Xavier head coach Chris Mack discusses how great of a season it’s been for college basketball in Cincinnati.
The Enquirer/Kareem Elgazzar
After nearly a decade of stability, Xavier University basketball now looks for another coach as Chris Mack is headed to the University of Louisville, according to various media reports Tuesday afternoon.
For a fan base fatigued by expected turnover at Xavier’s head coaching position, all eyes now turn directly to Xavier University Athletic Director Greg Christopher.
Here are some candidates that could replace Mack:
• Travis Steele (associate head coach, Xavier)
Relevant experience: Nine years as Xavier assistant; eight NCAA Tournaments; primary recruiter for Xavier. Member of Nike’s Villa 7 consortium.
Why Steele? Long-time Mack assistant Travis Steele is the continuity hire. He’s the hire that keeps Xavier’s foothold in recruiting, particularly in the Midwest. He’s the hire that extends a proud Xavier tradition of promoting from within and not skipping a beat. Steele is the most logical replacement for Mack because he’s the most familiar with the inner-workings of the program, the incoming recruiting class, the returning players and the Big East. He’s been a trusted in-game adviser for Mack.
Why not Steele? Two big questions come to mind with Steele. The most important one relates to the fact that, at Xavier, basketball is the front porch of the university, as school administrators like to say. Is Steele capable of being one of the 2-3 people sitting out on that figurative front porch and being the face of Xavier University like Mack was? Steele is an interpersonal charmer in one-on-one situations, but does he have the charisma to rally a fan base, a donor base, and a Big East program through a coaching transition? This isn’t to suggest Steele doesn’t have that in his toolbox, but it is an unknown.
Another outstanding question: Would Steele follow Mack to Louisville (assuming Mack goes)? Since Steele was reportedly chest-deep in the recent head coaching search at Evansville, there’s good reason to suspect he possesses head coaching aspirations. But if offered a chance to partner again with Mack at big-money Louisville, would he too take the trip down Interstate 71 to be with the Cardinals? Some people do want to be career assistant coaches if they’re on a staff they really like. Maybe Steele is of that ilk.
• Pat Kelsey (head coach, Winthrop University)
Relevant experience: Head coach at Winthrop since 2012; one NCAA Tournament appearance, two Big South Conference regular-season championships at Winthrop; former Xavier and Wake Forest assistant; former Elder High School boys basketball assistant.
Other: Elder High School graduate; member of Elder’s 1993 state championship basketball team; 1998 Xavier University graduate; three-year player for the Musketeers (transferred from Wyoming).
Why Kelsey? A humble, sturdy son of Cincinnati, Kelsey would be an interesting candidate. His respect for the Xavier job would be immense. He’d appreciate where Xavier’s basketball program’s come from having been there himself, where it is now and where it can go. He’d be more than a feel-good, coming-home story, too. Kelsey’s taken the helm in his first head coaching gig at Winthrop and revived a proud basketball tradition there. That’s one thing Kelsey has on Steele: Not just head coaching experience, but the experience of head coaching and rebuilding a program into a top team in its respective league (the Big South in this case). Rebuilding a middling program into a winner is arguably a lot harder than inheriting a firm situation. For Kelsey, he’s been there and done that.
Why not Kelsey: The UMass thing. That might be a scarlet letter Kelsey wears forever. For those unaware of the situation, Kelsey was set to take the head coaching job at UMass last spring before abruptly backing out in the 11th hour. He was almost signed, almost sealed and almost delivered, and then he wasn’t. Kelsey, as one Winthrop trustee described it, “broke an engagement,” but didn’t break a formal contract. Still, Kelsey was far along in the process and it was a public relations nightmare for all involved. Fair or unfair, that’s going to give any employer pause when talking to Kelsey. It’ll likely result in some uncomfortable questions and there’s no doubt it would raise concerns about his commitment. Again, is that fair? Not necessarily, but it is the reality.
• John Brannen (head coach, Northern Kentucky University)
Relevant experience: Head coach at NKU since 2015 (55-41 overall record); 2018 Horizon League regular season champions; 2017 Horizon League Tournament Championship and NCAA Tournament (first round); University of Alabama Interim Head Coach/Associate Head Coach/Assistant Coach (2009-2015). VCU assistant coach (2006-2009); assistant coach, St. Bonaventure; assistant coach, Eastern Kentucky; assistant coach, College of Charleston. Member of Nike’s Villa 7 consortium.
Why Brannen? There’s a lot to like about Brannen. Let’s start with the fact that he’s a local guy, a native of Alexandria, Kentucky that graduated from Newport Central Catholic. As Greater Cincinnatians know, it just means more around here to be from here. As far as basketball acumen, Brannen was one of the minds behind the short-lived but fascinating VCU men’s basketball dynasty as an assistant coach and recruiter there. He’s tasted basketball in a Power 5 conference (SEC) during limited stints as the head man at Alabama. Finally, he undertook a big challenge at NKU and has lifted that program to unprecedented success after it emerged from its transition to Division I hoops a bit worse for the wear. Since going 9-21 in his first year at NKU, all Brannen’s done over the last two years is hang banners at BB&T Arena.
Why not Brannen? There’s not much downside with this selection if it came to fruition.
And, finally, the highly-unlikely-but-fun-to-think-about candidate…
• Thad Matta
Relevant experience: Head coach at Butler (2000-01; 24-8 record), Xavier (2001-2004; 78-23 record), Ohio State (2004-2017; 337-123 record); Thirteen career NCAA Tournament appearances; Two Final Fours; One NIT championship.
Why Matta? I’m if going to do one of these “who might the next coach be?” lists, I’m going to have some fun with it, OK? To be absolutely clear (not that this will come as much of a surprise to many of you), I have no information to substantiate that Matta would be in the running for the Xavier job. All I know is that Matta is trying to get back into coaching and, on paper, the more you weigh this highly unlikely option, the more it actually (kinda) starts to make sense. For the purposes of our conversation here, it also injects a bit of levity and fun into what is an unquestionably emotional time for Xavier fans.
Matta still knows his X’s and O’s, and Xavier’s all grown up now. Unlike when Matta was coaching the Musketeers more than a decade ago, Matta would be inheriting a fully-formed, fully-stocked, high-major basketball program in the midst of unprecedented success.
This isn’t a perfect marriage, obviously, and doesn’t make sense for as many reasons as it could work. Most importantly, it’s unclear if Matta’s voice and basketball vision can still resonate with high school stars. His recruiting prowess petered out and ultimately cost him his job at OSU. It’s possible Matta’s separation agreement with OSU could also prevent him from coaching at Xavier.
On the flip side, Matta’s a still a big name in college basketball and, given reports he’s talked to Georgia and Ole Miss about their head coaching jobs, it appears he wants back in the game. To say this is a stretch is an understatement, but stranger things have happened in intercollegiate coaching searches.
Correction: Pat Kelsey was a three-year player at Xavier, not a four-year player.