(Photo: Getty Images)
Chris Mack is leaving both Xavier and its basketball program in better places than when he became the head coach nearly nine years ago. In part because of the raised profile of the Big East, and in very large part because of some excellent players, he's elevated the profile of the school, the program, and, of course, himself.
Which is why he's about to be the highly-compensated head man at the University of Louisville, a legacy job that's been filled by just four men on a full-time basis since World War II. Mack is headed off to lead one of college basketball's great programs, a heritage-rich school in the ACC that has resources most schools lack, and that, even with the potential for more NCAA trouble looming, represents chances at bigger paychecks and even bigger postseason success.
In his wake, Mack leaves a Xavier program that would've faced plenty of uncertainty even had the head coach stayed in place. The Musketeers will be moving on from a class of four productive seniors, including one whose number will one day hang in the Cintas Center's rafters. Add to that any possible waffling by current Xavier commits, and the next head coach will have his hands full.
Travis Steele should be that next head coach.
That's not to say that Greg Christopher shouldn't do an exhaustive search for the right guy, a search that - if we're being honest - really should've began months ago, but Xavier is in an enviable position despite next season's uncertainties. They don't need a guy to come in and sell the program. They don't need someone to move season ticket packages, or mobilize the fan base, or even make much of a splash nationally because of his name. They need someone who can tackle some of the program's immediate challenges and maintain what Chris and his predecessors built. XU's AD can afford to play it safe. Hiring Travis Steele would be the safe play.
It would also be a play that'd mirror what happened when Chris Mack took over for Sean Miller in 2009. Mack was, by all accounts, exceptionally well-prepared for his interview with then-AD Mike Bobinski, and despite having no head coaching experience himself, he'd worked under Sean Miller for years, developing an already built-in understanding of the program, the school, and the city.
But he also had the backing of the current Musketeer players. I've heard accounts of XU players making Mack's case to Bobinski, with Dante Jackson being the most emphatic Muskie in support of Chris being elevated. How much that impacted the eventual decision to have Chris Mack replace Sean Miller, I don't know.
I do know that it couldn't have hurt.
I don't know how much any of the current players will lobby Greg Christopher on Travis Steele's behalf, but I do know that if they do, Christopher would be smart to listen. The key to Xavier's ability to navigate the tougher waters of the Big East has been the recruitment of higher-caliber players, something Steele has been instrumental in getting done. The key to keeping continuity with players already here, players who've yet to arrive, and players considering becoming Muskies could be the guy who's helped sell Xavier to each of them.
Would hiring Travis Steele bring much buzz to the program? No. But Xavier basketball has never been about buzz. It's often been about a way, if you will. Their way, which has often involved making lack of experience less of a priority than things like familiarity and continuity, has worked for a very long time.
I say, it'd work again.
Of all of the potential candidates that Greg Christopher will consider, most will have more experience, many will be more well-known, none will be as safe as Travis Steele.
Fortunately, Xavier's in a position to play it safe.