A new chapter in Louisville basketball is about to begin. The Cardinals have a chance to make their second Final Four appearance this decade, barring any surprises from the NCAA tournament. Despite some high-profile coaching hires and defections, Rick Pitino remains on his way out of Kentucky as he transitions into an advisory role with the team for this season before becoming an assistant coach next year.
The Louisville basketball coaching search is a process that has been ongoing for months now. The Cardinals have hired their new head coach, and the search is still on going.
The Louisville Cardinals were 9-1 overall and 4-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference little over a year ago after a road victory at Wake Forest. Under Chris Mack, U of L improved from a 7-seed in the NCAA tournament in Year 1 to a second-place ACC finish in Year 2. Louisville was aiming to challenge for a conference title in a down ACC last season.
Mack has been unemployed for a year.
After less than four seasons, Louisville is scheduled to part ways with Mack on Wednesday. What went wrong? Last season, the Cardinals faltered after a strong start, ending 13-7 overall and missing the NCAA tournament. Then Mack was caught up in an extortion attempt by Dino Gaudio, a former assistant coach who Mack sacked last spring. Mack received a six-game punishment as a consequence of his handling of the case, and it sparked further NCAA scrutiny, leading to three additional complaints against the men’s basketball team.
Following Mack’s six-game suspension, Louisville is 6-8 and has lost five of its last six games, including a dreadful road loss at Virginia on Monday.
The atmosphere in Louisville has deteriorated, and the drama is being played out in an unusually public manner. Mack indicated many times in post-game press conferences that he was having problems communicating with his players, and when asked Saturday whether players were still reacting to the coaching staff, senior Malik Williams said, “I don’t have a reaction for that.”
Mack and interim athletic director Josh Heird met many times throughout the season, and the parties finally concluded, according to ESPN, that the situation had gotten too toxic for Mack to stay. According to insiders, Mack and Heird were on the same page: it was time to choose a new path.
So, before plunging into the search process, the Cardinals will have a chance to analyze the landscape of contenders — but what comes next?
Chris Mack went 15-15 in his last 30 games, which included a six-game ban to begin the 2021-22 season. Getty Images/Michael Hickey photo
description of the position
Louisville is a top-10 job in the country, despite not being one of the traditional blue bloods. The Cardinals have everything they need to be successful on a continuous basis: lots of resources, top-tier facilities, an active and involved fan base, and a rich history. They’ve won three national titles (the 2013 title was annulled) and been in ten Final Fours (the 2012 and 2013 appearances were vacated).
Of course, there are certain disadvantages. Because there is no athletic director or president, the next coach’s supervisor may change weeks or months after he or she is appointed. The Independent Accountability Resolution Process has yet to decide on the alleged rules infractions under Rick Pitino or Mack, thus the program is still under NCAA scrutiny. The area isn’t exactly an ACC hotspot in terms of recruitment, and Kentucky still reigns supreme in the state.
However, even with all of the pros and cons, it’s still a historically successful program with the resources and facilities to be a national player every season. It’s also the greatest job in the ACC outside of Duke and North Carolina.
Who do you think would be interested?
Is Bruce Pearl a no-go for a school that has spent years dealing with NCAA violations? USA TODAY Sports/Ray Carlin
Candidates who may be considered
Mick Cronin, UCLA: This feels a bit far-fetched to me, given that Cronin is at one of the elite programs in college basketball and just led the Bruins to a Final Four before signing a contract extension through 2027. But Cronin is from Cincinnati, spent a couple of years at Louisville as an assistant and is close to Pitino (unclear whether that’s a good or bad thing in this search). If he was legitimately interested, it would be a no-brainer hire for the Cardinals.
Bruce Pearl, Auburn: Judging by the sentiments of the segment of Louisville fans on Twitter, Pearl would be met with universal praise within the fan base. Multiple sources have indicated that it’s unlikely Pearl will be the pick, though. He was given a three-year show-cause penalty back in 2011 and was suspended two games by the NCAA this season; can Louisville really hire someone with past issues given its own NCAA problems? With that said, Pearl is the boss of the nation’s No. 1 team and is objectively one of the best coaches in college basketball.
Chris Holtmann, Ohio State: A Lexington native who grew up a Kentucky fan coaching Louisville? That would be the scenario if Holtmann took over the Cardinals. With that said, it’s one of the few jobs that’s on par with or better than the one he currently has in Columbus. Indiana reportedly reached out to Holtmann last March, but his buyout was eight figures at the time. It’s significantly less now. But he has the Buckeyes in the Top 25 once again and is bringing in an excellent recruiting class next season.
Nate Oats, Alabama: Oats did an unbelievable job with the Crimson Tide last season, leading them to an SEC regular-season championship and a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament. They’ve been inconsistent this season but have already beaten Gonzaga and Houston. This is probably a nonstarter, though: Oats’ buyout after this season is nearly $12.6 million.
