It Was Time for the Chris Mack Era to End, But Who Replaces Him?

When Chris Mack was hired a little less than four years ago to clean up the mess Rick Pitino left behind, it was a move nearly universally lauded throughout the college basketball world. Mack was a midwest guy who had enjoyed no shortage of success at Xavier in the Big East, going to eight NCAA Tournaments in nine years, and his fiery personality also seemed ideal to spar with that guy down the road in Lexington.

Fast-forward four years later and Louisville is searching for someone to bring stability and another Final Four appearance back to the program.

Mack’s departure can be attributed to a myriad of issues, whether it be shortcomings and chemistry problems on his staff, the cloud that still hangs over the program due to the seemingly never-ending NCAA investigation or some tough luck in a pandemic season a year ago.

The bottom line is that there hasn’t been enough talent the last couple years, and it’s just not acceptable to go two consecutive seasons without going to the NCAA Tournament at Louisville.

It was easier for Cardinals fans to watch last season, with Kentucky a complete mess and also just one year removed from a season in which the Cardinals were 15-5 in the ACC, nationally relevant and had an opportunity to do some damage in an NCAA Tournament that was scrapped due to the pandemic.

But this season got ugly fast.

It started with the offseason drama, when Mack opted to make a couple moves with two staff members that had support throughout the industry. Mack and veteran coach Dino Gaudio were incredibly close friends, but Gaudio was an odd choice for Mack’s staff when he took over, given the fact that he had been out of coaching for nearly a decade.

Gaudio and Luke Murray, along with now-interim head coach Mike Pegues, brought in some talent — but not enough. There were a bunch of misses. The 2019 recruiting class was believed to be a game-changer for Mack and his staff, and it was, just not in the way most expected.

Samuell Williamson was a Top 25 recruit, but hasn’t lived up to expectations and has just been a solid piece for the Cardinals. David Johnson was a Top 50 kid from Louisville who had a nice, although erratic, two-year career under Mack. Aidan Igiehon, a Top 100 player, scored a grand total of 26 points in two seasons before transferring to Grand Canyon. Josh Nickelberry was a fringe Top 100 recruit and lasted two years at Louisville before leaving for La Salle. Jae’Lyn Withers has been a disappointment this season, averaging just 4.6 points and Quinn Slazinski transferred to Iona and is averaging 9.2 points for Pitino and the Gaels.

So, Mack made a couple of earth-shattering moves and decided to cut ties with Gaudio and Murray, and it sent shockwaves throughout the industry. Mack recorded the conversation between he and Gaudio, one that eventually leaked out and featured Gaudio trying to use his knowledge of rules that were broken within the program to get paid on his way out the door.

They were minor rules, involving personalizing videos for recruits and grad assistants practicing with the team. But many didn’t read the fine print. It didn’t matter when the words ‘FBI’ and ‘extortion’ made it into the same sentence on ESPN or sports talk radio.

It never should have gotten to the FBI level, but it did after Mack reported the conversation. Then it ultimately found its way into the public eye, and was yet another black mark and more embarrassment for a program that has gone through no shortage of that under Pitino.

Instead of backing Mack, the school hit him with a six-game suspension to start this season, basically punishing him for not having someone from human resources in the room when he informed Gaudio that he was no longer going to be an assistant coach.

But none of this matters now.

The current roster probably belongs at Murray State or another mid-major. The team is 11-9 and it appeared that both Mack and the players had given up on each other prior to the parting of ways this week. Whoever inherits the position will have a significant rebuilding job on their hands, but there’s always the transfer portal which allows for household changes in a matter of weeks.

Louisville fans will look to the future, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Mack never coaches again (by his own choice). Now, Louisville will try and lure someone who can bring the Cardinals back to where Mack had them a couple years ago: A team that has a chance to get back to the Final Four and maybe win another national title.

There isn’t a no-brainer pick as Mack was just a few years ago. I’d be shocked if former Louisville player, ex-Kentucky assistant and current Knicks assistant Kenny Payne isn’t on the short list. He’s extremely well-liked and has cultivated strong relationships in the state.

If you are interim athletic director Josh Heird, you may as well start with the big boys. Give Baylor’s Scott Drew a call, and make sure Brad Stevens isn’t bored in his new NBA role with the Boston Celtics.

Both will say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Louisville has been through enough drama, and while Auburn’s Bruce Pearl is probably the ideal choice due to his personality, track record and his team’s playing style, he just made his way through a second NCAA investigation and I’m not certain he wouldn’t use Maryland or Louisville for leverage to get a final big contract and also an opportunity to get his son the coach-in-waiting title with the Tigers.

Mick Cronin has it rolling out in UCLA, but he’s a midwest guy — even spending some time with Pitino at Louisville. It’s unclear whether he’d leave the beach and plush campus in Westwood to go back and inherit a major rebuilding job when he’s got it going right now in a putrid Pac-12.

I just don’t see Purdue’s Matt Painter leaving his alma mater, but he’d be near the top of my list of calls. Seton Hall’s Kevin Willard knows the landscape better than anyone, but he’s a “Pitino guy” and that just won’t fly. Oregon’s Dana Altman is a midwest guy and a terrific coach who was close to leaving the northwest for Nebraska a few years ago, but I’m not sure his personality fits what Louisville needs right now.

Ohio State’s Chris Holtmann is from the state and his buyout drops, but I’m not sure he’s the right fit with this rabid fan base. Arkansas coach Eric Musselman is enjoying success in Fayetteville but would be interested, per a source, if the deal was lucrative enough. Another name that could fit is Wake Forest’s Steve Forbes, who has done a terrific job making Wake Forest relevant again in just two years.

Louisville isn’t an easy job with the pressure, and the NCAA still has yet to hand down its penalties. But it’s still one of the top-10 college basketball jobs in the country with its tradition, support and facilities.

But guys like Mark Few, Jay Wright and even Scott Drew aren’t leaving their current spot for any college gig right now — including Louisville.