For Chris Mack, Louisville's rebuild is important -- but not as much as work-life balance

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Open the basement door to Chris Mack's home and you'll glimpse a large framed picture covering one of the walls along the stairs. The photograph depicts the locker room celebration following the Louisville Cardinals' late November win over Michigan State.

Further into the basement, between the pool table and a Ms. Pac-Man arcade game, you'll find another wall-sized photo -- this one of a sold-out KFC Yum! Center. Sitting in the shadow of the image are six Louisville Cardinals bar stools. Mack has been the head coach at Louisville for just nine months but has made the job his own very quickly -- and Louisville's victory over Michigan State cemented it.

The Cardinals had already procured a top-five 2019 recruiting class, but had come up just short in marquee games in early November against Tennessee and Marquette. Finishing the job, on their home court, against one of the best programs in college basketball -- it felt different.

"I think it energizes our fan base," Mack said the next morning. "Gets them excited about Louisville basketball again, when so much stuff has been negative around the program for a couple years, perception-wise. For our players, I felt like it validated a lot of the work they've been putting in."

It may have felt like the last few years of upheaval disappeared in one night. A year prior, the crowds at the KFC Yum! Center felt different, with an air of uncertainty about them. On that night, the uncertainty no longer existed.

More than anything else, the win truly marked the arrival of Mack's tenure at Louisville.

He walked off the court that night throwing an L up to the cheering home crowd.

It was clear: This is Mack's program now.

The first person Mack acknowledged while walking off the floor after the Michigan State win was his daughter, 12-year-old Hailee. It was a short interaction, mostly a mutual outburst of joy after the first top-25 win of his time at Louisville. Mack later said it was an ode to the dance contests he and Hailee have at home; he wanted to show off some moves in public to celebrate the win.

Those who know Mack -- or even those whose window into his life and career comes on Twitter -- shouldn't have been surprised that his family was a part of this scene.

For the past few years, Mack's family -- especially daughters Hailee, 13-year-old Lainee, and 4-year-old son Brayden -- have been seen with him nearly everywhere he goes. At conference media days, both when he was in the Big East at Xavier Musketeers and now in the ACC. On the road at grassroots tournaments in July or at high school games, watching prospective recruits. In free hours during the live recruiting periods, you might spot the Mack family splashing together in hotel pools in Las Vegas or Dallas or Augusta, Ga. Mack even brought Hailee to Ireland for an in-home visit with the mother of Louisville signee Aidan Igiehon.

If it strikes one as unusual to see a high-major men's basketball coach bringing his children on the road or into the gym with him, it should.

"It's everything to me," Mack said. "When I die, hopefully a long, long time from now, I'd rather be considered a better dad than a better coach. And that's it. How I got to grow up with my dad coaching me in T-ball and baseball and soccer and being my basketball coach, through the elementary school years and him coming to every high school game -- it sucks for my kids that I can't be that dad. I can't. When my kids play in a volleyball tournament right here in Louisville and I can't make it to one match in July, I feel like a heel.

"Any time I can get them out of school, bring them with me, keep those intertwined and make it as normal -- even though it's not. And they get some of the coolest experiences I think a kid could ever ask for. When I'm long gone, they're not gonna remember meeting Larry Bird at the Cintas Center. They're not gonna care about that stuff. They're gonna remember how much time did Dad spend with me, and so that's why it's important to me."

Mack's two daughters grew up going to practices and games with their mom, Christi, when she was a high school coach in Cincinnati.

So it was maybe a logical next step to bring them on the road. The first time was nearly 10 years ago, when Mack decided to bring Lainee to a Xavier road game at Saint Louis. Christi wasn't able to make the game, but Mack still wanted to bring Lainee, who was 3 or 4 at the time.

Christi had a few reservations.

"Who's going to watch her?" she asked when her husband called her to say everything was going well. "Who's going to take her during shootaround?" A team manager watched her during shootaround, and Christi's parents arrived to watch her during the game. Christi said Lainee quickly learned where she should go or who she needed to ask for something. Overall, it went smoothly -- and significantly, Xavier won the game.

