August 30, 2010
When Xavier coach Chris Mack played for the Musketeers in the early 1990s, he quickly learned to dread morning shootarounds at the Cincinnati Gardens.
There was a sheet of ice beneath the gym floor since the aging multipurpose municipal facility also housed Cincinnati's minor league hockey team, yet the owners rarely turned on the heat in advance for the Musketeers.
"Guys would sometimes practice wearing hats or gloves or heavy sweatshirts," Mack said. "You could see your breath in the morning. That always woke you up."
Trading the hard-back seats and video-less scoreboard of the Cincinnati Gardens for the luxury suites and spacious locker rooms of the state-of-the-art Cintas Center is just one of many signs Xavier is no longer the Cinderella team Mack once knew.
Marquee schools who once wouldn't dream of deigning to play at Xavier are now clamoring to try to schedule a game. Analysts who once routinely mispronounced the school's name as "Eggs-Avier" are now touting the Musketeers as a budding national power. And fans who once ignored Xavier basketball now show up in droves to support a program that Forbes Magazine ranked the 15th most valuable in the nation this year.
As the Musketeers begin a new season with the chance to win a fifth straight conference title and make a 10th NCAA tournament appearance in 11 seasons, it's still difficult to pinpoint any single individual responsible for the program's steady rise.
It happened because under-recruited players like Byron Larkin, Brian Grant and David West outworked more highly touted peers at big-name schools. It happened because coaches like Pete Gillen, Skip Prosser and Sean Miller left the program in better shape than when they arrived. And it happened because Xavier's administration gradually became convinced a strong basketball program could elevate the university's profile and didn't hesitate to spend the money necessary to help it flourish.
Although three straight Sweet 16 berths have helped Xavier finally shed the mid-major stigma, the Musketeers believe there's still more room for growth. They hope to solidify their place among the sport's elite programs in the next few years by making their first Final Four and perhaps even winning a national championship.
"We've knocked on the door several times, and now it's time to figure out how to make that happen," Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski said. "That's energizing for us. It's what we work toward every day. And I will tell you that we intend to see that through over these next three years. We're not talking about something that's way, way off. We think it's on the horizon."To trace the roots of Xavier's ascension, it's necessary to go back to the program's nadir.
In Jan. 1979, the Musketeers were nearing the end of their 12th losing season in 14 years. They had a coach who golfed more than he recruited, a dwindling fan base disillusioned with the direction of the program and an administration still desperate for budget relief despite cutting the school's deficit-ridden football program six years earlier.
As school officials privately pondered dropping to Division III or cutting athletics altogether like Loyola (New Orleans) had earlier in the decade, communications professor Bill Daily led a small group that cautioned against making a rash choice. Daily, a former assistant basketball coach at Xavier and chairman of the school's athletic board, promised that if the school negotiated coach Tay Baker's retirement, he'd find a replacement capable of turning a profit and qualifying for the postseason by his fourth year on the job.
"Most people probably thought I was crazy when I first started talking about where I thought it could go, but I saw no reason Xavier couldn't be competitive," Daily said. "Villanova was winning. Marquette was winning. Why couldn't Xavier?"
It was Daily's responsibility to lead the search committee to pick Xavier's next coach, so he contacted the likes of Rollie Massimino, Al McGuire and John Wooden to ask for their suggestions. He also created a type-written 100-query questionnaire for each of the candidates, asking them to assess Xavier's program and detail their basketball and recruiting philosophies.
Out of a modest pool of applicants that included then-Marquette assistant Rick Majerus and then-Notre Dame assistant Danny Nee, Daily identified 31-year-old Penn assistant Bob Staak as the best choice for the job. Staak, a former UConn star, helped lead Penn to a surprise Final Four berth that season and possessed the bench skills, recruiting acumen and work ethic Daily coveted.
"I was a young 31-year-old offered his first head coaching job, so I thought it was a sleeping giant," Staak recalled. "Whether that was realistic or whether that was youthful optimism, I don't know. But given the commitment the university displayed during the interview process, the location of the school and the flexibility I would have in scheduling, I thought the opportunity for growth was tremendous."
Success didn't come instantly for Staak, but he gradually increased Xavier's recruiting budget, hired secretaries, trainers and academic staffers and built the foundation for the school's future success.
