When Mick Cronin and Rick Pitino face off in a Top 15 matchup Thursday, it will be the latest head-to-head meeting between two coaches who share a special friendship in the middle of a heated rivalry.
CINCINNATI -- Rivalries are supposed to bitter, ugly, filled with hate.
You know, poisoned oak trees, That Team Up North, fractured friendships, relationship deal-breakers.
In many ways, Cincinnati-Louisville owns those traits. Yet, this rivalry always rooted in respect more than resentment. Look no further than the relationship between Mick Cronin and Rick Pitino to gain a deeper understanding.
The story falls far from breaking news around Clifton circles. Cronin came up under Bob Huggins and eventually spent two years as an associate head coach under Pitino in 2002 and 2003 with Louisville. Pitino played as large a role as any in scoring Cronin his position restoring the University of Cincinnati basketball program.
During those two years Cronin became the latest branch on the Pitino coaching tree. To be fair, the tree looks more like a Toomer's Oaks at full strength these days. When Pitino was elected to the Hall of Fame in September, Cronin couldn't help but look around at the six row of disciples filling the crowd in Springfield, Mass.
They were a whose who of the coaching world.
There was 76ers coach Brett Brown, Pacers coach Frank Vogel. Billy Donovan (Florida), Tubby Smith (Texas Tech) and Jeff Van Gundy (Former NBA coach, NBA Analyst). Jim O'Brien (Emerson) and Herb Sendek (Arizona State). Travis Ford (Oklahoma State), Scott Davenport (Bellarmine) and Melvin Menzies (New Mexico State). Stu Jackson (Executive VP NBA), Kevin Williard (Seton Hall) and Reggie Theus (Cal State Northridge).
In the middle of all those coaches was Cronin, feeling proud, lucky.
"He treats me like his little brother," Cronin said. "It's a luxury for me. It's been one of the great things to happen in my life that he opened his world up to me."
Most conversations between the two stray away from the basketball court these days. Instead, Cronin jabs Pitino for dodging him on the golf course. Or they discuss the latest horses running at Churchill. When Mick and his father, Hep, head down to the races, Pitino opens up his suite to them.
Cronin holds close relationships with Pitino's son Richard, now the coach at Minnesota, along with many in the host of basketball coaches to come through Louisville during his two years there. When career opportunities floated his way, Cronin could lean on the advice of the Hall of Famer whose lived and learned bouncing around the coaching map.
Now eight years into Cronin's head coaching career and developing a program ascending to the level of the Cardinals -- he's beat Pitino three of the last five meetings -- the relationship doesn't change for Mick. He's never felt like the younger brother eager to prove he belongs on the same court.
"Having worked with him I never felt that need. At all," he said. "I think that for me with him it's like an older brother. When you know somebody you can talk to that is going to give you advice solely based on what's in your best interest it's a luxury. And he happens to be a Hall of Fame coach. For he and I don't really talk about basketball much unless its my future with job situations."
The job Thursday will be finding the latest way for younger brother to knock older brother down a notch. Current possession of first place in The American will be on the line. Afterward, respect will be exchanged, likely along with Cronin's latest low score on the golf course.
Pitino expressed the constant pride derived from helping assistant coaches advance to fulfill their career dreams under his watch during his Hall of Fame speech in September. Cronin, sitting among those in the six rows owing part of their success to him, held a similar pride in sitting on the other end. This fraternity matters almost as much to those apart of it as it does to the founder.
"It's just nice to be a part of something and a network that has become a real special thing in college basketball when you think about it," Cronin said.
Of course, the predictable, competitive conclusion to the glowing conversation about their relationship followed soon after.
"Hopefully I can give him a little pain Thursday," Cronin said.
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