The Other Side of Mick Cronin
Mick Cronin, head coach of the University of Cincinnati Bearcats men’s basketball team.
Photo above courtesy of SI.com. Photo below by Greg Grupenhof
By all accounts, the University of Cincinnati Bearcats men's basketball team has had a very good season. That's impressive considering for most of the season the team has been coached by associate head coach Larry Davis rather than head coach Mick Cronin, following Cronin's hospitalization in December 2014 for a non-life threatening vascular condition known as arterial dissection. Cronin has acted in an advisory role since his hospitalization.
Before the 2014-2015 season began, Cronin sat down with LEAD Cincinnati to talk about his life on and off the court. We found him honest, gracious and highly likable, and we came away from the interview with a deep appreciation for what Cronin has done for the men's basketball program at UC. Surely, the credit for this year's success should be shared among the players and Larry Davis in addition to Cronin himself. But this year also demonstrates that Cronin has built a program culture that can endure – and prosper – even in his absence.
The vast majority of Mick Cronin’s life is spent as a teacher to his players, a servant to his community and a father to his 7-year-old daughter. This Mick Cronin is funny, thoughtful and down to earth. Yet for the comparatively small amount of time Cronin spends in games, he is an aggressive and deeply passionate coach whose success on the court determines – often unfairly – his success off of it.
Of course, Cronin is both of these characters. But for those of us who aren’t privy to Cronin the teacher in the locker room after practice, who don’t see him being Cronin the father playing with his daughter at the park, who can't imagine him as Cronin the philanthropist raising money for cancer research, Cronin the coach is the only Cronin we know.
“When people get to meet me they’re surprised,” he says. “On television they see a coach who is intense and trying to win a competitive game. But that’s not really who I am.”
The University of Cincinnati Bearcats men's basketball team has enjoyed a run of success under Cronin. Following the 2013-2014 season, his squad shared the American Athletic Conference championship with Louisville. But the program wasn’t always in such good shape, especially in the early days of Cronin's tenure as the repercussions of Bob Huggins' sudden and controversial dismissal were still being felt.
“What happened with coach Huggins was bad for both him and the school. And it was bad for people within the UC community,” Cronin says. “At the end of the day, everyone loved UC basketball, but there was a lot of passion and emotion, and not all of it was healthy.”
The negative energy grew as the situation worsened. Little recruiting was done during the 2005-2006 season before Cronin was hired, so he had to scrounge for players wherever he could find them, including the football team. To top it off, Cronin’s first year was also UC’s inaugural season in the Big East, one of the best conferences in college basketball. On the one hand, Cronin was contending with a Big East deep with talented teams that didn't pity the program's woes. On the other, he was keeping the men's basketball program from falling apart with duct tape and safety pins.
Cronin and his team finished 11-19 in 2007. They finished 13-19 in 2008.
“Those first years were like climbing Mount Everest,” says the Cincinnati native. “ The city was upset and the program had no players. I felt a strong responsibility to fix everything. But trying to bring people from the community back to the program and getting players to come here took years off my life. I honestly try not to think about that time anymore.”
As he speaks, Cronin's brow furrows and his tone is searching. Evidently, recalling those years returns him to them in a real and painful sense.
“You were just in this muddy tunnel... and you had to dig your way out,” he says. “That’s how I approached it. Because nobody takes pity on you. When people get a chance to keep a program down, they do it. We had to find a way to beat Georgetown, Syracuse and Louisville. But at the beginning we couldn’t beat anyone.”
I didn't have the heart to ask Cronin to take me through the painstaking details of how it happened, but gradually the program improved. Cronin’s team finished with 19 wins in 2010; in 2011, they finished with 26 and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time with Cronin as coach. They’ve made the tournament every year since.
With the basketball program now on the right path, gone are the backroom whispers and the discomforting animosities. The UC community is united behind Cronin’s successful leadership and the strong play of his team on the floor. The university’s vibrant campus and student-driven momentum have created an atmosphere where recruits want to come play basketball.
As the program has stabilized, Cronin has been able to spend more time giving back to the community. His mother died of blood cancer in 2005. Since then he’s been diligently involved in Coaches Vs. Cancer, an effort of the American Cancer Society. Initially it was Cronin and Xavier University coach Chris Mack involved in the regional program, but he has expanded it to the University of Dayton, Miami University, Wright State University and Northern Kentucky University.
“Anything I’ve been able to do to help any of the cancer causes, I’ve tried to do,” says Cronin. “That is very close to my heart.”
Cronin is also involved in both the Catholic Inner-city Schools Education Fund (CISE) and Our Daily Bread. “I grew up in Cincinnati and went to Catholic schools. There is a great need in the diocese for help, especially the inner-city grade schools. Without CISE they wouldn’t be there,” Cronin says. “Our Daily Bread does an unbelievable job feeding a lot of good people who deserve it. They aren’t on government support. They’ve got jobs, they’re paying their rent and child care. They’re trying to make a better life for their families.”
Cronin wants to become even more involved in bettering the lives of those around him. “That’s the best part of this job. You’ve got to win games of course, but if you can take that success and have an impact on your community, that’s a special thing.”
Cronin is quick with a joke and always dons a smile. He's welcoming, polite and unpretentious. Over time, perhaps people will become just as familiar with this Cronin, the down-to-earth Cincinnatian, as they are with the guy in the black suit on gamedays.
“Hopefully, the longer I’m here the more people will realize that this guy is a good guy,” muses Cronin. “I tell people that while I might be the basketball coach of the Bearcats, I’m also just a dad raising his daughter. And if as a coach of the Bearcats I can somehow help others have a better life, then I’m all for it.”