Mick Cronin Is Back in the Game

When Mick Cronin’s body decided to call a timeout last season, no one was prepared for it—not his team, not the fans, and least of all Cronin himself. But after a few months of rest and forced relaxation, the University of Cincinnati men’s basketball coach is back on the bench. And he still only knows one speed.
Coach Cronin
Coach Cronin

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

It was a few days before Thanksgiving 2014, and raining just about biblical—the kind of rain that transforms a bustling college campus into a scene from an old John Wayne western, damp leaves flowing down abandoned sidewalks like tumbleweeds across an empty prairie. Despite knowing my way around the University of Cincinnati, and the fact that my apartment was only a few hundred yards away, I was dripping wet when I walked into Mick Cronin’s office on the sixth floor of the Richard E. Lindner Center—just steps away from the Oscar Robertson statue—to interview him about the season at hand. It took a moment for me to register the state Cronin was in, but I quickly realized it was not good. His face was wearing stress as only a coach’s can, every flawed play and mistake weighing heavier in the bags below his eyes. His head, the very thing that would soon send the school and the Cincinnati Bearcats men’s basketball program into a panic, appeared to be causing him serious pain. He could not stop rubbing his temples as he strained to stay in the conversation. In a word, he looked like hell.

“We just look that way, trust me,” Cronin says now from the very same office, recalling his appearance last November. “Go ahead and coach college basketball, you’ll look the same way. It was no more or less stressful. Trust me, it was a lot harder to do my job five years ago than it was last year. I’ve coached a season through divorce, I’ve coached seasons with my job on the line. Stress had nothing to do with it.”

It was an arterial dissection, a vascular condition that forced him to miss the final three-and-a-half months of the 2014–2015 season. Now, less than a year later, he’s medically cleared and back in place as head coach, fresh off a late-summer vacation out west that allowed him a few days to recuperate in peace. Attired in a white Under Armour polo from UC’s new outfitter, Cronin is gleaming—not quite tan, but about as close as the Irish skin of a life-long gym rat will allow.

“God, it’s hot here. Jeeeessus,” he says, his deep-set eyes widening in my direction. “I was in San Diego for a week with Sammi,” his 9-year-old daughter, currently playing in the next room. Sammi is no stranger to UC fans, a regular (and adorable) presence in Mick’s postgame interviews and throughout the athletic facilities. “We went to SeaWorld, Legoland, you name it. There’s no humidity. You don’t need air conditioning. You. Don’t. Even. Need. Air Conditioning. Even if it gets to 80, the town is on the ocean.”

He pulls out his cell phone, showing me a picture. “That is 20 yards from the ocean, the house we were staying in. Bro, I’m tellin’ ya, it was awesome.” He shakes his head and laughs outwardly at himself, as he often does in post-game press conferences after a big win. “Oh man, it was so hard coming back here.”

No doubt. But after a season steeped in uncertainty, one thing is immensely clear: Mick Cronin no longer looks like hell.

“I kinda forgot about all that,” says Cronin.

The 44-year-old basketball lifer is doing everything he can these days to reroute any attention from his personal life and push the focus back to the court. Which includes downplaying the seriousness of his health scare. “There wasn’t a whole lot to it,” he says. “I didn’t have surgery. I took an aspirin, and I rested. Three months—90 days.”

This placid retelling is a far cry from the angst that engulfed the team, the university, and some quadrants of the city in the wake of the initial diagnosis. According to Cronin, there were no symptoms or signs that anything was wrong until halftime of UC’s 56–55 double-overtime loss to Nebraska on December 13 last year, when he began to suffer from crippling headaches. Even with the two teams combining for more fouls (42) than field goals (36), he quickly realized he was experiencing something more extreme than his usual stresses, and gave himself a three-day deadline for things to improve. Instead they only worsened, and following a 71–62 overtime victory against 19th-ranked San Diego State on December 17, Cronin went to the UC Medical Center for a CAT scan. That’s when he discovered he had an arterial issue in his brain, though he was not yet fully aware of its exact specifications.

For the second time in a decade, Cronin is inheriting the Bearcats men’s basketball program. This time, however, he doesn’t have to put out a raging dumpster fire and rebuild from the ashes.

At the urging of his doctors, Cronin made the decision not to coach the Bearcats’ afternoon tipoff against Virginia Commonwealth University a few days later. “When you’ve got the three best neurological people at UC, I wasn’t going to argue with them,” he quips. “I argue with referees, not neurosurgeons.”

