The coach, his princess and his city

Mick Cronin

CINCINNATI -- Preparations for UCF must wait while Mick Cronin's 7-year-old princess twirls around the suite on the University of Cincinnati's campus.

It's President's Day, so Cronin's daughter, Sammi, joins her daddy at work and converts his office into her personal playground.

There's a half-eaten Chick-fil-A sandwich and a collection of fries on the table. An episode of "SpongeBob Squarepants" airs on the flat-screen TV attached to the wall. Sammi's "My Little Pony" backpack rests at an awkward angle on the couch, obviously tossed there by a carefree first-grader.

She's draped in glittery black pants and multicolored bracelets. Her bouncy, brown curls -- "I did that," the redheaded Cronin says about his daughter's hairstyle -- complements her piercing smile.

"Bye-bye," she tells the smitten gawkers as she walks down the hallway.

In recent years, Cronin has attracted lucrative offers to leave Cincinnati. One school promised to make it rain on his life with a sum so ridiculous that he thought it was a joke. Another program had the gift of a multimillion-dollar TV deal, additional BCS money from a conference revenue-sharing deal and more national exposure than the Bearcats currently enjoy playing in the American Athletic Conference.

But the Rick Pitino and Bob Huggins disciple continues to say no -- a simple word with a layered explanation.

Cronin isn't just the Bearcats' coach. He's Cincinnati's coach.

He was born here. His father, Harold "Hep" Cronin, is a legend on the high school circuit here. He earned his mettle in pickup games at rec centers and prep courts around town before a knee injury ended his playing career here. He graduated from college here. He just bought a "big-time crib" here. He treks through the snow in his black UGG boots here. His mysterious suit guy -- he won't name him -- is here. His father comes to practices here. His sister sits behind the bench on game days here.

And, above all, Sammi is here.

The offers could come again. Cincy entered the season as a sleeper in the American but could end the year as its champion. Sean Kilpatrick is one of the best players in the country. The Bearcats harass teams with a defensive furor that few can equal.

But Cronin's connection to the program, the city and a lively little girl nurtures the unique bond between the team, the coach and the community that surrounds them.

Leave Cincy? He's too busy building it.

'That's never going to be me' 

The day Cronin's ex-wife, Darlene, left their former home in January 2008 with his little girl in tow, he nearly crumbled.

His world was changing. And he wasn't sure how his relationship with Sammi would evolve given the new terms of their interaction. He and his ex-wife had agreed to joint custody, so he understood that he'd see Sammi. But he also realized it would never be enough time.

"Sammi was sitting there playing with the little blocks," Cronin's sister, Kelly, said. "He looked at me and said, 'I can't believe I'm not going to see her every day.' He had to walk out of the room because he was getting choked up and he didn't want to cry in front of her."

The circumstances of the split, however, taught Cronin to value every second he now has with Sammi.

It's reasonable to question how a Division I coach manages his duties as a single parent -- Cronin is a bachelor -- and leader of a nationally ranked program. But Cronin is deliberate about prioritizing his relationship with his daughter.

On the days he has her, he turns off the phone and the TV from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. No texting recruits or monitoring the big game. Just Sammi.

She has a segment on his weekly TV show, so he has to make sure those curls are prim. He gets her to school on time. And when it's not feasible to keep her next to him, he calls on his father or sister for some assistance.

But Cronin is not the occasional father. He'll quit before that happens.

He's met too many coaches who ruined bonds with their children because they were so obsessed with the game as they sought the next promotion. Cronin has tried to erect a wall between father and coach.

Sammi goes home with him even after tough losses. Cronin said he doesn't want her to think that his commitment to her is based on the outcome of a game.

Hours after his program participated in the infamous brawl with Xavier two years ago, Cronin was at home playing Chutes and Ladders with Sammi.

