Growing up in the northern Virginia town of Woodstock, a career path of coaching basketball wasn’t on Mack McCarthy’s radar. Instead, his love for sports was fulfilled as a sports writer during high school and college for the local newspaper - the Northern Virginia Daily - and in his weekly column called “Mack’s Memo” in another publication.
A fortuitous meeting while pursuing his master’s degree with Virginia Tech assistant coach Sonny Smith changed the trajectory of McCarthy’s life, creating what he deems “an accidental career path”.
The result was a 40-year career in college basketball – including a memorable 12 seasons at the helm at UTC – that forever changed the lives of his family and the countless players he coached.
McCarthy, 68, has capitalized on his early journalist days to recently release a book chronicling his four decades in college basketball in an autobiography titled “What I’m About To Tell You Is The Truth, Or Could Be”. The 200-page memoir reveals many behind-the-scenes stories of the events and personalities that impacted McCarthy’s journey, including the Forward written by NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley who McCarthy coached while at Auburn.
“Over the years I’ve gathered hundreds of stories from my years of coaching that people always told me I should write down so I wouldn’t forget them,” McCarthy said from his home in Greenville, North Carolina. “So when the pandemic hit back in March, I decided to sit down and start writing and it evolved into this book. Not much good has come out of the quarantine, but this has been a positive experience for me that I hope others will enjoy.”
McCarthy’s journey led him to follow Smith to East Tennessee State for two seasons and then to Auburn for seven more before accepting his first head coaching gig with the Mocs following the departure of UTC coach Murray Arnold late in the summer of 1985.
The book reveals the details behind McCarthy’s selection over current UTC assistant Bill Gleason and other finalists N.C. State assistant Tom Abatemarco and North Carolina assistant – and current Tar Heels head coach – Roy Williams. He even tells how he inadvertently wore a bright green blazer at his opening press conference, drawing some curious looks since that was the color of archrival Marshall.
“I remember getting a call from (News-Free Press sports editor) Roy Exum who told me Murray might be leaving and I should consider applying for the job,” McCarthy said. “We (Auburn) had played a tournament in Chattanooga the previous season, and I was impressed with the facility and fan support. I was probably naïve, but was offered the job after meeting (UTC Chancellor) Dr. Fred Obear and (athletic director) Harold Wilkes in the Delta Crown Room at the Atlanta airport.”
McCarthy devotes 72 pages to his years in Chattanooga, detailing the people and events that led to eight Southern Conference regular season titles, five NCAA tournament appearances and a pair of NIT showings while compiling an overall record of 243-122.
A separate chapter recounts the 1996-97 Mocs squad that became national media darlings while advancing to the Sweet Sixteen, entering the tournament as a No. 14 seed only to upset Georgia and Illinois in the first two rounds.
McCarthy also explains the backstory behind his decision to step down late in the summer following that magical season, and the inner workings that led him to part ways with UTC with no other job offers at hand.
“It was a time of transition at UTC. They were looking for Dr. Obear’s replacement and Buddy Green was serving at interim AD while also coaching football,” McCarthy said. “I had been offered a new contract, but was told by administrators that my budget would be reduced by the amount of my salary increase. I was crushed. We had just had enjoyed one of the greatest times in our program’s history and I’m told our budget is being cut. I knew right then it was time for me to resign.”
McCarthy kept his plans under wraps until later that summer, hoping his delay would result in his top assistant, Henry Dickerson, being awarded the position. Incoming chancellor Dr. Bill Stacy made a last-minute push to retain McCarthy, but too much damage had been done.
“He said all the right things, but they were just promises from someone that I didn’t know at the time,” McCarthy said. “As bad as it hurt to leave UTC personally, it was professionally the right thing to do at the right time from my point of view. I loved Chattanooga and still do – the school, the city and the people – but it was time to make a change.”
McCarthy’s departure reunited him with Smith at VCU, where he eventually took over as head coach for four seasons from 1998-2002. After a stint at Georgia Tech working with the women’s program, McCarthy closed his collegiate career at East Carolina both as an assistant coach and head coach before serving in administration for four years before retiring in 2014.
“I wanted to tell that story how things ended for me at UTC,” McCarthy said. “It would have been irresponsible to not explain that I needed to protect my assistant coaches. We were at a point where our recruiting budget was roughly 40% of what it was when I started 12 years earlier, and I felt like I needed to take a stand. Ultimately, it wasn’t my choice. The decision was made for me.”
Today McCarthy spends his time as a color commentator for college basketball telecasts in addition to a vibrant side gig as a radio talk show guest. He can be heard locally as a regular contributor on WGOW’s “Sport Talk” (FM 102.3) heard weekdays from 3-7 p.m. hosted by Scott “Quake” McMahen and “Cowboy” Joe Varner.
“Writing this book has been very cathartic, if you will,” McCarthy said. “It’s proven to me how lucky I’ve been to be able to enjoy the life I have starting with a random phone call I got from Don DeVoe when he was head coach at Virginia Tech and offered me a non-paying spot on his staff. It has shed light on my career that many people didn’t realize. Even my own mother had no clue how I got started in coaching until she read this book.”
The project has also allowed McCarthy to bring closure on some of the detours his career path has taken, while celebrating the opportunities afforded him through coaching that he otherwise wouldn’t have enjoyed.
“Coaches by nature tend to be paranoid. But this has enabled me to peel back the layers on what a wonderful journey it has been for me. I don’t even consider regrets. You make a decision and you live with the outcome. I’ve made some good choices, and some not so good. But when you take the time to reflect, you come to realize it’s the players and people you met along the way that made it all worthwhile,” McCarthy said.
For more information on purchasing a personalized autographed copy of McCarthy’s biography, go to www.mackmccarthy.com to place your order.
Paul Payne can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Paul_A_Payne