With La Salle summarily dismissed, the Flyers turn their attention to the Billikens of Saint Louis. As you know, this is “Beat SLU Week” (for the record, no one knew this, I think it was created by the Red Scare sometime last week) and the battle for Midwestern supremacy is afoot. Like a gang turf war, Dayton and SLU are supposed rivals due to the geographic proximity to each other — UD is clearly the Bloods, Saint Louis the Crips.
Of course, there is this Jim Crews related chestnut that gets thrown around like a passed out 17 year-old girl at Matt Kavanaugh’s house:
Nineteen years ago Xavier men’s basketball coach Chris Mack played college hoops for the University of Evansville. And Evansville, on a particular occasion, played Dayton. So begins a story that has followed Mack since February of 1990, on the night he popped a ball in a defender’s face while taking it out of bounds under Dayton’s basket. That defender was Wes Coffee, and he was twice hit in the face by different Purple Aces within the game’s first 13 minutes.
Only the second hit came from Mack. But it launched a sequence of events that led to a near melee between teams, a contrite Mack, a dazed Coffee, an apology letter, and a reputation – for Mack – as a perpetual villain to some in Dayton. The incident resurfaced in whispers around the time of Mack’s April 15 introduction as XU’s new coach. After a little digging, it was clear that there’s no love lost for the Evansville-turned-Xavier transfer player in Dayton annals: first because of the Coffee incident, and second for his decades-old allegiance to the archrival Musketeers.
Last week Mack was asked to set the record straight. What happened that night, and why? He was happy to oblige.
The story, Mack said, starts like this: Evansville was playing a heated rivalry game at Dayton, which was known as a pressing team.
“I think our coach, Jim Crews, was bothered by the fact that the guy guarding the in-bounder was always stepping over the line. He’d warn referees and they never seemed to move them back. It’s one of those rules that’s in there but they didn’t really follow it,” Chris Mack said. “And he had made the point in the shoot-around the day before, that if that kept happening, ‘You just boink the guy in the nose with the ball. I’m tired of this.’ We all sort of chuckled and he said, ‘I’m serious. You’re going to boink him in the nose.’”
(Crews, by the way, was a member of Indiana’s 1976 national championship team, led by Bobby Knight. He spent eight years as Hoosier assistant on Knight’s coaching staff before a successful 17-year run at Evansville.)
The day after the shoot-around, the Purple Aces didn’t play well. They were down by 10 or 12 points, Mack said, when his teammate in-bounded the ball under the Flyers’ hoop. According to Mack and the Dayton Daily News’ account of the game, Evansville guard Scott Schreffler was nearing the end of the five second count and Coffee, a forward/center, was guarding him. Schreffler threw the ball into Coffee’s face, the paper said. Coffee was stunned, his lip split. He thought it might have been an accident; he was a 7-footer, and an obstacle to get around. Ten minutes later, then-sophomore Mack was in Schreffler’s place and needed to in-bound the ball against the Flyers’ press.
“The same guy (Coffee) is on the ball and it’s getting close to a five count, and I looked long and I threw it and hit him right in the nose,” Mack said.
At that point most onlookers thought Mack had thrown the ball twice, a misconception he last week wanted to rectify. He said he only threw it once. Coffee agreed. Still, many in the arena grew incensed – like Coffee’s teammate, Negele Knight, who took the incident personally, the Dayton Daily News said. Knight ran from the wing of Dayton’s press and chest-bumped Mack.
“That’s all I could do,” Knight told the newspaper. “I knew if I started a fight, I’d get thrown out. So I just bumped him to see if I could get a reaction. He didn’t react.”
Coffee was shocked after Mack hit him with the ball and remained, for a while, angry.
“Chris hit me really, really good, square on nose and mouth, and split my lip even further. That’s when people realized it was intentional, and there was an uproar,” said Coffee, who lives in Alabama and recently recounted the story.
He didn’t retaliate.
“Even if I wanted to swing, I didn’t know what direction to swing because my eyes were watering so much,” Coffee said.
The referee called a technical foul on Mack, the Dayton Daily News said. The teams shoved each other and the atmosphere was charged, but no fighting took place. Mack was the only Purple Ace who tried to shake hands after the Flyers’ 23-point win, according to the Dayton Daily News story. He told its reporter he was sorry, and that he was trying to throw the ball over Coffee’s head – but under the bottom of the backboard – to beat the five-second count. Mack last week said the latter comments were meant to protect his coach. He took the game to heart and said the Coffee incident contributed to his decision to transfer.