"From that point on, I'm gonna try to figure out, any time I can go somewhere, as long as it's not totally derailing the idea of going to school, I'm gonna figure out ways the kids can come and just be around," Mack said. "There's a lot of idle time when you go to a Peach Jam [a high-profile summer recruiting event], when you're driving from the gym back to the hotel, you're landing, going to the hotel, it's 9:30, and you're probably gonna grab something to eat late when you shouldn't. And no disrespect to my fellow coaches because they're awesome, I'd rather get some chicken wings with my kid."

Mack's devotion to family time isn't just on the road, either. He generally gets home around 6 or 7 p.m., and there's one family rule when he arrives: no talking on the phone as he's walking into the house. Mack will eat dinner with his wife and kids, and then while they go off to do homework or finish up something, he will park himself on their big living room sectional and watch film on his computer for about four hours.

So he's still putting in the hours, just at home instead of in the office.

"He watches as much film as a head coach as he did as an assistant coach," Christi said. "He still grades games. He's constantly logging those things. I remember being shocked that he still did those things as a head coach. It's an opportunity to watch more film, to really know his team."

It helps that Christi played and coached basketball -- she's a Louisville native whose family still lives in the city, and was a standout at Holy Cross High School (Kentucky) before playing at Dayton, where she is in the school's Hall of Fame -- and his daughters have grown up loving basketball. Christi relayed a recent story where Chris and Lainee went to see Louisville signee David Johnson -- and Lainee spent the next morning discussing everything Johnson did in the game, referencing his stats and plays.

The daughters are fully invested in their father's team. They will watch and rewatch games on their own, especially Xavier's 2017 NCAA tournament win over Arizona that sent the Musketeers to the Elite Eight, or so many Xavier vs. Cincinnati games.

The family never talks about this, though. They never discuss Mack's work-life balance, how he juggles being the head coach of one of the biggest programs in college basketball with being a husband and the father of three kids.

It's just something that happens.

"We do what's best for our family," Christi said. "There's already enough guilt in the job. It's our way of Chris feeling like he's more a part of their lives. They love being around him and the players. ... I think you create what environment you're comfortable in. You can't balance -- it's an unfair statement. Chris has never said 'balance.' He doesn't like to use that term. He can't do it. He can't equal his job and his family. Basketball's going to end at some point. It just is. It's the reality of it. For Chris and our family, we want to know that's there when basketball is over."

When Louisville assistant coach Mike Pegues first saw Mack and his daughters on a recruiting trip, it immediately caught his attention. It was different, it was unique. But it also opened Pegues' eyes and earned Mack instant credibility.

"It gives me hope that you can actually do this job and still balance your family and include your family in it and be able to handle the demands of a big-time college coach and still have a life," Pegues said. "It gives me hope that that's actually plausible. Coaches have been struggling with that for years."

Not every coach can do it this way, not every coach wants to do it this way. But Mack does, and it's hard to argue with the results. He went to eight NCAA Tournaments in nine seasons at Xavier, reaching the Sweet 16 four times and the Elite Eight once.

And he did it his own way.

"He's always down [in the basement] with the girls dancing and bee-bopping -- if Louisville fans could see," Christi said. "He doesn't care. He is who he is. It's why I fell in love with him. It's why our kids are who they are. He doesn't take things too serious. He's really a good balance for all of us."

"Life is too short," Mack added. "We're going to work like hell to win every game we can. But I'm not having film sessions at 3:30 in the morning. There's a quality of life outside basketball, too."

When Mack took over in March, it marked a resolution to six months of questions about the status of the Louisville job. David Padgett had been named interim coach after Rick Pitino and two assistant coaches were fired amid the program's latest scandal -- this one an FBI investigation. Padgett went a respectable 22-14 in his lone season in charge, but amid the chaos and uncertainty swirling around the program, there wasn't a single committed freshman for 2018-19 and only eight returning scholarship players for Mack.

In May, forward Lance Thomas transferred to Memphis, and the already numbers-challenged Cardinals swung and missed at late attempts to land a few 2018 recruits.

The hardest part wasn't figuring out personnel, though.