"I just never was going to let that happen, because I hear too many stories about these guys that get out of coaching to meet their kids," Cronin said. "That's never going to be me. My daughter's never going to have to write a letter; I'm never going to sign a contract that says, 'I'm going to be there for you.'"

In recent years, he's fielded calls from schools that have offered multimillion-dollar contracts for supposedly greener pastures. But he always reflects on Pitino's words as he considers his future.

Cronin, Pitino's associate head coach from 2001-03, would ask his mentor for advice about his career -- and, judging by his tailored suits, fashion as well -- while the two smoked Cuban cigars on hotel balconies during memorable recruiting trips. Pitino would always express his regrets about leaving Kentucky for a lucrative deal to coach the Boston Celtics. He took the cash, but he abandoned his happiness.

"He told me, 'I didn't enjoy Kentucky,'" Cronin said, "'I was so driven, I never stopped to enjoy it. You've got a chance to have a great run. Don't make the mistake I did. Enjoy it.'"

Why jeopardize bliss?

The opportunities haven't been worth the risk of squandering the contentment he's found in his hometown. It's a rare situation that allows him to guide his alma mater, be a committed father and stay close to those he loves.

Plus, the 5-foot-7 Cronin likes the idea of extending a grand legacy that began with Oscar Robertson and grew under Bob Huggins, who led the program to the Final Four in 1992 and hired Cronin as a video coordinator in 1996.

Cronin is not constructing this vision on foreign land. His mother, Peggy, lived in a building that once sat on the university's new baseball fields. His father attended high school across the street.

His family of five (Cronin has a brother, too) attended St. Ann Church of Groesbeck, just eight miles from campus, and would gather for Sunday afternoon dinners at the home of Cronin's grandparents.

This is a city where his mother would whip up soft, deviled eggs for her youngest son whenever he was sick. It's the same place where he returned the favor and temporarily left his post at Murray State in 2005 to come home and care for her as she wrestled with multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer, in the final days of her life.

He starred in a local Catholic youth league that allowed teams to play zone only because they couldn't stop the young, shifty Cronin with man-to-man matchups. He spent his teenage years searching his hometown for the hottest pickup games with his best friend and current Dallas Mavericks assistant Monte Mathis. They'd start at La Salle, Withrow or Purcell high schools in the afternoon. Then, they'd join the older cats at Indian Hills prep in the evening.

But the scrappiest matchups were held in Mathis' backyard. "There was a lot of bumps, bruises, broken bones, blood," Mathis said. "There was a lot going on in that backyard because we had kids from three towns over coming to play games in the backyard. It was pretty brutal at times."

The hardwood and asphalt around Cincinnati are stained by Cronin's blood, sweat and tears.

"Somebody had enough gas in a car to get there," Cronin said. "That was my life. That was my whole life."

Cronin had game, but he didn't have any cartilage in his right knee. One misstep in a high school game during his junior season at La Salle ruined ligaments and any dreams of playing high-major college basketball. Doctors told him that he'd face knee replacement surgery by the time he turned 30 if he tried. It was a devastating verdict.

"That was his only sport," said Hep Cronin, who coached his son at La Salle and was inducted into the Greater Cincinnati Hall of Fame last year. "He only played basketball. That was it. He was anticipating going to college on a basketball scholarship."

Bad knees, new dreams

A few minutes into a Cincinnati practice, as the Bearcats prepared for a midweek trip to UCF, everything seemed fluid and sleek. Cronin never raised his voice or stomped his feet as he directed his squad in the intense defensive drills -- three players clunked their heads during one hectic scramble for a loose ball -- that condition a program rated fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy.

It was all smooth until something happened that observers along the sideline missed. Some breakdown, some lapse.

Cronin abruptly interrupted the session for a brief motivational chat.

"We're trying to win the national f-----g championship!" he growled.

Like his peers in the profession, Cronin has a little crazy in him. It's a good crazy, though -- birthed by an unyielding passion. And it's an attitude his players love.

