Jon Teitel's "Coaching Greats": Chattanooga and VCU's Mack McCarthy

June 17th, 2012
In the most recent installment in his "Coaching Greats" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with former Chattanooga, VCU and East Carolina head coach Mack McCarthy. During his time at Chattanooga McCarthy led the Mocs to their lone Sweet 16 appearance in 1997, knocking off Georgia and Illinois before falling to Providence in Birmingham. McCarthy won 243 games at Chattanooga and led the Mocs to five NCAA appearances and eight conference titles.

Jon Teitel: You were an assistant coach for Sonny Smith at Auburn, where you helped recruit future Hall of Famer Charles Barkley. What made Smith such a great coach, and did you ever think that Barkley would become a Hall of Famer?

Mack McCarthy: Sonny is the smartest coach I have ever been around. His feel for the flow of the game was uncanny. He was glib and funny and most times did not get credit for his cerebral understanding of the game. He could recruit as well as anyone because he could read people in an instant. That was how we overcame the existing pecking order in recruiting to get players who had never considered Auburn as a destination. It would have been tough for anyone to project Charles' performance from one level to the next. Coaches (and fans for that matter) like to compare a player to someone who has been successful, but there really was no one like Charles to compare him to from high school to college and then from college to the NBA.

Once he got on campus we knew that he was special, but it was still hard to figure out just how productive he was going to be. Clearly he was a special talent and person who had a great deal to do with Auburn basketball by starting the most successful run in their history. His presence and then the following recruiting classes (with guys like Chuck Person, Gerald White, Frank Ford, Chris Morris, and all the others) led Auburn to a string of NCAA tournaments that has never been repeated there.

JT: What are your memories of the 1984 NCAA tournament (Johnny Newman scored 26 points in a one-point Richmond win)?

MM: Making the tournament was such a special achievement since Auburn had never been before. We lost to a good Richmond team for three reasons. First, Richmond was good. Secondly, Charles was very focused on playing against Coach Bobby Knight (who had cut him from the Olympic team) and his Indiana team in the next round. Lastly, we were really happy just to have made the tournament and did not understand the whole process of how to win games in the Big Dance.

1985 NCAA tournament (as an assistant at Auburn)

JT: Chuck Person scored 20 points in a one-point win over Purdue after a short turnaround jumper by Purdue's James Bullock rolled off the rim at the buzzer. Did you think Bullock's shot was going in, and how big a deal was it to get the first tournament win in school history?

MM: 1985 was a crazy season. Barkley had gone pro so we had a very young but talented team. Our regular season was really disappointing but we knew that we were good. We caught fire and won the SEC tournament, becoming the first team to win four games in four days and beating our archrival Alabama on national TV in the title game. We carried this momentum into the NCAA. Playing in a very difficult SEC prepared us well for the challenges of playing in the NCAA for the second straight year. This time we had more of an idea of what to expect.

Playing a Gene Keady-coached Purdue team in South Bend was tough. We had been involved in so many close games during the season, and then winning each of our four conference tournament games by single digits gave us a lot of confidence that we could (and should) win. At this point we felt like we could beat anyone. Being part of the first NCAA win in the history of the school certainly was a bonding experience that led to Auburn advancing to the Elite 8 the following season.

JT: Frank Ford scored 23 points (9-9 FG) and freshman Danny Manning missed a jumper at the buzzer for a two-point win over three-seed Kansas. Did you think Manning's shot was going in, and where does that weekend rank among the most exciting of your coaching career?

MM: Kansas was a difficult matchup due to Manning and a whole team of highly recruited players. However for the second year in a row we had a team whose entire starting five was later drafted by the NBA. Beating Manning and Coach Larry Brown was really special because it meant that we were headed back to Birmingham, where we had just won the only SEC tournament title in school history.

JT: Person had 16 points and 12 rebounds, but Kenny Smith scored 22 in a six-points North Carolina victory. What was the crowd like at the Birmingham-Jefferson County Civic Center, and could you tell at the time how good a player Smith would become?

MM: Each team we played was better than the one before it. North Carolina had Smith and a slew of other future NBA guys (including Brad Daugherty). The Civic Center was rocking with Auburn fans and it was a great game. We played really well after a rocky start and had a chance to win it at the end. While I left for the head coaching position at Chattanooga, this run definitely set the tone for the next season when Auburn came within one possession of making the Final Four.

JT: In 1985 you became head coach at Chattanooga, where you never had a losing season and your 243 wins equaled the most ever for a SoCon coach. Why did you decide to take the job, and how were you able to remain such a consistent winner during your 12 years there?

MM: I never put a lot of thought into becoming a head coach. If you are in the profession it is usually a goal but it was not something I was obsessed about. The Chattanooga job opened late in the summer. Ironically, we had played in their tournament the year before. It seemed like the next natural step: while working for Sonny I had been allowed to be responsible for every phase of the basketball program. This really prepared me more than I knew for the challenges and opportunities of being a head coach.