It’s easy for Cronin to say that now, but there must have been impulses to ignore those warnings late last year, given the uniqueness of his position. The toxicity of the program Cronin took over in 2006 is often touched on but only partially understood. Following the melodramatic exit of Bob Huggins, then–UC athletic director Mike Thomas opted to bring on Cronin—who had rubbed some fans the wrong way when he left Huggins’s staff to be Rick Pitino’s assistant at Louisville five years earlier—rather than retain the popular interim replacement, Andy Kennedy. Detested by many fans for simply not being Huggins, Cronin was handed the reins to a program with one scholarship player, a host of NCAA academic issues (UC’s Academic Progress Rate was 838; anything below 925 could have resulted in penalties), and the daunting challenge of competing in arguably the greatest conference in college basketball history, the erstwhile Big East. Nine seasons, four consecutive NCAA tournament berths, and a few turned-down job offers later—on the heels of an American Athletic Conference Championship and Coach of the Year Award, no less—it was a cruel twist of fate that Cronin was now being advised to step down and hand over the team, his team, not knowing if he’d ever coach again.

“The night before, we had talked about it being a possibility. But when it actually happens it’s a whole different thing,” says associate head coach Larry Davis, who at that moment took over as interim head coach for the remainder of the season. “I’ve got one of my closest friends who not only can’t coach, but is in a really dangerous health situation. I didn’t know what to think. How bad is it? Is his career ending? Is this life threatening? What is it?”

Initial reports exacerbated the public’s anxiety by incorrectly mentioning the word aneurysm, an error that infuriated Cronin and his doctors at the time. In the ensuing weeks, it was confirmed as a carotid artery dissection, which, according to the Cleveland Clinic, is a tear to the tissue walls of the arteries in the neck that deliver blood from the heart to the brain, allowing blood to leak between the layers of tissue and separate them. Undiagnosed and untreated, it can result in a stroke, and even in situations where surgery is necessary (which was not the case for Cronin), an extended period of lowered blood pressure and heart rate is integral to the healing process. Hence the mandatory rest and relaxation.

“It’s an extremely random thing,” says Cronin. “[Doctors] don’t know, but they think it’s a physical injury—caused by something as benign as a sneeze, a cough, snapping your head swinging a golf club.”

Perhaps it was golfing, which probably ranks third on Cronin’s list of loves, just below Sammi and Bearcats basketball. It’s not unreasonable to imagine that it happened on the sideline, though, with the hurling of a suit jacket or the snap of his fiery gaze toward one of his players, digging his foot into the court and pointing to the millimeter directly in front of him before screaming “Get over here!” through clenched teeth. Still, Cronin can’t stop emphasizing that this was a non-coaching, non-stress related issue.

“My job didn’t cause it,” he says. “I want people to know, they had me not coach as a precaution so I could heal. The most important thing they had me do was stop exercising, stop lifting weights. And Sammi couldn’t jump on my head during pillow fights anymore. I didn’t do anything to cause it.”

This is something he needs people to be convinced of, because he’s convinced of it. And because he hasn’t slowed down.

It’s almost impossible to imagine Cronin, who is as candid and fiery as they come, as a restrained player on the basketball court. But that was once the case according to the man best acquainted with his quick rise through the basketball world. “He was real quiet, real cerebral, no expressions, nothing,” says Hep Cronin, who coached his son at La Salle High School in the late 1980s. “He was mild-mannered on the floor. His playing style was nothing like his coaching style. Actually, it was completely opposite.”

Mick’s older brother, Dan, a point guard at La Salle himself, was the more fervent of the two, and the one Hep had half-expected to go into coaching when the boys were younger. But something changed in Mick in 1991, during his freshman year at UC, after legendary high school coach Jimmy Leon took him on as an assistant at Woodward High School. Cronin was a natural on the sidelines, tireless and unabating. From Woodward he ascended to assistant positions at UC in 1997 and Louisville in 2001 before taking the head job at Murray State in 2003, where he led the school to two NCAA Tournament appearances in three seasons, at which point he returned to his alma mater, tasked with righting the ship. It was hard labor those first few years—constantly fighting the tall shadow of Huggins and the many fans who preferred to wallow in it—but he did it, never truly considering the alternative. It’s why the health scare won’t be the thing to calm him down. He can’t calm down. It nearly drove him insane trying to stay moderately still while away from the bench. “Three months is a long time,” he says. “It was everything I could do to get through each day. Three months felt like three years, 24 hours felt like 24 days.”