"That's my best friend," senior forward Justin Jackson said. "That's like my mentor. He's hard on you just because he wants what's best for you."

In seconds, Cronin can switch from berating his players for allowing "Peyton Manning" passes to poking Kilpatrick about the time some guy named George "busted you in the lip last summer." That's why they trust him when he tells them he's more interested in their quality of life than their ability to help him win games.

"He's someone that cares about you," Kilpatrick said. "He cares about your future and really cares about what happens with your future besides basketball. That's all you can really ask for from a coach. He's never changed on me. He's someone I actually look up to."

Even though he grew up nearby, Cronin's journey toward this fairy tale was anything but. Cronin wanted to play, not coach.

But he had to get his fix somehow after knee injuries ended his career. His father helped him get a job as the freshman coach at Woodward High School while Cronin was still a freshman at Cincinnati. He treated the gig as though he was leading North Carolina or Kansas. He'd take trips to basketball camps in his old Cadillac. He'd work on his practice plans in the middle of his business classes.

He was hooked.

It would all lead somewhere, he thought. His mother, who wrote a song about her doubts, wasn't initially convinced.

"She called it the 'J.O.B.' song," Kelly Cronin said. "'You got to get a J.O.B. if you want to live with me.' ... They would be laughing over all the verses she had invented while harassing him, because he kept telling her he had a plan, and she kept telling him coaching freshman basketball and running around to camps with players was not a plan."

Equipped with the knowledge about the game he'd gleaned from his father, however, Cronin climbed at an uncanny pace. He was still in his mid-20s when Huggins hired him to be Cincinnati's video coordinator before he became a full-time assistant for the program in the late 1990s.

"When he was with me, he did a great job with film and studying the game and trying to learn and make himself better," Huggins said.

Cronin joined Pitino's staff in 2001. Two years later, he was the head coach at Murray State. By 2006, he'd been hired to lead to his alma mater and hometown squad after Huggins resigned.

This is the fifth season that Cronin has won 19 or more games at Cincinnati. The Bearcats have reached the NCAA tournament in three consecutive seasons. That success has intrigued other programs in recent years.

But Cronin clearly has every reason to stay.

He'll never say never, though. He's no fool.

He wants a salary for both him and his assistants that matches some of the nation's other Top 25 programs. He'd have left already if money -- "I'm making more money than I ever thought I'd make, anyway" -- mattered that much. It doesn't. Winning does, though.

Cronin worked under legends in his 20s and 30s. And he wants to build a perennial powerhouse, too.

A new or renovated facility would help. Fifth Third Arena's average attendance of 9,253 (capacity 13,176) was 48th nationally last year. Cronin is not convinced that upgrading his team's nonconference schedule is the sole ticket to drawing more fans each night.

"The problem is only three or four [thousand] of them have good seats," Cronin said. "The rest of them have bad seats. Everybody involved here knows we've gotta upgrade somehow. How is the issue."

The fan experience in a region that features the Bengals, Reds and an assortment of Division I football and basketball programs is significant. That's why officials at the university have already commenced conversations about the matter.

"[We] recognize that the basketball enterprise is extremely important to us, and we want to find a way to continue to escalate the commitment and the resources and the facilities that our coaches and student-athletes and fans can enjoy for the long term," said Mike Bohn, the school's new athletic director.

Cronin can't control that conversation. He can only highlight his desires and continue to win, something the Bearcats didn't do against Louisville last weekend.

The Bearcats lost a crucial home game on a last-second shot by Russ Smith on Saturday.

On Sunday, Cronin's father called to check on him. It's one thing to lose a tough one on the road, another to come so close to victory in a sellout at home.

But Cronin was busy tobogganing with Sammi, not dwelling on the loss to Louisville.

"I think that's good for him, instead of sitting there and sulking about it," Hep Cronin said. "You gotta move on."

But sometimes, Cronin has learned, you gotta stay. 

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