LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) – As the story goes, Peck Hickman was feeling pretty good about himself as he walked off the floor after his first game as the University of Louisville basketball coach. The date was Dec. 2, 1944, and the Cardinals had just waxed Georgetown, Ky, College, 99-27.
As he was accepting congratulations, Hickman was approached by an alum, who said, according to historian Gary Tuell, “Looks like we made a mistake in hiring you if you can’t score 100 against that team.” And he turned and walked away, leaving Hickman deflated and incredulous.
Even then, expectations were high for Cardinal basketball.
Now comes Chris Mack from Xavier University to face expectations that are unprecedented in UofL basketball history.
He is only expected to be the Superman who attracts high-quality recruits, unites a divided fan base, fill the KFC Yum! Center for every home game, be squeaky-clean in all respects, erase the stain of the scandals that already have forced U of L to take down the 2013 NCAA championship banner and deal with whatever may come when the NCAA gets around to investigating U of L’s involvement, if any, in the FBI sting operation that has rocked college hoops to its core.
Ordinarily, I think the money paid to big-time college coaches is obscene. But if any coach ever deserved to make $4 million a year over seven years, Mack might be the guy. To say his challenge is daunting is doesn’t begin to get the depth and breadth of it.
Now when you heard that Mack was the guy, I’m sure that you, like me, wondered if he might be any relation to Lonnie Mack, the talented guitarist whose version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” rose to No. 4 on the Billboard charts in 1963.
Mack, of course, recorded for Fraternity Records, which was based in Cincinnati. Since Coach Mack also grew up in Cincinnati and since Cincinnati is the home of Xavier, well, I’m sure you see I’m going with this.
OK. I’m just putting you on. But heaven knows, we can use a little levity after months of gloom and doom. And speaking of that, I’m already seeing some sunshine peeking through the clouds.
The hiring of Mack should silence the critics who ignorantly accused UofL board chairman David Grissom of wanting to de-emphasize athletics. You don’t pay a coach $4 million a year unless you think he will be as successful as Hickman, Denny Crum and Rick Pitino.
If Mack has done his homework about U of L basketball history, he surely noticed that coaches tend to get comfortable here and stay around for a while.
When Hickman took the UofL job in 1944 – his duties including sweeping the gym floor and washing the uniforms – he might have had thoughts of replacing Uncle Ed Diddle, his coach at Western Kentucky. Instead, he stayed 23 years, won 443 games and put U of L on the national basketball map by riding Charlie Tyra to the 1956 NIT title (the NIT was very big back then).
When Crum left John Wooden’s side at UCLA to take the UofL job in 1971, he admittedly wanted to use the job to establish his credentials as Wooden’s replacement. Instead, he worked the sidelines here for 30 seasons, won 675 games and took the Cards to two NCAA titles and four other Finals Fours. He also turned down chances to go back to UCLA at least twice.
And when Pitino shocked his former employer in Lexington by taking the UofL job in 2001, he said it probably would be his final stop. He stayed 19 years, won the 2013 national title (no matter what the NCAA says to the contrary), and would still be here had it not been for the scandals that happened on his watch.
Both Crum and Pitino are in the Hall of Fame, and Hickman should be. This is the legacy that Mack inherits, and it can only be hoped that he has the kind of success that will keep him here a long time and maybe someday earn him a spot in the Hall of Fame.
The last hire still to be made is the most important of all – a president who will be strong and smart enough to put UofL’s academic community back on the right track. At least, he won’t have to worry about athletics. From all appearances, Tyra and Mack both are team players who understand and accept their roles relative to the entire university community.
It was encouraging to learn that Mack has reached out to New Albany senior star Romeo Langford and Trinity junior David Johnson. At UofL, recruiting always has been a sort of inside-to-out thing. You dominate the Louisville area and then go wherever it takes to find young men who can perform at a high level on and off the court.
If Mack wins the opener next season, I hope he doesn’t run into an alum like the one who confronted Hickman in 1944. But there’s no guarantee of that. The fans have grown accustomed to excellence and will accept nothing less.
Welcome to “The ‘Ville,” Coach Mack.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes regular columns to WAVE3.com.
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