Eric Musselman, Arkansas: Another SEC coach who signed a lucrative contract extension last year, Musselman might listen to the Cardinals. His buyout isn’t nearly as large as Oats’, and he has never stayed at one place for very long. But he seems happy at Arkansas, went to the Elite Eight last season and is bringing in two top-10 recruits next season.
Kevin Willard, Seton Hall: Also a potential candidate at Maryland, Willard ticks a lot of the same boxes as Cronin outside of the regional ties (though Willard did play college basketball at Western Kentucky). But he’s a longtime Pitino guy, spent several seasons at Louisville as an assistant coach and has achieved plenty of success at multiple schools. Willard led the Pirates to four straight NCAA tournaments from 2016 through 2019 and then won a share of the Big East title in 2020. He has long been linked to other jobs but hasn’t left South Orange yet.
Dana Altman, Oregon: He might not have the personality Louisville is looking for in the post-Mack era, but Altman is one of the best coaches in the country and has been to seven of the last eight NCAA tournaments — including a Final Four in 2017 and five second-weekend appearances. He’s also proven he can recruit consistently (albeit in Nike’s backyard at the brand’s flagship school). I also think Altman might listen if Louisville called.
Ed Cooley, Providence: While not a natural geographical fit in a coaching career spent almost exclusively in the Northeast and New England, Cooley has Providence in the Top 25 this season after a 16-2 start. He went to five straight NCAA tournaments between 2014 and 2018 and would’ve gone in 2020 before the tournament was canceled. Cooley last signed a contract extension in 2019, when he was linked to Michigan.
Mike Boynton is seen as a rising talent in the game after leading Oklahoma State to the NCAA tournament last season. AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
Mike Boynton, Oklahoma State: Boynton boosted his stock with last season’s success, landing No. 1 recruit and eventual No. 1 draft pick Cade Cunningham and then winning a game in the NCAA tournament. The Cowboys aren’t eligible for this year’s tournament, but they just won at Baylor two weekends ago. He also signed a contract extension last spring, and the buyout is more than $9 million.
Brad Underwood, Illinois: Underwood has been a consistent winner at three schools now, going to three NCAA tournaments in three seasons at Stephen F. Austin, guiding Oklahoma State to the dance in his one year in Stillwater and then leading Illinois to a 1-seed in last year’s NCAA tournament before a second-round upset. The Fighting Illini are back in the Top 25 this season. Underwood did sign an extension in September through 2027.
Steve Forbes, Wake Forest: Forbes has done as good a job as anyone in college basketball this season, leading the Demon Deacons to a 17-4 start — after going just 6-16 in his first season at the helm. Forbes has won everywhere he’s been, winning 130 games in five seasons at East Tennessee State before heading to Winston-Salem. He has excelled at quick turnarounds and at having success in the transfer portal, which could help here. He also has a one-year NCAA show-cause penalty on his record, though, for failing to cooperate with an NCAA investigation of Tennessee while an assistant under Bruce Pearl in 2011.
Kenny Payne, New York Knicks assistant: Payne will undoubtedly get mentioned early and often in connection to this job. He played his college ball at Louisville before getting picked in the first round of the 1989 NBA draft, then spent a decade a couple of hours away as an assistant coach at Kentucky. He’s an elite recruiter and has been credited with the development of several of the Wildcats’ big men. Payne has been with the Knicks the past two seasons but was briefly linked to the DePaul job last spring.
Wes Unseld Jr., Washington Wizards: Here’s a wild-card name — but a real long shot. People simply don’t leave NBA head-coaching jobs for college jobs very often. But Unseld Jr. is the son of Hall of Famer Wes Unseld, who grew up in Louisville and played for the Cardinals in the 1960s. He would have plenty of momentum if he was at all interested.
Wes Miller, Cincinnati: He’s been with the Bearcats for only one season, but he has done a pretty good job thus far and went to two NCAA tournaments in his final four seasons at UNC Greensboro. His buyout is a reasonable $3 million before March 31, $2.5 million after March 31. Miller played in the ACC at North Carolina.
Scott Davenport, Bellarmine: I don’t really see this happening, but there’s enough local support to at least put his name on the list. Davenport was born in Louisville, went to Louisville and spent a decade at Louisville as an assistant coach. He’s been the head coach of Bellarmine since 2005, guiding them from Division II to Division I and winning a D-II national title in 2011.
There isn’t an apparent choice for Louisville yet, in my opinion. Cronin, as previously said, must be one of the first names on the list. If he’s interested, he should be the one to go after. Pearl, in my opinion, would be an excellent hiring because he would inject new life into the program and re-energize the fan base both on and off the court. But, if Pearl isn’t a possibility and Cronin says no, where does Louisville go from there? Oats, Musselman, and Boynton may be removed off the list due to buyouts and money. Willard, another Pitino protégé, may be the solution in that situation.
The “Louisville basketball coach fired” is a search for the next Louisville basketball head coach. The school has yet to find a replacement, and the season has started. Reference: louisville basketball coach fired.
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