Catching Up With Chris and Jeff

There’s so much to be said for being 65.

Health obviously comes an issue, especially for a man of considerable girth who has spent 50 years wearing out his wild side. And folks my age don’t read the obituaries without a palpable sense of trepidation.

Live as long as I have and you’ve lost – and continue losing daily — so many folks who have been on this journey through space and time with us.

And that never stops hurting.

But the rewards are many. Living this long gives one a chance to finally figure some things out.

Living this long also means you’ve crossed paths with so many people, many of whom you’ve gotten to know really, really well. And lucky me for living in an age of mass and social media where I’m able to keep up with so many of them from afar.

Rarely do I sit down to watch a sporting event on television these days that I don’t know somebody in the game. It can be a player, but more often these days it’s a coach I came across during my years covering ACC football and basketball.

The ones I usually know best are those who came through Wake, where I rode the Deacons’ beat for the Winston-Salem Journal from 1992 through this past August. And two I know really well – Chris Mack and Jeff Battle – are coaching their teams against each other as I write this.

Mack, the head coach at Xavier these past 10 seasons, was an assistant for Skip Prosser at Wake in Skip’s first three seasons of 2001-02, 2002-03 and 2003-04 It’s has been fun to see how well he has done, coaching the Musketeers (where Prosser also flourished) to a No. 2 seed – highest in school history – in 2015-16, the season he was named national coach of the year by the U.S. Basketball Writers, CBS Sports and Basketball Times.

Mack left his mark at Wake, mostly for his hand in helping Prosser develop the marketing scheme of tye-dye shirts and a Deacon riding a motorcycle that, for some tired reason, persists today.

To paraphrase Richard III, an idea, an idea, my kingdom for an idea.

At Wake, Mack had a real edge about him. You can still see it today, especially when he plays cross-town rival Cincinnati. But the years have smoothed that edge out a bit, and he has grown to the point he’s one of the premier coaches in the college game.

Wake played Xavier regularly in the Skip Prosser Classic, so pretty much every year I’d call Chris before writing my advance. We’d discuss the game coming up, but we’d also catch up on families and all our mutual acquaintances.

I did get a kick after Wake beat the Musketeers in 2013 when Mack – his sharp edge showing through – kept his troops across the hall in the visitors’ locker room at Joel Coliseum longer than it took me to write my game story.

Battle, meanwhile, is now an assistant for his good friend Ed Cooley at Providence. Jeff was at Wake Forest from 2001-02 through 2013-14, where he was an assistant to three coaches – Prosser, Dino Gaudio and Jeff Bzdelik.

He’s a bit reticent by nature, and I didn’t get to know Jeff that well the first half-dozen or so years around.

But over the years I was around when Battle’s wife, Joyce, died of cancer. I was around when Prosser, his mentor and close friend passed. Shared experiences pull people together and the better I got to know Jeff the better I liked him.

I felt for him in 2011 when Cooley, upon being named head coach at Providence, tried to get Jeff to join him. I knew how badly Jeff wanted to take Cooley up on his offer, but Jordan, his son, was going into his senior year at Mount Tabor High School.

And being the father he is, Jeff wasn’t going to pull Jordan out of his comfort zone during his last year of high school.

Danny Manning hired his own staff upon arrival for the 2014-15 season, leaving Jeff on the sidelines for a year. But by the time a position came open in Providence, Jordan was already at upperclassman at East Carolina and Jeff was able to head north.

Jeff Battle is one of the really good guys I got to know over my coaching career, so I pull for Providence hard against whomever the Friars are playing.

That is, of course, unless they’re playing Xavier, and then my allegiances are decidedly split between two good friends.

There is so much to be said for being 65.

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