Column: Mick Cronin’s hiring by UCLA meshes with basketball program’s blue-collar identity

Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin directs his players during a game against Xavier in December. Cronin was hired as UCLA's men's basketball coach on Tuesday.
(John Minchillo / Associated Press)

Everyone who says Mick Cronin is a questionable choice as the new UCLA basketball coach needs to ask a different question.

What is UCLA basketball?

Don’t answer with history, legacy or John Wooden. Don’t talk about something that happened nearly a quarter of a century ago. Don’t look at flapping banners, look at the grounded reality.

What is UCLA basketball right now?

If you think it’s still a program that can attract the likes of John Calipari or Tony Bennett or any other coach with national championship credentials, you’re wrong.


If you think it’s run by businessmen savvy enough to foresee a Jamie Dixon buyout problem or perceptive enough to not get worked by Rick Barnes, you’re kidding yourself.

If you think it’s bulletproof enough to survive the potential controversies resting in the baggage of a Rick Pitino, you haven’t noticed the school’s involvement in the admissions scandal.

UCLA basketball is a long-struggling place still searching for a new identity in a changing landscape. It is a dusty former dynasty that has won one national title in 45 years, none in 24 years, and twice in the last four years missed the NCAA tournament entirely.

UCLA basketball is no longer a blue-blood program, it is a blue-collar program, one that can be fixed only with rolled-up sleeves and grinding work and a guy unafraid of both.

UCLA basketball is, to be perfectly honest, a lot like Cincinnati basketball, which makes lifting Cronin from the Bearcats not a forced or fumbled decision, but a good one.

He is a timely hire. He is a great fit. He might have been their umpteenth choice, it might have happened inadvertently, perhaps completely by accident, but somehow the Bruins got this one right.

Cronin is a 5-foot-7 bald bundle of energy whose players have long adopted his fighting spirit, something that has long been missing from Westwood. He coaches defense. He preaches backbone. He doesn’t do pretty. The last time the Bruins didn’t do pretty, they went to three straight Final Fours. Cronin is Ben Howland with a better feel for offense and a better sense of humor.

“Mick has built a fantastic program at Cincinnati, backed by integrity and discipline, and he has instilled an undeniable toughness in his student-athletes,” said UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero in a statement.

Anybody who has watched the Bearcats dominate the softer Bruins twice in the last two years by an average of 22 points will indeed not deny that toughness.

Cronin and his teams will not only wrestle you, they’ll pin you. He is one of only six active coaches who have led their teams to the NCAA tournament for nine consecutive seasons. His teams have the third-most wins in college basketball in the last three seasons.

At age 47, he has the most wins among active Division I coaches under 50. In 16 years, he has won 68% of his games.

There’s one thing he hasn’t done well, and it’s a big one. He hasn’t won in March. In those nine consecutive tournament appearances, his teams advanced past the first weekend only once, and that was seven years ago, and that’s as far as he’s ever gone.

This is not good. The UCLA coaching graveyard is littered with those who have done far better in March and still couldn’t keep their jobs.

Steve Lavin went to four Sweet 16s in five years and, a year later, he was fired. Howland went to those three Final Fours in a row, failed to advance to the second weekend for the next five years, and was fired. Steve Alford went to three Sweet 16s in his first four years, and he was fired not even two years later.

Cronin will have to improve on his tournament record to survive, but he’ll have more talent than he could recruit at Cincinnati, he’ll be in a horrible Pac-12 Conference, and, hey, he’s willing to work at it, which is actually a big deal in this distraction-filled town.

“Throughout what was a thorough and exhaustive search, those of us on the committee repeatedly discussed and emphasized the importance of bringing in a coach who really wants to be here,” said Bob Myers, Golden State Warriors general manager and former Bruin.

You see? The Bruins know this is not a plum job. They know half the battle was actually finding somebody who wants to do it for the right reasons. This is why Cronin can make this work. He actually wants to be here. He wants to coach ball. He doesn’t want to retire here like some other older coaching candidates. He is not here for Hollywood — as a lifelong Midwesterner, he probably doesn’t even know where it is.

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Cronin is a former disciple of gym rats Pitino and Bob Huggins. He is a coach who rebuilt the Cincinnati program with the help of football players. And, in his one shining moment that will resonate most with Los Angeles sports fans, he is a guy who actually survived coaching Lance Stephenson for a season in which Stephenson was the Big East rookie of the year.

Cronin is a defensive coach like Howland, he is emotional like Lavin — a couple of years ago he had to be restrained from brawling with the entire Xavier bench — and he seems hungry for this opportunity.

Plus, he’s never had this kind of roster. The Bruins should be loaded next year with the delayed debuts of heralded newcomers Tyger Campbell and Shareef O’Neal, plus two incoming freshman shooters in Jaime Jaquez Jr. from Camarillo and Jake Kyman from Santa Margarita. Maybe Cronin can talk Moses Brown into staying in school one more year to join the likes of David Singleton, Jules Bernard and Chris Smith.

Then there’s Cassius Stanley, the five-star recruit from Chatsworth Sierra Canyon. He’s still undecided, apparently, and maybe Cronin can put his celebrated salesman skills to work and make that happen.

So Mick Cronin wasn’t UCLA basketball’s first, or second, or probably even fifth choice. So it took the Bruins exactly 100 days to find him. So what? No matter how he got here, this feels like it’s right where he’s supposed to be.

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke