraits sit on an end table a few feet away.
It’s the framed photo on the wall hanging over the desk of Xavier basketball coach Chris Mack that is most striking, though. And the picture placement makes perfect sense when you’ve heard over and over again about the school’s mission, about how the athletic administration considers basketball and academics intertwined like a double helix in its DNA.
The photo shows David West – who, after Byron Larkin, might be the greatest player Xavier has produced – in his graduation robe and mortarboard. He’s receiving his diploma at a graduation ceremony six years ago, and he’s smiling widely.
The picture symbolizes best how the Xavier basketball program sees itself and what it wants others to see. A man who was a dominant – and feared – player on whatever basketball court he played. A multimillionaire NBA All-Star who spent all four year of his apprenticeship off Victory Parkway. A man who actually graduated from the school that he loved.
That picture is the type of man the administration and coaching staff strives to bring into the program and sell to the public, and its symbolic that it hangs inches above Mack’s head as he settles into his new office on the fourth floor at Cintas Center. The framed photo is the reminder that Xavier’s coach can’t simply worry about Xavier’s basketball results. Academics also must be the top priority.
Mack is asked about his decoration decisions, and he laughs. “I have not had one opportunity to make one change in this office since Sean left,” he said. “The only thing I did was that I didn’t keep pictures of Sean’s family over there. But I just moved in.”
Sure, he just moved in to replace departed coach Sean Miller, but Mack, the hometown boy, knows a thing or two about Xavier. About what his fans expect, about what his bosses want and about what he knows about himself. He’s following the most successful coach that Xavier ever employed, but Mack doesn’t worry about the pressure. Or the expectations. Or any of it, really.
Mack, even as he readies himself for his debut as a bonafide head coach, stays in control of himself as he leads a talented team into its next season and through the next glass ceiling of expectations.
When Miller left the school for Arizona – following four NCAA tournament appearances in five years, a showing in the Elite Eight, and two spots in the Sweet 16 – he said that, in his new destination, he had the right recipe to build himself a national title. Though he didn’t say so the implication was that Xavier did not.
Be assured: Chris Mack does not feel that way, and neither does Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski.
Perhaps it would be easy for Mack to copy what Miller accomplished – leave his office decorations untouched along with the rest of the program, as well – but he’s not interested in that approach. Instead, he wants to build for the future and maybe accomplish what no other coach in Xavier’s history has managed.
A Final Four appearance and a NCAA title.
“I feel like we can win a national championship at Xavier,” Mack said. “I don’t think it’s as easy as it is for Roy Williams at North Carolina or Rick Barnes at Texas or Ben Howland at UCLA. But I know this: in the last five years, we’ve been a heartbeat away from the Final Four. You get in the Final Four and anything can happen in the course of three days. I look at where the program was 20 years ago and where it is today, and if that same growth can occur over the next 10-20 years, then why not?”
“When you have something that’s achieving that success, the idea is to sustain it and have somebody that’s been a part of it and appreciates it and somebody who has their own thoughts of how to continue to build on that,” Bobinski said. “Our deal wasn’t broken; it didn’t need to be fixed. We wanted to keep the best things from what we were doing and use it as a foundation to take it to the next level.”
The past 25 years have been a special time at Xavier. Since Pete Gillen took over the program during the 1985-86 season, the Musketeers have accumulated a 548-220 record (a 71.4 winning percentage) with 18 NCAA tournament appearances and just one losing season. It’s a fine program, one of the best in the country during that time span, and Mack has a special appreciation for all of it.
He played his prep ball at St. Xavier High School, and after spending his first two years in college as a starter at Evansville, he transferred home to Xavier. Though he was named a team captain for the 1991-92 season before ever having played a game in a Musketeers uniform, he tore his left ACL eight seconds into the team’s first exhibition game of the year. The next offseason, while playing in a summer league, he tore the ACL in his right knee.
He returned by January 1993, receiving a standing ovation when he took the floor midway through the first half against Notre Dame, but he couldn’t bust his way into the starting lineup of a team that eventually made the second round of the NCAA tournament.
After playing professionally in Europe for a year, Mack turned to coaching and eventually made his way to Xavier, serving as Skip Prosser’s director of basketball operations. He moved to Wake Forest with Prosser, but when Miller took over for Thad Matta, he brought Mack back home one more time.
“He has a great mind for the game, he knows the university, and to me, he has a great passion for Xavier,” Miller said from Arizona. “Most importantly, he’s very well-versed as a basketball coach. He was a big part of the success we established during my five years, and he was involved in every aspect of our program. When you consider his expertise and his competency and his strong feelings about Xavier – as somebody who’s walked in the shoes of every player and coach there – it was a very easy decision.”
That’s why Miller, after informing Bobinski in early April that he was striking out for Tuscon, lobbied for Mack to take over the Xavier post. After Bobinski and Mack talked, both had the same sense that Mack was the right replacement.
“You’re sitting in your office wondering if you’re going to Tucson, and I have this impending interview,” Mack said. “But Mike made me feel comfortable during a time when there was a lot of doubt.”
That doubt is no longer evident. Two books sit on his impeccably neat desk. One was given to him by a school maintenance worker that he hasn’t yet begun to read. The other is called Talent is Overrated. It’s assertion is that what makes Tiger Woods so dominant and made Winston Churchill such an effective leader and Warren Buffett a great businessman isn’t talent. It’s from practice at their craft and perseverance in their heart.
It comes from making the grades in school, from practicing until your jersey is sweat-soaked through, from buying into a philosophy that has served Xavier basketball so well the past 25 years.
“I believe in the mission of Xavier – that it’s not just about basketball,” Mack said. “It’s about trying to make sure that kids leave here with the ability to handle themselves in the real world.”
That’s who Mack has been and it’s what he believes in. Maybe it’s one reason he hasn’t changed the décor of his office, one reason he hasn’t taken the David West graduation photo off the wall. From one coach to another, the faces change, but the purpose at Xavier always stays the same. It’s a comfort for a man who’s waited all his life for this opportunity.
Chris Mack, once again, is home.