When the FBI began to investigate college basketball, with the Louisville Cardinals in the organization’s cross hairs, it was assumed it could potentially result in the death of one of the sport’s biggest and best programs. If not that, at least a huge transition period from the Rick Pitino to the Chris Mack era would be needed.
Instead, by both happenstance and good hiring practices, Louisville has evolved.
Rick Pitino, who was fired as much for a lifetime achievement of scandal as for just the Brian Bowen stuff, is a great coach. A Hall of Fame, unique, one-of-a-kind and generational talent. He had plenty of flaws, personal and professional, but few would argue against his level of greatness being as high as a character from a Cheech and Chong movie.
Chris Mack is not Pitino. That’s not a bad thing. While he doesn’t yet — or possibly never will — have the resume of Pitino, he’s a known coaching commodity who comes without the warts. A beloved figure by media members, able to recruit at a high level, and so on — he’s everything Pitino was, but without all the problematic characteristics.
It’s hard to compare the two’s recent history, as a plethora of Pitino’s victories have been adjusted due to the numerous scandals. If we are to pretend as though a hooker didn’t dance about dorm rooms, though, the veteran coach was still clearly great at his job.
We can’t pretend, however. It happened. Regardless the culpability level Pitino should have for the (numerous) misgivings surrounding the basketball program, it came under his watch. He was a supposed leader of men. A pillar of the basketball community. Everything the NCAA swears it wants their coaches to be.
He’s now some weird, Lane Kiffin-ish version of a character on Twitter.
Mack, on the other hand, has an impressive resume. He lacks the NCAA Tournament titles, obviously, but he’s 48 to Pitino’s 66. He has time to catch up in that department, especially now with a program like Louisville that has the resources to get him there.
Having taken over a stable Xavier Musketeers program in 2009, Mack led the school to the NCAA Tournament in every season save for one, having averaged just under 24 wins a season while navigating the A-10 and then the brutal Big East Conference.
He did so, at least for parts of his run, without the same sort of talent he’s attempting to lure to Louisville. Yes. Yes. He had NBA-level players, but as the 2019 recruiting trail game has proven, Mack is showing his capabilities to get all the top prospects to one destination.
It’s important to note he’s done so with the shadow of the FBI/Bowen scandal looming over the program. He’s managed to — through magic, I suppose — not only make a nation forget about what went down during the Pitino era, but instead reminded everyone how great of a program the Louisville Cardinals happens to be.
Logically speaking, the nation’s top high school players should be avoiding Louisville at all cost, regardless who is the head coach. At least for the time being. No one yet fully grasps what the fallout, if any, will be when the FBI is done doing its thing in court. And yet, through Mack’s abilities as a person and coach, he has the Cardinals trucking along like nothing happened. As if he was the planned heir apparent to Pitino.
Only time will tell if Mack has the same level of success at Louisville as his predecessor. It’s unlikely he will, and it would be a disservice to Pitino’s illustrious career to act as if he’s easily replaceable. What he can do, however, is have a similar run, without the scandal, leaving Louisville in a better place for the long term.
There is, or should be, something satisfying with winning a lot of games while being able to hold your head up. Without the worry of what might happen to victories every few years for every few scandals.
With Rick Pitino, Louisville had no ceiling as a program. It could be as great as any in the nation, though it came at some ethical cost. With Chris Mack, the ceiling remains as high, with the unnecessary moralistic think-pieces from dopes like me who would ask if it was all worth it.
Chris Mack is, objectively, an upgrade from Rick Pitino for the Louisville Cardinals in 2018. All the school has to do, oddly enough, is thank the FBI for forcing its hand.
Joseph Nardone has been covering college basketball for nearly a decade for various outlets in a variety of ways. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephNardone.
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