In the five years that I have had the pleasure of covering Big East basketball, I have come to know all the men who have coached in what is regarded as the best conference in college basketball rather intimately. Some of these coaches have been very easy to talk to, (Mike Brey, Jim Calhoun, Ed Cooley, Stan Heath, Jay Wright, etc.) while some others (whose names I will not mention for the simple reason that I don't want to single anyone out negatively) are a little harder to deal with when being interviewed.
When I first attended Big East media day in 2008, the first person I interviewed was Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin. Only 37 at the time, Cronin was in the midst of turning his alma mater around after the Bearcats had seemingly been left for dead in the wake of former head man Bob Huggins' departure three years prior. After walking up to his table not knowing what to expect, I left a few minutes later with great quotes and a stronger knowledge of the Cincinnati team; and talking to the soft-spoken Cronin was like having a conversation with a friend or family member.
As the years passed and my involvement in the sport increased, Cronin remained just as affable; even this past October when the media and coaches convened once again for Big East media day. Fresh off a round of 32 appearance in Cincinnati's first NCAA Tournament since 2005, Cronin could just as easily have blown up-and-coming media guys like myself off and proceeded with his business, but that's not how Mick Cronin conducts himself. Just a few moments after walking into the media room at the New York Athletic Club that morning, the coach recognized me, shook my hand, and said hello. For someone of Italian heritage whose culture prides itself upon respect and honor, such a gesture from Cronin resonated with me; especially since I only get to cover him whenever Cincinnati comes here to New York for games in the Big East tournament or against my alma mater St. John's.
Despite all the positive testimonials I have given Mick over my five years in the media; and those of you who know me very well can attest to each one, a majority of my colleagues had yet to be convinced as to just how genuine the coach really is. Sadly, it took an incident less than 24 hours ago that should not have happened to show the world the side of Mick Cronin that I have been accustomed to seeing over the years.
In the final seconds of Cincinnati's 76-53 loss to intracity archrival Xavier in the latest edition of the annual "Crosstown Shootout" rivalry between the two programs, a bench-clearing brawl ensued. The melee was allegedly started after Xavier point guard and All-America candidate Tu Holloway appeared to talk trash in the direction of the Cincinnati bench. Holloway then appeared to have a minor altercation with Cincinnati reserve guard Ge'Lawn Guyn, who was ensuingly shoved by Xavier swingman Dez Wells. While this fracas was going on, Cincinnati power forward Yancy Gates threw a straight right hand at Xavier center Kenny Frease, who was then kicked by Cheikh Mbodj, Cincinnati's freshman backup center. As some of you may have seen yesterday, the lasting image of this brouhaha is Frease walking off the court with a facial laceration and black eye; not to mention the metaphorical black eye that has been given to the reputations of both programs. Rather than hide or use the microphone as a pulpit, Cronin took a stand and spoke out against what had happened on the court; and opened a lot of eyes in the process.
"There's no excuse for it, on our side, on their side," said an emphatic Cronin when asked about the brawl in his postgame press conference. "Guys need to grow up. From our standpoint, we will accept full responsibility; and it will be handled. There is zero excuse for that in basketball. You've got to learn how to win on one side, and you've got to learn how to lose on the other side." Cronin also brought up the real reason why his kids are on his team in a show of harsh reality not seen anywhere near enough. "All these kids need to realize they're here to get an education," the coach bluntly stated. "Very few of them are ever going to make a dollar playing basketball. They're here to get an education at two great universities, and they need to appreciate that. The world doesn't revolve around them, or around basketball." Another great quote from Cronin came when he lauded the academic prowess of the two programs. "Xavier's been a great school for years. We're trying to cure cancer at Cincinnati. I coach at a school where they discovered a vaccine for polio and created Benadryl. I think that's more important than winning a basketball game," Cronin said.
Some will argue that Cronin needs to put his money where his mouth is by disciplining some of his players; namely Yancy Gates, who for all intents and purposes is an exceptionally talented player, yet has had far too many mental lapses while playing excessively physical at times. Some will call for Gates to be suspended, (which he almost certainly will be) while some others believe he should be dismissed from the team for this latest transgression, regardless of this being his senior season. However, I am not one of those people who feel Cronin may be all talk and no action; as I am taking Cronin at face value after watching his press conference. I believe the coach when he said he had a feeling something was going to happen. Cronin went so far as to try to call a timeout AND implore the officials to stop play because he was sensing something ominous. Having spent enough time covering the coach, I immediately recognized his sincerity in admitting he had "never been this embarrassed" as a coach; as well as his vehement stance in stating his players would never see the court again if they acted in a manner unbecoming of the university.
Long story short, Cincinnati may have lost; and college basketball as a whole may have lost as a result of the incident, but initial impressions of this game's aftermath seem to indicate that the head coach on one side has walked away a winner for his quick and appropriate response to something that, by all accounts, should not have happened. Just as Mike Rice was praised for doing the right thing following Rutgers' loss to St. John's in last year's Big East tournament, the same can be said for yesterday's press conference involving Mick Cronin.
A sad truth in our society is that sometimes war brings out the best in a man, albeit inadvertently. Whether you've known him for five years and consider him a friend in the industry like I do; or if you've just heard his name for the first time from watching SportsCenter or clips of yesterday's game on YouTube, the 2011 Crosstown Shootout, one tainted by unsportsmanlike and unprofessional conduct, brought out the best in Mick Cronin. Unless proven otherwise, he has won a lot more than just a few basketball games with his actions. Mick Cronin has finally won the respect he has deserved since the moment he became a head coach, and it's been a long time coming.
Video footage of Mick Cronin's press conference courtesy of WCPO-TV Cincinnati