While I took over a program that had lost some great players from the previous season, it was also a program that had had great success under Murray Arnold. This momentum really helped us continue to win and even grow upon the success that Murray had. I was fortunate to inherit a good staff and players who were winners. That, along with my experience at Auburn, led to us winning and winning consistently at Chattanooga. The staff evolved and our recruiting continued to improve, which led to our run of several NCAA appearances and eventually to our unprecedented Sweet 16 performance.

JT: One of your basketball players was future All-Pro WR Terrell Owens, who played in the 1995 NCAA tournament loss to Connecticut. How good a basketball player was he, and did you ever think he would become such a great player in the NFL?

MM: There was never any question about what kind of football player T.O. was going to be. Head coach Buddy Nix came back from Alabama after signing him and immediately said that this young man was going to be playing on Sundays. He was an okay basketball player but never really had a chance to work on his game since he was playing football for nine months a year and basketball for only three months a year. He was a super team guy because of his work ethic, his weight room regimen, and his competitive nature in practice.

JT: What are your memories of the 1997 SoCon tournament title game (Chris Mims scored 16 points and made a put-back layup with four seconds left in a one-point win over Marshall)?

MM: We had a great game against a big rival in Marshall. Future NBA star Jason Williams led Marshall, and we had a lottery pick in Johnny Taylor. We also had several veteran guys like Mims, Marquis Collier, Willie Young, and others. Marshall had a possession late in the game where the 6-9 Taylor guarded the 6-1 Williams and caused him to travel. Taylor then missed a shot that Mims tipped in, which allowed us to win the game and go on to the NCAA tournament.

1997 NCAA tournament (at Chattanooga)

JT: Young scored 24 points and Collier blocked GG Smith's shot at the buzzer in a three-point upset win over three-seed Georgia. How were you able to dominate them from the start (scoring the first 15 points of the game), and where does Collier's block rank among the best defensive plays you have ever seen?

MM: We had been to four NCAA tournaments prior to the 1997 appearance, and those experiences helped us as we approached this challenge. We had run into some top seeds during our previous trips (such as Kansas, Connecticut, and Oklahoma). Advancing in the tournament as a lower seed is based to some extent on how good you are, but it is based even more on the matchups (particularly from a size perspective). We got off to a great start against Tubby Smith's Georgia team.

We were ahead 15-0 to start and later 22-2 before they settled in and started to make a comeback. We had a three-point lead late in the game and Georgia had to go the length of the floor to try and tie it. We pressed and were going to foul at midcourt, but they called timeout before we could give the foul. They got the ball to Tubby's son GG in the corner and the 6-9 Collier got a piece of the shot to give us the upset as a #14-seed.

JT: You had a 30-11 run at the end of the second half to clinch an upset six-seed Illinois and become the second 14-seed (and the first SoCon team) to ever advance to the Sweet 16. How were you able to dominate them down the stretch, and what was the reaction like when you got back to campus?

MM: We had a good matchup for the second straight game because neither Georgia nor Illinois had a dominant center. Illinois also played a lot like Georgia on both sides of the ball so our preparation did not change a lot in regard to the game plan. It was a very even and physical game until we went to a matchup zone late which confused them a little. I think they only made one field goal in the final seven minutes.

The reaction to the first win was unbelievable but we still had to get ready for the Illinois game. However, after the second win the joy in Chattanooga and the national media coverage was unprecedented. It was so much fun to see our loyal fans enjoy the chance for the nation to know what we already knew about Moc basketball.

JT: Austin Croshere scored 19 points in a six-point win by ten-seed Providence in Birmingham. What was the crowd like at the Civic Center this time around, and how were the Friars able to recover after Croshere picked up his fourth foul?

MM: Ironically, Providence in the Sweet 16 was the lowest seed we faced that March! Despite the intense scrutiny and coverage from the national and local media we had a good week of preparation and played well against Pete Gillen's team. Croshere and Taylor neutralized each other, while Providence's size and God Shammgod beat us down. We could not keep Shammgod out of the lane and their size bothered us near the rim. That being said, we overcame missing a bunch of free throws and made it a game at the end. [Two nights later] Providence lost in overtime to eventual national champion Arizona (who had six guys score in double figures).

JT: UTC Arena (aka "The Roundhouse") was rated the "Third Toughest Place to Play in the NCAA" by Sports Illustrated back in 1995, and you were 83-10 (.892) at home against SoCon opponents. What made it such a tough place for opponents, and did it reach a point where your fans expected you to win every single home game?

