Ready to stumble? Nope Xavier’s Mack up to the task

I’ve known Chris Mack for about six years, and I’ve always liked him. When I covered Xavier from 2004-06 (and parts of the 2006-07 season) and he was a Musketeers assistant coach, I’d occasionally drop by his office for a little chit-chat. He was watching film or just getting off the phone with a recruit, but usually, he’d try to make the time.

But when athletic director Mike Bobinski hired him to replace Sean Miller as the head coach before this season, I had major reservations. The first thought I had when I heard Mack was the leading candidate for the job was the final Xavier game of the 2008-09 season when the Musketeers lost to Pitt in the Sweet 16. I remember Pitt’s Levance Field hitting a game-winning 3-pointer with less than a minute to play, and as CBS cut to the handshake line, it focused – for just a split-second – on Mack. Who was yelling at Fields. A 39-year-old yelling at a college student. It didn’t look good.

I still liked Mack. I just wondered whether he was mature enough to be the head coach. That’s what I wrote about last week in my CBSSports.com column on the tremendous job Mack has done this year in his first year as the Musketeers head coach leading them back to the Sweet 16.

I thought about asking him about the Fields confrontation for an article I wrote on him for Cincinnati Profile magazine before the season, but it instead came out as a question about whether he was a hot-head. He said he was actually pretty laid-back. So, that went nowhere.

But since I knew I wanted to write this column about that particular incident – I figured this was a unique perspective I could provide to the CBSSports readership – I knew I’d have to ask him about Fields.

Here’s what I wrote in the column:

The scene set up this way: Pitt’s Levance Fields had just hit the game-winning 3-pointer to beat the Musketeers in last year’s Sweet 16. At the end of the contest, as the CBS camera crews cut to the handshake lan after the game, they spotted Mack — then an assistant coach under Sean Miller — engaging in some unfriendly postgame banter with Fields.

It was a few seconds of TV that quickly were forgotten by most. But I thought it also showcased a potential hazard, and when Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski hired Mack two months later to replace Miller, the first question that popped to mind was this:

Was Mack really ready for a job like this?

More than a year later, I could feel Mack cringing on the phone when I asked him about those few inglorious seconds.

“We’re all competitive whether we have suits or uniforms on,” Mack said this week before flying to Salt Lake City with his Xavier (26-8) squad to prepare for Thursday’s Sweet 16 showdown with Kansas State (28-7). “Sometimes coaches lose their cool and will do things that maybe they regret. But I’ve handled myself as well as could be expected. I’m not going to change the person that I am. It’s who I am. It’s made me a competitor my whole life.”

I told Mack in an off-the-record aside about why I was asking about Fields, and we talked about it for a few minutes. I think the article turned out pretty well, though I still question whether I should have led with a negative anecdote for what turned out to be a pretty positive story.

I guess it was fine. I guess.

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