West Side Mick does West Side Los Angeles. Some of us are a little surprised.
I don’t know L.A. well. I know the west side of Cincinnati. A guy leaving there for UCLA might as well be leaving Manhattan for Tranquility Base. Cincy’s west side is conservative, Republican, family-dedicated and proud of it all. It’s Catholic church festivals, split-the-pot, fish fries and high school football on Friday nights.
It’s where Mick Cronin was the best sixth-grade basketball player in the city. He was just shy of 5 foot 7 then, and he never added on. He played high school ball for his father, Hep at LaSalle, a Catholic institution on the west side. Hep Cronin was a legendary high school coach, known almost as much for his temper as his success. (Mick’s temper comes and goes; Hep’s always ran hot.)
The west side is an honest place, even though it’s where Pete Rose grew up. Rose might be a scoundrel, but he was never a bum. He led the major leagues in hits and dirty shirts. Forever, Rose defined his hometown. More precisely, his side of his hometown. Hardworking, unaffected.
Mick Cronin likes country club golf. He enjoys a good $20 cigar, especially if you’re buying. (Another west side trait. Frugality.) A single father, he adores his 13-year-old daughter, Sammi. He might not have taken the job if she didn’t want to leave Cincinnati.
This is the kind of guy you’re getting, L.A.
“I’m a hard worker,’’ Cronin said last week. “That’s how I got to where I’m at. The way to become a better coach, leader and person is to work at it all the time. And know you don’t have all the answers.”
That’s a stock answer, of course. Having covered Cronin for the past 13 years as Cincinnati’s head coach, and five years before that, when he was a Bob Huggins assistant, I can tell you it’s exactly accurate.
All you really need to know about Cronin, you can discover in his first five years as Cincinnati’s head coach. He came into a program one year removed from the ouster of Huggins, an act that still draws ire and rebuke from the faithful. Huggins left three months before the 2005 season. The talent was nil. The recruiting was worse.
Cronin took a job that nobody wanted. He filled his team with players nobody wanted. One of his best reserves was a football tight end named Connor Barwin. Barwin went on to a fine NFL career, as a defensive end. The Bearcats had a winning record (in the Big East) in Cronin’s third year. By his fifth, they were in the NCAA tournament.
They haven’t missed since.
Cronin’s achievement is also his curse. It was a reason the university didn’t do more to keep him from leaving, and it is where Cincinnati and UCLA have something in common: Both places think their basketball teams should be better in March. Their pedigrees say so.
Nine consecutive Madness appearances were not enough for those Bearcats fans and boosters who see their team as something greater than it is. Cronin made the second weekend just once in those years. Lots of grumbling happened. Sound familiar?
Ben Howland reached three Final Fours at UCLA and was dismissed. His teams were perceived as boring.
If you’re expecting thrills from Cronin, you better get goose-bumpy watching defense, and a half-court offense that can stagnate when the defense isn’t creating opportunities. Their offensive rebounding is to die for.
That said, Cronin goes from a program where toughness is implied, to a program where it’s missing. Almost every cliché you’ve ever heard about the Cincinnati Bearcats has been true for 30 years, since Huggins took the job. Bare knuckles are beautiful, nothing beats a 50-49 win. Cronin’s favorite stat is “deflections.”
Deflections are a measure of how active your defense is, how much it attacks and intimidates. Mick loves deflections.
And he’s not a West Coast novice. Cronin is longtime friends with Etop Udo-Ema, founder and director of the Compton Magic AAU program, and with Ryan Silver, who runs West Coast Elite. He has spent a lot of time over almost three decades recruiting and connecting in L.A. and Las Vegas.
The only misconception from the past three decades is that Cincinnati’s tough players are also tough people, as in thugs. They’re not. That notion died locally a long time ago. Nationally, it persists among those who don’t pay attention.
At Cincinnati, Cronin’s biggest worry was finding good players. In Westwood, it’s finding good players committed to the team, not to the NBA. “I can’t let guys rent the jersey” was how Cronin put it Friday.
He’s a hot-blooded guy leaving a rabid basketball place, for a school where, as Cronin said, “they’re doing yoga in the middle of campus at 9 at night.” They don’t do that sort of thing in Delhi Township on the west side of Cincinnati. It’s a good thing geography isn’t always destiny.
Cronin already knows there is a cigar bar two miles from campus. He also knows he’s not getting a comped membership to Riviera. When it comes to coaching changes, you have to take the good with the bad.