"I don't think I could have taken over a more polar opposite to how you play the game from coach Pitino's to mine," Mack said. "That's not a negative; he's a Hall of Fame coach. He's incredible. They stressed being out in the passing lanes, pressing, denying, blocking shots at the rim. And ours is all about staying between your man and the basket, staying down on shot fakes. You're trying to correct habits within our system that we consider undisciplined -- and for coach's system, it's a great job, that's what you're supposed to do."

A few things were working in Mack's favor. One, most of the players had barely played for Pitino. The rising sophomores took part in summer and fall workouts with Pitino, but he was gone before the season started. Two, Mack and his staff had recruited a few of the players -- Malik Williams, Jordan Nwora -- while they were at Xavier. There was a level of familiarity that, in Mack's eyes, bought them some time to make an impression.

After assessing the remaining 2018 landscape, the Cardinals turned toward the graduate transfer route and landed Christen Cunningham (Samford), Khwan Fore (Richmond) and Akoy Agau (SMU). Fore didn't commit until June 2, while Agau didn't join the fold until June 22 -- meaning the roster-building process extended longer than usual.

"I wanted to build our relationship from the very beginning, through workouts, through sit-downs," Mack said. "I think when a player trusts a coach and they get to know them outside the gym, what they're all about, I think it can work. They had to have some faith."

With so many new faces, Mack brought the entire team to his lake house for a long summer weekend. They spent time out on the boat, swimming,and hanging out. It was one of the first weekends his entire Louisville team was together, as graduate transfers Fore and Agau had just arrived for summer session and the returning players were back on campus.

"It was funny to see a few of those guys in life jackets," Mack said. "We had guys clinging to the side of the boat, like Leonardo DiCaprio."

Jokes aside, it helped bring the team together.

"It was definitely a team-building and bonding exercise," senior guard Christen Cunningham said. "It was something cool to do. It kind of showed us another side of him. I had never been out on a boat, really. Took us tubing and stuff like that. It was cool to bond that way off the court."

"It showed us another side of him, just how he is as a person off the court," junior wing V.J. King added. "It was really fun."

The chemistry of this season's team can be partially traced to that July weekend at the lake house.

"There was almost like a 'feeling out' that had to take place," says assistant coach Luke Murray, who came with Mack from Xavier. "You saw people kind of relax. It helped move things forward. It felt like something that was different for them. You had this coach you weren't totally sure of, willing to bring you into his place let you guys have fun. Create that sort of environment where people are comfortable with one another. From the time he got here, it was 'you're my guys,' there was never any sort of 'when I get my guys in here.' He had a real appreciation for the players' belief in him and in Louisville, and I think they felt that in that moment."

"The darkest clouds elicit the brightest lightning bolts," Mack said at his introductory conference, addressing the controversy. "And those lightning bolts are coming."

After all, Mack was -- and is -- competing with, if not totally drowning out, the negative noise of stripper scandals, stripped national titles and an ongoing FBI investigation.

On the court, Louisville is slightly ahead of schedule. It sits at 9-3 heading into Saturday's annual rivalry game against Kentucky, with two big wins over Michigan State and Seton Hall. One of the losses came to Tennessee, while the other two were by a combined four points to Marquette and Indiana. The Cardinals are receiving votes in both the AP and Coaches Top 25 polls, and they're in position to compete for an NCAA tournament bid come March.

Off the court, Louisville is excelling on the recruiting trail. The Cardinals exited the early signing period with the No. 2 recruiting class in the country, after having the No. 1 group for much of the fall. Mack landed five ESPN 100 prospects in the 2019 class, the most of any program nationally. That's significant when considering Louisville has no idea what its ultimate fate will be following the FBI probe and an NCAA enforcement process that has largely yet to unfold.

"It's gonna be what it's gonna be," Akoy Agau said of the lingering uncertainty around the program. "It's still talked about now, it's not gonna go away. But it's not something we're really focusing on. ... A lot of that, we aren't paying attention to it much. Us winning has definitely taken the negativity away. The character of the guys, doing the right things. Leading by example."

The job isn't finished, though. Mack will continue working toward putting his stamp on one of the biggest programs in college basketball -- while also trying to perfect the work-life balance that's so difficult for coaches to maintain.

And those dark clouds -- are they gone yet?

"I think the sun's starting to shine," Mack said. "I wouldn't say it's 3 o'clock on a July Saturday afternoon. But we're getting there."