Friday morning, I was able to sit down for a long
conversation with UC hoops coach Mick Cronin. You may have heard of him. He's
coming off his signature season running the program where the team went 26-9,
11-7, made the NCAA tournament and lost in the second round to eventual
national champ UConn. The rebuilding portion of his massive project appears to
be on the downward side of the mountain as he enters Year Six. The new job of
holding a sustainable winning model began Thursday with the team's first practice.
Before starting that, however, we touched on anything and everything UC basketball. We discussed the always galvanizing topic of the non-conference schedule, the games he tried to get and the games he thinks are close. Also, he estimated how much closer he is sitting to the cool kids table in recruiting. From there topics ranged from season ticket prices to the importance of his new contract to why Doug Gottlieb has no idea what he's talking about. And, of course, we discussed the important pieces of this year's team and what could curtail them from meeting lofty expectations.
A breakdown of these topics will come in three parts over the next few days. The first post focused on Cronin's view of the non-conference schedule and a number of other popular topics coming out of last season. Today's Part II delves into Cronin's forthright talk about his new contract and what it means in the big picture of UC basketball. Part III will focus on the 2010-11 Bearcats and the outlook toward a return to the NCAA tournament. Without further delay, here you go:
In early April, Mick Cronin received a three-year contract extension worth $1.25 million per season. The deal keeps him at UC through the 2016-17 season.
These contracts for college basketball coaches come all the time. On the heels of big seasons, coaches will sign astronomical deals keeping them at schools for another 10-15 years. Most have opt outs and coaches are still very capable of being fired or leaving.
Cronin's contract meant a little more. For the last few years his stability at the university was tenuous. The fan base was antsy for a winner. Attendance was down. The team was laboring to make it over the NCAA hump.
Then-AD Mike Thomas and president Gregg Williams always backed Cronin and stood stalwart behind his rebuilding plan. Still, Cronin remarked toward the end of the season he felt like he needed to win and make the NCAA tournament last year to hang around.
He may or may not have been right. We'll never know because he did win as UC advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament and finished 11-7 in the toughest conference in basketball.
His success made him a hot commodity in the coaching carousel rumor mill this past offseason. N.C. State put on a full-court press and other schools made inquiries as well.
Cronin wasn't interested.
The contract question lingered over Cronin's office like a dark cloud the last few years. With the issue finally settled, it would seem he'd feel a more defined sense of ownership and control of the program going forward. After all, it's a whole lot easier to build for the future and make unpopular moves that would benefit in the program for the long haul with five more years on the contract instead of one.
In talking to Cronin, however, the feeling was the opposite. Even when his status was being questioned by the base the last few years, he never let his contract or uncertainty affect him - at least not publicly. And that continues to be the case today.
"For me, (it's no different)," he said. "If I let that stuff affect me I wouldn't be here. I am just being honest. I had opportunities to leave for a lot more money. If that stuff ever affected me, then I wouldn't have been able to keep the team focused and keep building the program. I don't think about that stuff. I am no different than our players, the minute you take a deep breath and start thinking, oh, this is great, then you lose your edge."
Cronin's thoughts on having no thoughts about his contract continued. The loss to Connecticut still burns him and he thinks about that more then he ever would about his deal.
(Sidenote: It quickly became apparent UConn winning the national championships made losing to them "much, much worse."
"I felt if we could get by them we had the easiest draw to get to the Final Four. With all do respect to everybody. And they were the hottest team in America with the hottest player in America and he beat us. Ultimately, that game came down to one guy. He was too much to handle.")
Concern over the contract is easy to dismiss when suppressed by practices, workouts and correcting freshmen mistakes.
Cronin, nothing has changed.
"I am competitive," he said. "I want to have a great year. I want to have the best program we can have. I don't think about my contract. I think about my practice gym and how we are raising money to get our practice gym acoustically operative and decorated to showcase our history of our program. Future thoughts about where our locker room design needs to be and what we are going to do with our arena and recruiting. Those are things I think about. The contract, I don't want to sound arrogant, that is just not something that crosses my mind."
That is, unless someone crosses it for him. The only situation in which his contractual situation came into play was while hitting the recruiting trail. The negativity in recruiting never subsides. There will always be a way an opposing coach can question another team a recruit is considering. It happens all the time.
Recruits have relayed the negativity coaches have pumped into kids' minds about him and the University of Cincinnati. Only then, does his contract cross his mind.
"We recruit against people here locally and in our league," he said. "Last year, I was going to 'get fired' and the rival assistant coaches were just teeing off on it. Now, the same guys and some head coaches are now telling recruits that I am just 40 and I had job offers last spring and there is no way I'll be here. That I am one of the hot, young, best coaches in the country and, yeah, they got a really good team and are ranked but he is not going to be there.
"So now, I have gone from getting fired to I'm a great young coach, but I'm going to take another job? I got a 5-year-old daughter and I'm from Cincinnati and I'm going to take another job? But that's probably a look for our fans to what I deal with."
The last statement provides a glimpse into why Cronin still works in his Lindner Center office. This is where he wants to be. His family is here. He's from here. He loves what he does and where he does it. As we learned this offseason, more money or supposed greener pastures won't lure him away from that.
"I'm fortunate to be here," he said. "I'm where I want to be."