Last night Louisville pulled off one of the great reverse comebacks of all time. I phrase it that way because it wasn’t so much that Duke roared back into the game as the Cardinals gave it away in an incredible melange of missed shots, unforced turnovers, and basketball incompetence. While ESPN relentlessly fluffed Coach K’s latest group of mercenaries, they missed UL’s shambolic capitulation.
Xavier twitter, on the other hand, did not. The torrent of sports hate pouring toward Louisville, and specifically their coach, was occasionally funny, sometimes painful, and relentless for as long as that was the big news story of the night. It was also difficult to understand.
Coach Mack didn’t leave Xavier under a cloud. Unlike Thad Matta, he didn’t pledge to stay at the school 24 hours before leaving for a more lucrative offer. (And then cheat to win a tournament game. That was a push. Screw Greg Oden.) Unlike Sean Miller, he didn’t bad mouth the program to potential recruits on the way out the door. There were no comments comparing car makers favored mostly by 60 year olds. The entire departure was conducted up front and with the full knowledge of Greg Christopher.
So why are fans so upset? Why the constant jilted junior high girl act every time something happens with Louisville? I think part of it comes from the concern that Xavier won’t ever do better. Coach Mack was the all time winningest coach, took Xavier to an Elite Eight, established them as a national power, and earned them their first ever one seed. Those accomplishments are built on the shoulders of others, but it was Mack that took Xavier over the line to elite. Like the anchor leg of a relay, Mack got to break the tape with arms in the air. As Xavier stumbles out of the blocks this year, there has to be concern that maybe the coaching situation peaked. Wisconsin likes Greg Gard, but he’s not Bo Ryan.
Fans also tend to expect coaches and players to have the same type of emotional investment that they do. As unrealistic as this expectation is, it colors every fan interaction. While people wail on Twitter about players not seeming to not care enough about games, they forget that the players are the ones the outcome actually impacts. With coaches, especially homegrown coaches, fans expect the loyalty to the program that they feel, forgetting that the coach is a professional working a job. When faced with a chance to take a job paying twice as much, with more an immediate chance for success, and doing the same thing, only a fool would say no. Those who tell themselves otherwise have never had the chance.
Finally, it’s hard to watch a former coach, a former anything, have success. Louisville is 16th in the nation and a full on lock to make the tournament. Xavier is 11-13 and going nowhere this year. The frustration of that, apparently, comes out when the best coach in Xavier history suffers an immense collapse in front of a national audience. Perhaps it is the fanatic part of fan that shows with spite when gratitude or even a rueful laugh for an old friend seems more appropriate.