The last time Louisville hired a full-time basketball coach, it landed a proven commodity in Xavier's Chris Mack -- a coach who had guided the Musketeers through their transition from the Atlantic 10 to the Big East with impressive results. He entered the Louisville job with a 68.9% career winning percentage and a record of postseason success. His Xavier teams advanced past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament four times in his nine seasons there. It seemed like a slam-dunk hire and was graded as such, with CBS Sports' Matt Norlander explaining that Mack was "viewed as an A-level candidate" within the industry.
That's why his rapid demise has been a shock. Just two seasons after he guided the Cardinals to a two-week stay at the No. 1 ranking the AP Top 25,before the end of his fourth season.
The Cardinals (11-9, 5-5 ACC) will host No. 9 Duke on Saturday as chatter around Louisville turns to who may be Mack's successor. There is plenty to like about the job, which was held by just two coaches -- Denny Crum and Rick Pitino -- between 1971 and 2017. But there is also some dysfunction to consider as the program has been beleaguered in recent years by NCAA violations and internal strife. The university is also embroiled in searches for a president and an athletic director, which could give some candidates pause about leaving a good situation.
Despite those concerns, Louisville men's basketball is the biggest sports attraction in a metropolitan area of more than a million people in a state with no major professional sports. The Cardinals have won three national championships, though its most recent in 2013 was later vacated. The right coach should be able to come in and enjoy early success given the ACC's downturn and changing of the guard within the league's coaching ranks amid the retirements of legends like Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams.
As Mack learned, sustaining success is not easy. But as Crum and Pitino showed before him, the ceiling is at the top of a ladder cutting down nets.
So who are the candidates for the job? Here are some of the names to watch, according to the intel and insight of Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander.
Chris Holtmann, Ohio State coach
The fifth-year Ohio State coach is a Kentucky native who has the Buckeyes in solid condition, though they have failed to advance past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament under his watch. All three of Louisville's national titles have come far more recently than the one (1960) that Ohio State has in its history. If Holtmann feels he has a better chance at winning it all with Louisville in his home state, then perhaps it's a move he would consider.
Steve Forbes, Wake Forest coach
When Bruce Pearl went down at Tennessee, Forbes tumbled with him and landed at the junior college level as the coach at Northwest Florida State. It's been a remarkable rise since then for the 56-year-old longtime college hoops grinder. He led East Tennessee State to a 130-43 mark and appearance in the 2017 NCAA Tournament in five seasons, and he is currently conducting a renaissance at Wake Forest. If Forbes can turn the Demon Deacons from an ACC cellar-dweller into a potential tourney team in two seasons, then imagine what he could do at Louisville in short order.
Wes Miller, Cincinnati coach
After turning UNC Greensboro around during a decade-long run, Miller was due for a big gig. He jumped at Cincinnati when his alma mater, North Carolina, opted to go with Hubert Davis as Roy Williams' replacement. Cincinnati has cooled off a bit since upsetting Illinois by 20 points in November, but at 14-6 (4-3 AAC), the Bearcats are much-improved in Year 1 under Miller. With the Bearcats moving to the prestigious Big 12 soon, it could present an interesting question of conference preference for Miller if Louisville is interested in his services.
Kevin Willard, Seton Hall coach
The argument for Willard is that he spent six seasons working for Pitino at Louisville, a span which included the team's 2005 Final Four run. He's since succeeded as a head coach at Iona, and now he has the Pirates trending toward a sixth 20-win season in the last seven years. The argument against him is that he has just one NCAA Tournament victory to his credit in 12 seasons at Seton Hall, although we'll never know what his 2019-20 team may have accomplished. It finished No. 15 in the final AP poll after the NCAA Tournament was canceled.
Mark Pope, BYU coach
Pope played at Kentucky, but if Louisville fans can get past that minor detail, there is no doubt the man can coach. He's amassed a 61-19 record in two and a half seasons at BYU, and has the Cougars as a projected No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, according to Jerry Palm's latest Bracketology. He did a stint on staff at Wake Forest for the 2010-11 season and would at least bring some familiarity with the ACC.
Kenny Payne, Knicks assistant coach
Payne was a freshman contributor on Louisville's 1986 national championship squad under Crum and played professionally in the NBA and overseas. He has been in coaching for nearly two decades, including one decade spent on Kentucky's staff under John Calipari. The fact that he's never been a head coach at age 55 raises concern about his candidacy for a head job of this magnitude, but it shouldn't eliminate him from consideration. He knows better than anyone the pressure that college coaches in the Bluegrass State are under, and could theoretically rally the fanbase because of his deep ties to the program.
Andy Enfield, USC coach
Enfield's stock has never been higher during his nine-year run at USC than it is now. The Trojans are 17-2 and coming off an Elite Eight appearance. Plus, he's proving amply capable as a recruiter. Matching wits with the aging and changing vanguard within the ACC seems less exhausting than trying to keep pace with Cronin at UCLA and Tommy Lloyd at Arizona. The path to a national title is wider at Louisville, and if Enfield is interested in a return to his Eastern roots, this could make sense.
Ed Cooley, Providence coach
Providence's 11th-year coach has the Friars off to a 16-2 start and ranked No. 17 entering Wednesday's game at Xavier. The 52-year-old veteran of the northeast coaching ranks has guided Providence to five NCAA Tournaments, and it would be fun to see what he could do recruiting to a place with Louisville's prestige. He's probably not the A-list candidate due to his relative lack of NCAA Tournament success or obvious connection to the program or area, but the Cardinals could do worse than hiring a proven Big East head coach.
The SEC guys
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, LSU coach Will Wade and Alabama coach Nate Oats are three hot names in the SEC right now, but the first two from that group jump out for the wrong reasons. Given what Louisville has gone through with Pitino's scandals and the extortion fiasco with Dino Gaudio, hiring a coach with the baggage of a Pearl or Wade may not be in the cards (so to speak). Oats is interesting, though, and could theoretically be enticed by the emphasis on basketball at Louisville as opposed to the sport's secondary status in the athletic hierarchy at Alabama.
Matt McMahon, Murray State coach
Murray State has a long track record of sending its coaches on to big-time gigs, with Mick Cronin being the most prominent example. The Racers have another rising star in the profession in seventh-year coach Matt McMahon. He won an NCAA Tournament game in 2019 with Ja Morant at point guard and has continued to thrive since Morant's departure. Going from Murray to Louisville would be a bigger jump than the the one Cronin made to Cincinnati, but McMahon has been patient and is plenty deserving of a larger opportunity.
Drew Valentine, Loyola Chicago coach
Loyola Chicago's first-year head coach has quickly proven he's got what it takes to run a program. Though just 30, he was the obvious candidate to take over the Ramblers' head job when Porter Moser left for Oklahoma. Valentine has Loyola Chicago back in the NCAA Tournament hunt at 15-3 (6-1 MVC), and should go ahead and get accustomed to hearing his name bandied about during big-name searches. As a former graduate assistant for Tom Izzo at Michigan State and Moser's longtime understudy, Valentine could absolutely be one of the budding stars in basketball coaching.