MM: Roundhouse is a great venue. It is a steep, loud building that has the tradition of many championship banners hanging in the rafters. Our fans saw many miraculous finishes that added to the mystique and lore of the building. In reality, it probably had a whole lot to do with lots of good players and great support from our passionate fans!

JT: In 1997 you joined your longtime friend Smith at VCU as associate head coach, and later took over for him after he retired. Why did you decide to take the job, and how did the two of you become such great friends?

MM: Don DeVoe game me my first chance as a graduate assistant. Coach DeVoe was a brilliant defensive coach, and I never would have gotten into college coaching without that opportunity. I worked with Sonny as an assistant at Virginia Tech, then followed him to ETSU, and then Auburn. We are still very close and I owe a lot of my success to Sonny and his mentoring. He was Coach of the Year in four different conferences in four very different circumstances. He is still a brilliant offensive strategist and an unappreciated defensive coach too, and he is even a better person than a coach.

JT: In 1999 Bo Jones scored 19 second half points (after going scoreless in the first half) to open the Alltel Pavilion with a five-point win over Louisville. Do you agree with the VCU fans and alumni that voted this as the top moment in VCU sports history, and how were you able to overcome a 20-point deficit?

MM: Winning the inaugural game in the Siegel Center was a real highlight to many people at VCU, including myself. We were supposed to open the arena the year before against Virginia, but construction was delayed so instead we opened the building against Louisville (our old conference foe from the Metro). VCU has such a great tradition and loyal fans that had waited so long for us to play on campus. It was almost like it was destined to be a special night. Coming back from 20 points down against such a prestigious program like Louisville was miraculous.

JT: In 2001 Jones made a 70-foot shot at the buzzer for a three-point overtime win over ECU. Where does that shot rank among the best you have ever seen, and what was the reaction like in your locker room afterwards?

MM: When Bo made the shot to ironically beat ECU (where I later coached), I had no idea what to say...which is exactly what I told ECU coach Billy Herrion after the game, "I don't know what to say!" I have never really been part of anything like that.

JT: In 2004 you joined the Georgia Tech women's basketball staff as an assistant coach. Why did you take the job, and what is the biggest difference between coaching men and coaching women?

MM: Dave Braine, the athletic director at the time, asked me if I might be interested in leaving TV and radio to go back into coaching. MaChelle Joseph had just gotten the head coaching job, and both she and Dave thought that having an experienced assistant might be a good idea. Coach Joseph has gone on to do a really good job, becoming a regular NCAA tournament participant. I loved working at Georgia tech and coaching the women was really fun. They are very receptive to coaching instruction.

JT: You became head coach at ECU in 2007. Why did you take the job, and why were you unable to duplicate the success you previously had elsewhere?

MM: I came to ECU as an assistant to Ricky Stokes. When he resigned after two years I got the interim job and the following year I got the head job. We did not have the success that I had hoped for. ECU men's basketball has struggled for quite a while. We have made some progress, especially in the team APR (Academic Progress Rate), which had been a real detriment to our improvement on the court. I think that the program is on solid ground now and ready to continue moving in the right direction under Jeff Lebo's leadership.

JT: When people look back on your career, how do you want to be remembered the most?

MM: I hope that people would look at the job we have been able to do and know that we have left each program in better shape than when we arrived. I would also hope that we are known to have treated people respectfully, worked really hard, and been good contributing citizens in each city. I have so many great relationships because I got to coach at great schools and live in wonderful communities.

McCarthy is also on Jon's list of best coaches in Southern Conference history.

Appalachian State: Buzz Peterson (1996-2000, 2009-2010) 103-52, 1 NCAA tourney, 4 conference titles, 2-time conference COY
Charleston: John Kresse (1979-2002) 560-143, 4 NCAA tourneys, 9 conference titles, 4-time conference COY
Chattanooga: Mack McCarthy (1985-1997) 243-122, 5 NCAA tourneys, 8 conference titles, 3-time conference COY
Citadel: Les Robinson (1974-1985) 132-162, 2-time conference COY
Davidson: Bob McKillop (1989-present) 426-271, 6 NCAA tourneys, 11 conference titles, 1-time national COY, 6-time conference COY
Elon: Bill Miller (1959-1979) 329-224, 2 conference titles
Furman: Joe Williams (1970-1978) 142-87, 5 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 1-time conference COY
Georgia Southern: Frank Kerns (1981-1995) 244-132, 3 NCAA tourneys, 4 conference titles, 4-time conference COY
UNC Greensboro: Fran McCaffery (1999-2005) 90-87, 1 NCAA tourney, 1 conference title
Samford: Jimmy Tillette (1997-2012) 229-219, 2 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title, 1-time conference COY
Western Carolina: Steve Cottrell (1977-1987) 145-133, 1-time conference COY
Wofford: Mike Young (2002-present) 156-151, 2 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles