Six years ago today, the University of Cincinnati cleaned up the remnants of their divorce from Bob Huggins by hiring a 34-year-old hometown boy who was not only a Cincinnati alum; but a former Huggins assistant in his own right, and a man who had spent the prior three years as the head coach who took Murray State to two NCAA Tournaments following a two-year stint as a Rick Pitino disciple at Louisville. Upon returning to his alma mater, he inherited just one scholarship student-athlete at a program that recruits, fans and media had left for dead in the wake of Cincinnati's arrival in the Big East. Following what could best be described as a humbling rookie season as part of one of the strongest basketball conferences in the nation, hardly anyone could have predicted that this coach would lead Cincinnati to consecutive NCAA Tournaments and a regional semifinal appearance just a half-dozen years later.
That's just how Mick Cronin goes about his business.
Now 40, but still the third youngest coach in the Big East, trailing only Marquette's Buzz Williams; who is 39, and 36-year-old Kevin Willard at Seton Hall, Cronin has taken a situation he has likened to raising the Titanic and truly developed a main course out of table scraps at Cincinnati, improving the Bearcats' win total in each of his first five seasons at the helm and winning more than twenty games for the second straight year in a campaign that concluded two days ago. Suddenly, the days of the Bearcats' seemingly endless trips to the field of what was then 64 under Huggins with players the likes of Nick Van Exel, Danny Fortson, Dermarr Johnson, Kenyon Martin and Jason Maxiell have become familiar again, albeit with new personnel such as Deonta Vaughn, Rashad Bishop, Larry Davis, Dion Dixon and Yancy Gates; as well as a change in philosophy this season brought about by an incident that could have left the program with its most severe black eye to date, but instead proved to be one of the best things that could have happened to Cincinnati basketball.
Cronin handled the aftermath of the December 10th brawl in the final seconds of Cincinnati's 76-53 loss to Xavier with the grace and class one would expect from coaches much older and much more experienced, and the melee proved to be a rallying point for his team in the weeks to come. Just three months later, fans and professionals worldwide are still praising Cronin for his management of what would have been a locker room cancer at most other schools; but for someone who has covered Cronin closely the way this writer has for the past five years, such an act came as no surprise.
Cronin was my initial interview subject at my first-ever Big East media day in 2008; and despite his reticent, unassuming persona, I felt a connection to the man and the way he conducted business at a school that had been a basketball power throughout my youth. The coach's affability and willingness to provide an honest answer to, and genuine interest in, every question anyone asks him became an endearing quality I had come to respect and praise in this space on several occasions through the years; and so developed a professional friendship, if such a term exists. Cronin now recognizes my face and instantly says hello to me seconds later, as evidenced by his entrance to Big East media day this past October; not to mention last month at Madison Square Garden, where I was about to sign on for my pregame show before doing play-by-play for a St. Francis/LIU Brooklyn game that was played on the back end of a doubleheader between Cincinnati and St. John's.
Any other coach would not have cared about the other game or its broadcaster(s) and gone straight to their postgame radio interview; but before either of us donned a headset, Mick Cronin walked up to my broadcast booth, shook my hand, and wished me luck on my upcoming call. In an industry where not every coach is the friendliest or most sincere person in the room, Cronin is a different breed; one who does not let success get to his head, one who focuses on the task at hand and does not relent until the pursuit of his goal(s) is complete. That is why I was not surprised to see Cronin react the way he did following the Xavier disaster, which included six-game suspensions to forwards Yancy Gates and Cheikh Mbodj.
Fast forward to this past Thursday night, where Cronin's Cincinnati Bearcats arrived in Boston for an East regional semifinal meeting against Ohio State, a school who; despite Cronin's desire to initiate a series between the two programs, chooses not to schedule Cincinnati, opting instead to stick with the status quo that is the Buckeyes' nonconference schedule. After Cincinnati played an inspired game in what unfortunately turned out to be a losing effort, Cronin was asked about how far he has come in such a short time since arriving in the home of the Bengals and Reds; and offered a typical, at least in the eyes of those who know him well, response:
"Well, I hoped that we would have been here; but as you know, I would have liked to have won the game. I think we've come a long way. I take a lot of pride in that. Nothing has been given to us. We didn't take over a job where people were throwing money at our program and building arenas and practice gyms and facilities and all that. We've worked extremely hard as a staff to get to where we are; and I think what you see when you watch our players play, even though we got outplayed tonight, in the Big East Conference, rebuilding a program has been a tough chore for a lot of people in the last ten years, especially since it has gone to sixteen teams."
"So the fact that we've climbed that ladder and that we've had some success in March is great; but from the day I took the job, it's always been a long-term proposition for me, so we're always trying to do things to get better each year and try to improve our facilities. That's what our new AD is focused on. We've got great support from our president. We have challenges at our school, but everybody is doing everything they can to help us build our program back up, and it's an arms race out there. For me, that's how I look at it. It's a long-term approach. For me, it wasn't 'try to come in, do whatever you can to win because it's somewhere I wanted to coach for twenty years and go play some golf.' So, everything I've done is 'try to do it the right way, try to build it for the long term.'"
- Mick Cronin following East regional semifinal loss to Ohio State; March 22, 2012
Whoever said nice guys finish last obviously has not met Mick Cronin. For those who have not, Cincinnati's last two seasons should be reason enough to sell you on the belief that the Bearcats are once again a force to be reckoned with not just in the Big East, but the nation as well.
To expand on Cronin's analogy to raising the Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio's character of Jack Dawson in the blockbuster 1997 movie "Titanic" emphatically proclaims "I'm the king of the world!" when he stands on the bow of the mighty ship and looks ahead to the wide open Atlantic Ocean. It may have taken six years, but when he reviews his latest masterpiece of a season before starting to prepare for the 2012-13 campaign; Mick Cronin has undoubtedly earned the right to make the same bold proclamation, based solely on what he has done in reforming a once-dominant basketball legacy and placing it in a position to add even more accolades and milestones to its already rich and storied history. Two factors set it apart from the movie and real-life ship, however. For one, this is real life; and secondly, at the rate Cronin and his staff are going, there is no iceberg in the immediate vision of R.M.S. Bearcat, just clear and smooth sailing in a body of water few envisioned the University of Cincinnati being able to stay afloat.