Mick Cronin is seething. His University of Cincinnati Bearcats basketball team has just lost a hard-fought game to the Louisville Cardinals — on a last-second shot, no less — and he’s clearly in no mood to answer questions about it during a brief, tension-laced postgame press conference on Feb. 22.
Someone asks if it was one of the toughest loses he’s ever taken as a head coach.
“No,” Cronin says tersely before adding, “When you lose in the NCAA tournament your season is over. (Those) in my opinion are the hardest loses.” Someone asks about the officiating, which was less than stellar. “I have no comment on officiating,” Cronin says in a way that conveys he actually has plenty to say about it.
Someone asks if he can reflect on the fact that senior guard Sean Kilpatrick passed the 2,000-point barrier during the game.
“I’m not in the mood to reflect right now,” Cronin says. “I don’t know if you can tell that or not.”
Anyone who has watched Cronin’s sideline demeanor as UC’s coach knows it’s not hard to discern when he’s upset: He looks like a rabid dog, his contorted face radiating disgust.
Intensity has never been a problem for Cronin, an ultra-competitive guy who grew up rooting for the team he now coaches. It’s one of the reasons he’s been able to turn the program around following the controversial departure of former head coach Bob Huggins, who had the foresight to hire the 25-year-old Cronin as an assistant in 1996.
UC’s basketball program was in shambles when Cronin agreed to come back to his alma mater in 2006 after a stint as an assistant to Rick Pitino at Louisville and three years as head coach at Murray State. Yet eight years later Cronin has the Bearcats where he and their fans believe they belong — a perennial NCAA Tournament invitee, having won 22 or more games each of the last four seasons.
In what is probably his best coaching job to date, this year’s team finished the regular season 26-5, including a 15-3 American Athletic Conference record, which tied Louisville for first place. Cronin won the league’s Coach of the Year award, with senior center Justin Jackson taking home Defensive Player of the Year and Kilpatrick the Sportsman of the Year honor.
The Bearcats are back on the national map, the result of a trademark stingy defense and a mental toughness personified by its hard-working coach and Kilpatrick, a consensus first-team All-American.
For Cronin, restoring UC’s rich basketball tradition was always first and foremost on his mind.
“It’s the reason I took the job despite my mentors in coaching telling me not to,” he says. “The situation was so bad. There were no players in the program. The fans were upset. There was obviously a rift between the fan base and the administration. So everybody’s opinion that I value — Rick Pitino, Bob Huggins — they all told me not to take the job for my career. They said, ‘Don’t take it. Whoever takes it is going to be in trouble. Take it after he takes it if you want it. Wait.’”
Waiting was never really a possibility for Cronin, a lifelong UC fan whose first Bearcat memories trace back to the late Pat Cummings in the 1970s. An all-city guard at LaSalle High School, the 5-foot-7-inch Cronin was an attendee at UC’s summer basketball camp throughout the 1980s before a knee injury ended his playing career.
UC is in the guy’s bloodstream — his mom and dad, longtime local high school coach Hep Cronin, grew up in Clifton — thus it’s no surprise he would jump at the chance to lead its proud basketball program back to national prominence.
“I felt a responsibility, I felt I could get the job done,” Cronin says. “Selfishly, I wanted to go home. I’d always dreamed of being the head coach at Cincinnati from the time I started coaching. I felt a big responsibility. The more people said don’t take it, it’s in bad shape, the more I thought, ‘That’s the reason I should take it.’”
Success didn’t come easily. UC was 25-45 in the rugged Big East Conference through Cronin’s first four seasons. Attendance was down in the wake of Huggins’ messy departure and is only now beginning to fully rebound — the final three home games this year were sellouts, something that hasn’t happened consecutively since 2005. Then there was the infamous brawl with Xavier, the biggest crisis in Cronin’s tenure.
He knows more challenges lie ahead. First on his agenda is a new basketball venue. Recent talk has centered on the possibility of UC moving its games to a renovated U.S. Bank Arena, a place the Bearcats called home from 1976-1987.
“For us, it becomes a matter of logistics and finance and how do we get an upgraded or new arena in the most economically feasible way for our athletic department and our university,” Cronin says. “I’m open to either. What I will say for our fans is that they need to trust our leadership, that if we do move downtown it will be because the people that own the U.S. Bank Arena are going to totally redo it as if it’s a brand-new arena for the Cincinnati Bearcats. If that happens, you will walk in thinking that it is our arena. Or it will not happen.”
The other big question mark is the conference situation. The AAC had a strong inaugural season — five teams were ranked in the top 25 at regular season’s end — but Louisville is leaving next year and the teams at the bottom half of the conference are weak.
Cronin isn’t sure what the future holds for the AAC, which makes UC’s non-conference schedule all the more important going forward.
“It’s a challenge for me with the conference changing and the unknown stuff because people use that against you in recruiting,” he says. “The key for me is that we make sure we’re on television enough and we’re successful enough that we maintain our national brand to recruits.”
The challenge becomes even bigger with Kilpatrick’s graduation.
“He’s been a huge building block for our program,” Cronin says. “He’s such a positive guy and such a hard worker. He’s made himself into one of the five best players in college basketball right now. More important, he has made others around him better along the way.”
The same can be said of the ever-driven Cronin, who won’t be satisfied until UC is back at the top of the college basketball food chain.
“It’s my school, it’s where I grew up,” he says. “So for me the responsibility of running the program and making it successful is something I take extremely personally.” ©