What does Chris Mack's marriage have to do with Xavier's Big East success?
NOV 18, 2013 8:27p ET
Xavier's success in the inaugural season of the new Big East might just come down to head coach Chris Mack's marriage.
Bear with me here.
Chris Mack's wife is named Christi. When she was at the University of Dayton, Christi Mack used to be known as Christi Hester, and she was one of the best women's basketball players in University of Dayton history, a hard-driving two-guard who was later inducted into the school's athletic Hall of Fame. Mack asked out his future wife at a college graduation party for a female high school player he used to coach. True to Mack's knack for recruiting — his upcoming recruiting class is currently ranked in the nation's top 10 — he sold her on his program quickly. They were engaged in three months.
"They're a basketball family, through and through," Xavier associate head coach Travis Steele told me.
The life of a coach's wife is not an easy one. Christi's life is made easier because she flat-out loves ball. They often lay in bed together after midnight and break down game tape on his laptop.
"Ninety-five percent of wives don't do this," she told me in what had to be a four-percentage-point underestimate.
She'd honestly rather go on a date night to scout a recruit at a high school game than go to a movie; that way, she gets to know the players who might enter the program, and who eventually might be over at the Mack house with the team, singing karaoke and bouncing on the trampoline.
These days, the Macks have two daughters. Hailee is in second grade, Lainee in third grade. (They love jumping on the trampoline with their dad's players.) Mack coaches his daughter's third-grade team. This sounds like it would be a very funny sight, because I don't know if I've ever met a more intense basketball coach than Chris Mack. His wife told me he's as competitive in air hockey and foosball as he is on the side of the basketball court; he once wouldn't let his wife leave a bowling alley until he beat her in a game. Christi won 17 games in a row. When Chris won the 18th, the two left the bowling alley with their hands covered in blisters.
Even if he's playing a board game with his elementary-aged daughters, his wife said, he won't let them win. Letting them win wouldn't make them better.
"It wouldn't surprise me if he's out in the driveway for midnight workouts with his girls," Xavier assistant Mike Pegues told me.
And if Xavier University successfully makes the jump this season from the mid-major Atlantic 10 into the big-boy Big East, it'll be that Mack family atmosphere — always tough love, and always keeping things small and intimate — that has brought the program there.
How is a program that a little more than three decades ago was mulling a move to Division II now a school that's only missed two NCAA tournaments in the past 13 seasons? How is a school with an enrollment of less than 7,000 made five Sweet 16s since 2004, more than UCLA (three) and Kentucky (four)? How has one of the smallest schools in this fledgling basketball-first conference become one of the best role models for mid-major programs trying to become a national powerhouse?
Let's peek in on one summer day at the Xavier basketball program, shortly before the July recruiting period.
Running around the Cintas Center on this Monday morning were 150 7-to-12-year-olds, here for Mack's annual basketball camp. As often is the case, Mack's wife and two daughters were lingering courtside when their husband/father hushed the youngsters and put on his tough-guy cap.
"It's all one mission: to make you a better basketball player," Mack told them. "We're not here to babysit. If you came here to screw around, your stay here won't be long."
Then he gathered his staff in his office for the most important part of the offseason: a recruiting meeting. It was a perfect example of how Xavier knows what it is and tries to find players who are the right fit.
A big board sat next to Mack's desk with 62 names of teenage basketball players on it. This isn't like a recruiting meeting at a blueblood like Kentucky. They aren't throwing darts at which six McDonald's All-Americans they know they can bring in.
Instead, it's about strategy and relationships. One player's dad loves to be wooed in the recruiting process. Another player's mother is focused more on academics than basketball. A third player's mother doesn't like big state schools but loved Xavier's class sizes, student population and record of 91 straight seniors on the basketball team who've graduated.
They talk about which players are most mature, who feel like a waste of time in recruiting, who are only focused on the NBA versus which are excited about playing college ball.
About one undersized player, they debated his workmanlike style with his natural attributes. "You won't have to coach effort," Mack said.
"The No. 1 thing that overrides everything in recruiting: Does he love ball or not?" Steele chimed in. "Nothing else matters. And that kid loves ball."
Recruiting a high school basketball player is almost like dating. You can't overwhelm a recruit with attention, but you can't ignore him. You woo. You flatter. But you're honest about who you are. When you are a school like Xavier, you can't only shoot for perfect 10 supermodels, because the odds are they'll find another fit, and you'll be left out in the cold.
There are plenty of turning points in Xavier's basketball history. One was 1990, when Pete Gillen's squad took Xavier to its first Sweet Sixteen, beating a Georgetown team with Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning. Then there was joining the Atlantic 10 in 1995. Then there was David West winning national player of the year in 2003. Then there was Thad Matta leading the team to an Elite Eight in 2004.
This season marks another step, as Xavier joins longtime basketball powers in the newly reconstituted Big East. It's a team that can compete in the conference, as they already showed in beating a talented Tennessee team that was just outside the preseason AP top 25. Two-guard Semaj Christon is a do-it-all talent who could be a dark-horse All-America candidate. (Not coincidentally, he's also a local kid who values staying close to family.) Matt Stainbrook, a transfer from Western Michigan who shed nearly 50 pounds since coming to Xavier, is a true five who will man the post. Redshirt freshman Jalen Reynolds will be one of the best finishers around the rim in the new Big East; Xavier assistants told me he could be this team's Montrezl Harrell and reminds them of a young Amar'e Stoudamire.
And then there's next year's stellar recruiting class, which includes three top-100 recruits and an Indianapolis kid, top-50 recruit Trevon Bluiett, that Xavier stole from the clutches of UCLA.
I asked Mack what it is about Xavier that lets him bring such talent to the school. He spoke about the facilities and about the winning tradition, and about being in the new Big East, and about being attractive to players who want a more intimate college experience.
But then he eventually came around to talking about his own family.
"Having players be around my family gives our players really good perspective on having balance and remembering what's most important," Mack said.
I thought back to something Steele, his top assistant, had told me earlier. He said the way Mack approaches coaching and the way he approaches parenting are very similar. "When you're a dad," he said, "it makes you a better coach."