The Musketeers beat rival Cincinnati for just the third time in 17 seasons in Staak's first season and won eight of 11 conference games the following year. And after an injury-plagued season in Staak's third year, Xavier finished 22-8 and made its first NCAA tournament since 1961 in his fourth.
"Had Staak not turned the thing around within a reasonable time, Division III could have been a reality," Daily said. "It not only saved basketball but it also saved the other sports."
Staak accepted Wake Forest's coaching gig in 1985, but he left behind a program on the cusp of a breakthrough. New coach Pete Gillen picked up where Staak left off by taking Xavier to seven NCAA tournaments in nine seasons, though he admits the program was still "light years" from what it has become today.
It took Gillen's entire tenure before the media finally felt fans were familiar enough with the Musketeers to stop referring to them as Xavier of Ohio. Recruiting visits had to be scheduled when neither the circus nor the tractor pulls were in town so the stench of manure at the Cincinnati Gardens didn't turn off prospective players. And it's safe to say Gillen had no illusions of earning an at-large NCAA tournament bid based on the cupcake-laden non-conference schedules he assembled.
"We played teams with no necks and no uniforms, guys with one pair of sneakers for the whole team," Gillen joked. "We just had to get wins because the school wasn't used to winning. Now they have great talent and they know they're always going to be in the top three in the Atlantic 10, so they can schedule more aggressively."
Maybe Gillen's greatest legacy at Xavier is he made higher-ups embrace the idea of building an elite basketball program. As a result of Gillen's success, the school joined the Atlantic 10 in 1995, splurged on charter flights to road games soon afterward and constructed the $46 million Cintas Center in 2000.
It's no exaggeration when school president Michael Graham says the money paid to Xavier's basketball coaches should be billed to the marketing department. The basketball program has served as a nationwide billboard for the school, attracting lucrative donations from alumni and helping account for Xavier's number of undergrad applicants more than doubling in the past decade.
"It was definitely during Pete's time that the institution decided this was something that was going to be important to us," Bobinski said. "The institution decided, 'Hey, you know, we've got a chance at this. This could be something that distinguishes us from the clutter of universities out there.'"
About the only black mark against Xavier is that the school has been unable to keep its coaches from developing a wandering eye. Skip Prosser inherited the job in 1995 after Gillen left for Providence, Thad Matta took over in 2001 after Prosser bolted for Wake Forest, Sean Miller started in 2004 when Matta departed for Ohio State and Mack began last season after Arizona managed to lure Miller.
Although savvy coaching hires from Bobinski have kept Xavier trending upward despite the tumult, the Musketeers are cautiously optimistic Mack might see the job as a destination rather than a stepping stone. Not only is he a Cincinnati native with deep ties to the university, he also chose to leave Prosser's staff at Wake Forest in 2004 to come back to Xavier as an assistant even though the Demon Deacons were ranked No. 2 in the nation entering the next season.
"That was a lateral move in many people's eyes, but I did that for a couple reasons," Mack said. "I really believe in the mission of Xavier and the success that we've had. And I'm from Cincinnati and my wife's from Louisville, which is 90 minutes from here. We wanted our kids to know who their grandparents are. Those two reasons haven't changed and I don't see them changing. So because of that, I could see myself being the coach here for a long, long time."
Mack certainly wouldn't be the first Musketeers coach to renege on such a statement, but his background, sincerity and enthusiasm somehow make it sound more believable coming from him. Plus he has a lot to look forward to at Xavier, with three starters returning from a Sweet 16 team next season, four talented freshmen forwards set to join the team and a strong 2011 recruiting class also on the way.
Among the 2011 recruits that Mack has landed is 6-foot-9 big man Jalen Reynolds, who chose Xavier earlier this month despite receiving interest from the likes of West Virginia, Pittsburgh and USC. Reynolds raised a few eyebrows after his commitment when he brazenly told Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Shannon Russell, "I'm going to get Xavier to the Final Four. Make sure you write that down."
Had a recruit said that back when Xavier players practiced wearing winter clothes at the Cincinnati Gardens, many fans would have scoffed and Gillen would have cringed. Nowadays, anything seems possible to a Cinderella program that no longer fields a Cinderella team.
"Our goals are night and day different from when I played," Mack said. "From the level of competition we play, to our facilities, to the way we travel to the league we're in now, it's just not the same program as it was back then."