Crews, who became Army’s head coach in 2002, on Monday supported Mack’s account of the game. It sure was a long time ago, Crews said, and he didn’t remember the first ball thrown at Coffee, but Mack did what he was told.
“He followed orders,” Crews said.
Crews said he warned his players then that Dayton defenders were going to keep crossing the line, per their coach’s instruction. If officials weren’t going to whistle them for violations, UD’s players would continue the behavior, Crews said. Coffee said he never crossed he end line and went out of bounds. He didn’t have to, he said, because his “arms and legs were long enough” to defend the pass.
Once he returned to Evansville, the exchange weighed on Mack. He composed an apology to Coffee and slipped it in the mail.
“For him to write the letter … I definitely didn’t expect that. He hoped I would forgive him,” Coffee said. “I thought that was very classy. I never held any ill-will against him.”
The next year Mack transferred to Xavier, where he went on to be a two-time captain. He said he loved Crews as a coach, but “those type of things” led him out of Evansville.
“I felt bad. I want to compete and I want to win but I’m not going to do it that way,” Mack said.
Coffee today wishes only the best for Mack and was congratulatory about his new role at XU. Although Mack has moved on, too, he won’t forget.
“Not only did I learn a lesson as a player but I really learned more of a lesson as a coach, dealing with kids,” Mack said. “It’s about competing and being nasty and tough, but it’s also about shaking their hand and doing it the right way.”
Time doesn’t always sway those who hold grudges. Despite the fact that his wife, Christi, was a Flyer, Mack probably won’t get a warm reception the first time he leads XU at UD Arena.
To that end, two things are certain: The Xavier-Dayton animosity will live on, and Mack – a Musketeer through-and-through – doesn’t expect to make any new Dayton friends. The Coffee incident ensured as much.
“I became the villain at Dayton,” Mack said. “And I’ve got no problem with that.”
Granted, the majority of people in attendance for Saturday afternoon’s game have no knowledge of this backstory. It feels like we are going out of our way to project all of our stored up Xavier hate/jealously/resentment onto someone else. Saint Louis, you are geographically convenient and wear blue, you are literally the chosen ones.
[title type=”fancy-h3″ color=””]Overview[/title]
— Bobby Wehrli (@bwehrli_10) January 16, 2015
Dwayne Evans, gone. Jordair Jett, finished. Rob Loe, graduated. Mike McCall, departed. Jake Barnett, absent.
After averaging 27 wins over the past three seasons, the Billikens are currently in a free fall. SLU is 9-8, 1-3 in Atlantic Ten play. They are all kinds of terrible (which is bad news for Duquesne, who just lost to the Bills on Wednesday night). The talent level may have changed substantially, but Saint Louis’ style of play hasn’t been modified at all. Crews’ club still plays at a slow pace and has difficulty putting the ball in the basket. Defensively, however, is where the Billikens have completely reversed course.
SLU averages 26.6 boards per game, 334th best in the nation. The Billikens defensive field-goal percentage is 46.6%, 301st out of all D1 programs. Opponents connect on 39.2% of their three-point attempts, 332nd in the land. These are horrific numbers, and as a law abiding taxpayer, I am beyond offended.
The one thing the Bills have going for them: depth. Saint Louis goes deep, so deep, with twelve players getting ten of minutes of playing time per game.
Led the league in bad shot selection last season, seems to have improved this year.[/column] [column size=”col-3″]
The freshman’s play has been the highlight of the Billiken season thus far.[/column] [column size=”col-3″]
Villanova transfer, has had an up-and-down season.[/column] [column size=”col-3″]
Solid perimeter shooter.[/column] [/row] [row] [column size=”col-3″]
Got that big ear game on lock.[/column] [column size=”col-3″]
Coming off a season-high 13 points against the Dukes.[/column] [column size=”col-3″]
Replaces Rob Loe in the middle. Can block shots, loves fouling people.[/column] [column size=”col-3″]
Needs to put on one hundred pounds.[/column] [/row] [title type=”fancy-h3″ color=””]Numbers Game[/title]
SLU is awful, Dayton wins an easy one, 72-59. Detwon Rogers doesn’t play.
Tom Blackburn is a proud U. o' D. alum. He loses faith in humanity one day at a time, but not in you, you seem like you are all kinds of alright. Charter member of the T-Man fanclub.