The hardest part—or at least the first thing he references as the hardest part—was when the Bearcats went on the road. “That’s when I’d be driving I-275, the whole loop,” he says, trying to keep from getting antsy. There were two or three other “hardest parts,” most notably his struggle to find a constructive strategy for watching his team play. Listening on the radio wasn’t good enough, not watching at all was a disaster, and watching with Sammi proved to be a different sort of challenge.

“She would monitor my intensity during games,” he says. “It was hilarious. She’d come in and reprimand me if she heard me smack the chair or something. The first one we watched together, she stood behind me in the kitchen. It was a late game, on a school night, and as soon as I made a comment she’s whispering, ‘Calm down, calm down.’ This went on about six minutes into the game, and I turned to her and said, ‘Sammi, if you keep doing that I’m going to lose it.’ She started laughing at me, and then we both started laughing.”

Whatever the truly hardest part may have been, there was one big positive that came from Cronin’s medically induced coaching hiatus: “Sammi and I spent way more time together than we’ve ever been able to in January and February,” he says. And so they got through it, an unimaginable 90 days of relative calm for one of the country’s most hyperactive coaches. On March 30, 2015, Cronin’s docs declared the artery healed and at no risk for further incident. He was officially cleared to resume his normal professional life. Meaning: tee times at Traditions Golf Club in Hebron and the resumption of his infamously brutal team practices.

“He’s still just as fiery. He’s probably 10 on a scale of 10,” says junior guard Troy Caupain, whose wire-to-wire layup at the end of regulation forced overtime in UC’s NCAA tournament victory against Purdue this past spring. “For real, practices might be harder than the game. We practice for three hours—and it’s a hard three hours.”

Even during the comparably tame breakout-session practices in September, the same old Cronin is present, pacing back and forth below the basket as players run a two-lined drill of contested layups. “Power it up!” he yells, exploding off the floor as much as his middle-age body will allow, extending his arms toward the basket in a mirrored image of his players. “Power it up! Power it up!” He’s rarely a spectator in practice, preferring to be part of the show, delivering a constant stream of feedback. You can see him itching for the pulse of a live game, and with it, the occasional sideline explosion. And for good reason.

“It may look like he’s calmer, but that’s because he’s got a veteran team,” says Hep. “I think this is pretty easily the best team he’s ever had.”

It’s an odd yet much more rewarding moment: For the second time in a decade, Mick Cronin is inheriting the Bearcats men’s basketball program. This time, however, he doesn’t have to put out a raging dumpster fire and rebuild from the ashes. This time he has what could be the deepest roster of his tenure. Nearly everyone is back from a team that gave an exceptional University of Kentucky squad one of its toughest halves of the season in the tournament’s Round of 32.

“I think they’re going to be terrific,” says Mike DeCourcy, a college basketball writer for Sporting News who previously covered UC for The Cincinnati Enquirer. “If you’re going against a defense as capable and sophisticated as Cincinnati’s, it’s going to be very difficult.”

Cronin, who likely falls asleep at night thinking of deflected passes and forced shot-clock violations, was almost verbatim in his reasoning for why this team should be significantly better than last year. “It’s hard to get a shot against us,” he says. “You’re gonna see more press this year, see us being more aggressive with our defense. If we were fifth in the country in points against last year, with a team of inexperience, I’d hope it will be even higher this season.”

DeCourcy and Sporting News had UC ranked No. 18 in its preseason poll, and he couldn’t quite understand why others hadn’t followed suit. “After what they accomplished last year with what they had to go through, and with what they bring back, that more people aren’t in line with us—you don’t see a lot of top-20 or top-25 mentions for Cincinnati right now—is peculiar.” Barring another bolt out of the blue, or a complete meltdown in the first few weeks of the season, the Bearcats should by rights be undefeated heading into December—the earliest test being a solid nonconference battle at home against Butler University.

It’s obvious Cronin thinks his program is on the verge of its best basketball—which is good, because to a somewhat unjust extent, it has to be. While the program is in decidedly better shape than it was 10 years ago, the long-term outlook for UC athletics is a bit cloudier. With the Big East’s demise and subsequent realignment, the Bearcats lost their position in a power conference and the TV revenue and exposure that come with it. Now desperately in pursuit of what it once had, UC is dressing for the conference it wants, pouring $86 million into the renovation of Nippert Stadium and looking to raise another $85 million to revitalize the unseemly airplane hangar that is Fifth Third Arena. The university has pushed all of its chips into the kitty, and a successful basketball program means a better overall hand, something its hometown coach is well aware of.

