There was a time when Steve Kragthorpe was going to do a wonderful job as the new head coach of the Louisville football program. A time when Kragthorpe’s laid-back persona was going to serve as the perfect contrast to the jarringly inimical Bobby Petrino. A time when the Tulsa transplant was winning every press conference and reassuring all of us that he was poised to keep college football’s newest bourgeoning powerhouse rolling toward glory without so much as a stop to use the restroom.
We forget because it’s convenient. Repression is always the most agreeable route to take in the years following something that didn’t go as planned.
Here’s something I didn’t forget ...
In the summer of 2007, I met up at a bar with a couple of members of the U of L football team. After a few drinks, they both began to open up about their new head coach. They told stories about confusion during practice, about seemingly straightforward questions going unanswered, and about an explicit culture clash for which there appeared to be no obvious solution.
These were all minor issues compared to the paramount problem: The new head coach was showing no discernible desire to try and rectify any of this. If anything, it seemed like Kragthorpe was attempting to de-emphasize the importance of football and everything that went along with it. Perhaps he was secretly working long, arduous hours behind the scenes, but no member of the program he had been put in charge of was seeing or believing that, and that was all that mattered.
This was the first time I got the sense that the Steve Kragthorpe era at Louisville might not be one of great prosperity.
Few endeavors in life are successful if the person running the show isn’t at least giving the impression that they’re working at least as hard as anyone who might be doing something remotely similar. The next three years of Cardinal football would drive that point home with merciless force.
The situation Chris Mack has inherited with the Louisville basketball program is completely counter what Kragthorpe was walking into over a decade ago, but the preseason job description for the new face of a power program remains unchanged: Win your press conferences, galvanize the fan base, work your ass off, produce some tangible evidence that you’ve been working your ass off.
In five months, Mack has checked each one of these boxes during a time when doing so has never been more difficult. When I say that, I’m not talking about the restraints on recruiting or the uncertainty of what the NCAA may do with the FBI stuff. I’m talking about us.
You see, Louisville fans are pissed. More pissed than we’ve ever been, which is saying something. We’re pissed about the banner, pissed about the NCAA in general, pissed about the football team, pissed about the 2016 postseason ban, pissed that other fans aren’t viewing every issue involved in all this exactly the same way we are, pissed about hearing the same shitty hooker joke 35 times a week, pissed about all the lawsuits, pissed about the abruptness of everything that transpired last fall, pissed about this fucking weather, pissed that there are almost certainly more NCAA punishments coming at some point, pissed that it’s impossible to even remotely predict what those punishments might be, pissed about the ‘75 loss to UCLA, pissed about the color of the Clark Memorial Bridge, pissed that Louisville has been painted as the poster child of everything that’s wrong with college athletics while the atrocities at Michigan State, Baylor, Ohio State and North Carolina haven’t seemed to stick as firmly to their respective athletic programs, pissed that we even know the basic ins and outs of how the U of L Board of Trustees operates, and more than anything, pissed that something we love and enjoy so much has run through an elaborate dismemberment machine without a break since October of 2015.
So, yeah, welcome to Louisville, coach. By the way, your first Kentucky Derby is going to be the rainiest in the 144-year history of the event.
That Mack has thrived under these conditions is nothing short of remarkable. Anyone who attempts to tell you differently is doing so only for the sake of being a contrarian.
The relatability (he eats at Roosters!), the relaxed but eloquent demeanor (the media loves him!), the long overdue commitment to social media (Ryan McMahon made a three in practice and we got to see it!); all of that is great, but none of it matters if it doesn’t come along with some tangible evidence that Louisville basketball is going to return to life as a national powerhouse under Mack’s guidance.
Which is where we get to this:
At the moment, Louisville is the only program in the country with four commits from the 2019 class who have all been given a four-star or better designation. Mack has received a new pledge in each of the last three weeks, and he doesn’t appear to be finished just yet. Five-star big man Aidan Igiehon will be in town this weekend on his official visit, and has the potential to serve as the crown jewel of a glass that, with his addition, would be almost guaranteed to finish ranked somewhere in the nation’s top five.
Count me among those who prescribe to worn, but true, fan-isms like “Louisville is always going to be Louisville” and “the program is bigger than any one person.” But make no mistake about it, this isn’t happening because “Louisville is still Louisville” or because 17-year-old kids are excited about the future of the ACC Network and the addition of a new bar and lounge area at the KFC Yum Center. This is happening because Mack and his staff have been busting their asses since the moment they left the new head coach’s introductory press conference.
By my count, Mack spent nine straight days in the middle of this month in nine different cities visiting recruits. One of those cities was Dublin. Not Ohio, Ireland.
“The hard thing about being on the road that much is being away from your current team,” Mack said on Ramsey & Rutherford earlier this week. “As great as it is to try and go out and be a great ambassador for your own program, sell a vision and try to gain commitments from high school seniors or watch high school juniors in open gyms or whatever it is, you always struggle internally with that’s a day when you are not on campus and you are not with your own team. But it’s a necessary evil right now.
“We have to do this to make sure the future of our program looks bright.”
Nearly every move Mack has made this month, including Friday night’s “Louisville Live” event, has been layered in savviness. For the sake of brevity, I’ll only highlight two.
The Saturday Open Runs
On the surface, opening up the team’s Saturday scrimmages to the public seems to be a play to the fans. An homage to the Crawford Gymnasium days, when Louisvillians of any stature could wander into a gym and watch some of the best basketball players in America go at it without having to spend a dime.
A layer lower is a brilliant recruiting tactic. Even in this diminished state, Louisville has one clear advantage over 95 percent of the other programs in Division-I: A fan base that is almost sickly devoted to basketball and willing to showcase that devotion even in the middle of football season. What better way to showcase this reality to a 17-year-old star than to put him in a situation where it’s unavoidably apparent?
Texas Tech isn’t packing a practice gym with rabid fans to watch a mid-September scrimmage. Neither is Oregon, Georgia, Oklahoma or any other program in the country, save five or six.
Toss in the opportunity to meet and play against one of 20 best basketball players in the world right now (‘sup, Donovan?) and you’ve got yourself a pitch that’s almost impossible to beat.
The Trip to Ireland
For those unaware, on the day to Samuell Williamson committed to Louisville (Sept. 17), Chris Mack was in Ireland. He and his daughter, Hailee, flew to Dublin to pay a surprise visit to Aidan Igiehon’s mother, who lives there.
The principal message here is obvious: This head coach wants you to play for him so badly that in the middle of a dozen recruiting trips, he flew across the Atlantic just to spend some time with your mother in Ireland. As was the case with the open runs, however, there is a secondary brilliance here.
Mack did something that you almost never see in the recruiting world. He made a move that was impossible for any of his peers to match.
Now, if you’re one of the other three schools on Igiehon’s final list and you don’t go to Ireland to hang out with Mama Igiehon, well, then it’s obvious that you don’t want him as badly as Louisville does. If you do make the move (St. John’s sent an assist across the pond), you’re merely following Mack’s lead and only doing it because he did.
Insert Italian Chef Kiss GIF here
Newly hired head coaches can’t win games during their first offseason. The closest they can come is communicating to their often bruised and uneasy fan base that no coach in the country is going to work harder once the opportunity to start producing some Ws does present itself.
I can’t guarantee that Chris Mack is going to kill it at Louisville. Nobody can. All I can do is pay respect to what he’s accomplished so far, which has been beyond commendable. It also couldn’t have happened at a better time for a fan base in desperate need of something to feel good and hopeful about.