In the March issue of Cincinnati Magazine, I’ve got a long profile of Xavier head coach Chris Mack. It centers on the lead up to the Xavier-Gonzaga game on New Year’s Eve, and while we continued to tweak the story as Xavier’s season progressed, that lead time makes it feel a little . . . strange, especially since this week Xavier pretty much ended its NCAA hopes by losing to St. Louis. I hope the access and the reporting help compensate for this lag. One thing that definitely helps is Mack himself. He was the most honest and upfront interview I’ve encountered in the sports world, and I’ll try to do a couple follow up posts with stuff we couldn’t fit into the profile — especially his discussion of the theory and praxis behind Xavier’s pack-line defense.
Before getting to that, though, I want to highlight (and substantiate) what I suspect will be the most controversial part in the profile. It deals, to no one’s surprise, with the Xavier-U.C. brawl at the end of this year’s Crosstown Shootout. Near the end, I write:
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.
The profile makes lot of the comparison between Skip Prosser and Chris Mack, and I should say that Prosser also ran a tough team. In Michael Perry’s excellent book Xavier Tales, he quotes the following Prosser pep talk: “You’ve got to hit them first; don’t give up a step.” Perry also quotes former Xavier player (and later, assistant coach) Pat Kelsey on Prosser’s practices: “It was three hours of just up-and-down the floor, bodies flying around; it was almost like you needed helmets and shoulder pads.”
Still, I think Mack (and, as we’ll see, Sean Miller before him) took this nastiness to a new and more intentional level. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but I believe it created a tension with the Prosserian classiness most people associate with Xavier — and certainly, it made the fall out of the brawl that much worse.
So, what’s the evidence I alluded to above?
- Former players: Before his first Crosstown Shootout, Mack showed his team a five-minute montage of previous Shootouts — the fights, the shoving, the dirty plays — to motivate them. After the game (and I’m drawing all this from Scott Gaede’s book NeXt in Line), Jordan Crawford said that U.C. “tried to come in and be the bullies, and we wanted to be the bullies, too. We ain’t going to back down from nobody.” Later that year, in the Butler game that ended with a bizarre game-clock error, Tu Holloway had to be restrained from charging into the crowd. Afterward, a Xavier player allegedly tore a water fountain off the wall of Hinkle Fieldhouse. I mentioned this to one of Xavier’s media guys, and he maintained that the player meant to slam a table but hit the fountain instead; the age of Hinkle Fieldhouse did the rest. That may be true, but as far as defenses of militant behavior go, it seems a little lacking.
- Former coaches: This seems like the most telling evidence, to me. When an Arizona reporter asked Sean Miller about the brawl, he said this of his former team: “They’re deep, they’re tough, they don’t back down. If Cincinnati tries to do what they did today, they’re going to get a fight. That’s what happened. So I’m proud of those guys.” The reporter followed up with Miller after he’d seen the tape: “Happens every game,” Miller reaffirmed. “I’m proud of those guys, I really am. I would fully expect there to be a fight.” Miller tried to walk these statements back the next day, but I think they reveal how central this nastiness was to his team’s culture and to his coaching identity. Remember that in one of Miller’s Crosstown Shootouts, Derrick Brown started a small fight and was ejected. It seems clear that Miller expected the Musketeers to react this way because he (and later, his former assistant Mack) stressed these qualities on a regular basis.
- Opponents: On his radio show, to take one instance, Matt Painter said of Xavier that “right away from watching film, they talk! And they talk a lot. So that was one of the first things we talked in a scouting report was that, ‘Don’t get caught up in that.'”
I asked Mack about the Painter example. “That’s Matt’s opinion,” he said. “That’s not who we are nor who want to be. It has nothing to do with the talking on the floor, the false bravado. It has everything to do with being the first person to dive on a loose ball.” Again, this may be true, but I think it also creates a tension with Xavier’s broader image. That tension was really the only thing Mack was less than candid abut.
Let’s end with a great example of what I’m talking about — and an example that suggests this tension bothers Xavier’s administration, as well. Almost a month after the brawl, a university dean announced mandatory “reflection sessions” for the student section based on their behavior at the game. Xavier cancelled the sessions, after they were widely mocked, but what’s truly interesting is that the university decided to react to the student section only post-brawl. After all, Matt Howard of Butler, who was surely one of college basketball’s most widely traveled players, called the Cintas Center and Xavier’s student section the most hostile he’d ever experienced. That’s the way Xavier has grown used to doing things, and while there’s nothing wrong with it, it does seem odd to freak out, but only after being caught.