“I feel more of a responsibility with my job than if I was coaching somewhere else,” says Cronin. “Being from here, it’s exciting to have a great year for the fan base. With all the arena stuff and conference stuff looming, the better job we can do with men’s basketball—it’s good for our city and it’s great for our university.”

MICK IS BACK: Coach Cronin, photographed on the floor of Fifth Third Arena, October 21, 2015.
MICK IS BACK: Coach Cronin, photographed on the floor of Fifth Third Arena, October 21, 2015.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

Back in his office once more, Cronin and I are staring out the triangular windows of the Lindner Center, looking down on a cluster of construction workers as they re-lay the bricks at the eastern entrance of Nippert Stadium. It’s less than a week before UC’s football home opener against Alabama A&M, and we’re each wondering if the refurbished stadium will be done in time after a record-breaking summer rainfall has set things back.

Gazing out across a campus that’s practically unrecognizable from the one of his childhood, that window gives Cronin a view into the past, as well as his and the school’s potential future. Nippert Stadium is essentially brand new. The grassy hill of Calhoun Street where he played tackle football as a kid during UC’s blowout losses is now the soccer field and Calhoun Parking Garage. The house where his late mother Peggy grew up, one of the countless Corryville relics lost to UC’s eastward expansion, sat roughly at home plate of Marge Schott Stadium. Cronin was here for those transformations, just as he has been for the changeover of three athletic directors, three university presidents, and four football coaches during his time as the head basketball coach. Enduring good seasons, disappointing ones, and a serious medical issue, he’s remained the same pragmatic, west side guy, still striving toward the same ultimate goal in the same relentless fashion. But even if he isn’t going to mellow out or change his coaching style, it shouldn’t suggest that UC’s one major constant of the past decade hasn’t been changed by this recent personal battle.

“Anyone who has been through some type of health scare would tell you that you realize your mortality,” he says. “You think you’re going to live till you’re 85. You’ve got it all mapped out: I’m gonna coach at Cincinnati, I’m gonna rebuild the program, we’re gonna go on a great run, we’ll win a championship someday, I’ll retire. But something like this happens and you realize you better live day by day.

“You realize anything could happen. That’s why when you have her,” he adds, pointing toward the hallway and the room where his daughter is playing.

Right on cue, Sammi presses her face and hands to the frosted glass encasement of her father’s door, delivering a tangible answer to Cronin’s awakening. He’s not a better or more attentive father than he was a year ago; anyone who knows him or has been around him for the past decade will tell you that’s an area in which he has always excelled. No, it has to do with fate. Think of it this way: If Cronin had only an empty Anderson Township home to return to on the night of that San Diego State game, maybe he isn’t so inclined to take himself to the hospital. Maybe he tries to coach through the headaches, preferring to ignore the situation rather than risk giving up control and slowing the team’s progress. The Mick Cronin of 10 years ago probably doesn’t put his own health first. He’s got a team to build. Perhaps those 90 days of rest wouldn’t have even been an option.

But we’ll never know, and that’s likely thanks to Sammi, a four-foot-something smile with curls. Mick Cronin did change, but it didn’t happen on the sideline, or in the locker room, or driving the I-275 loop. It happened nine years ago. And he’s only now realizing the extent to which it did.

“Come in,” Cronin says to Sammi, as she enters an office that, by my count, contains 13 photos of her. “What do you need?”

“Markers,” she says matter-of-factly, in a tone implying he should already know that.

Cronin laughs, picking up his thought where he left off. “But when you have children—and you see Lauren Hill, who had brain cancer, and poor little Leah Still who has had more damn treatments than a human should have in their whole life…I had great perspective throughout the entire thing,” he says, now looking on at Sammi, who’s embarrassed to have been made the center of attention by her father once again. It’s a few minutes after 1 p.m., and Sammi’s entrance means it’s both time for lunch and for me to be on my way.

“Remember what I told you about anytime it’s 11:11 or 1:11?” Cronin asks his daughter rhetorically. He can’t help himself. It’s the coach in him, driving home his point for the umpteenth time. “You’ve got to make a wish.”

Sammi looks up from the designated marker drawer she’s rummaging through, rolling her eyes in the loving way that fathers can’t fight back against.

“You do it every day,” she says.


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