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COLUMN: Will Mick Cronin follow the yellow brick road to UCLA?

Posted: 4:57 PM, Apr 02, 2019
Updated: 2019-04-03 01:10:59Z
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CINCINNATI — John Wooden would be rolling in his grave if he knew the UCLA basketball program had fallen so low that Mick Cronin is one of the two finalists to coach what once was the greatest dynasty in sports.

If the Los Angeles Times is right – and Cronin and Texas Christian’s Jamie Dixon are the best candidates UCLA could come up with after ”striking out with a slew of top targets” – then UCLA should just drop basketball.

But the Times’ report begs another question: Is Cronin serious about leaving UC this time? Or does Cronin feels slighted again and interviewing with UCLA is just another ruse to get a better deal from an administration that doesn’t seem inclined to give him one?

Remember Las Vegas?

Three years ago, the UNLV athletic director said Cronin “lied” to her and reneged on a verbal agreement to take the head coaching job. AD Tina Kunzer-Murphy said she offered Cronin a contract at the end of a two-day visit and "he said he would take it ... He told us he would take the job.

“He agreed that he wanted to be our next head coach. He left saying he would be our head coach," Kunzer-Murphy said after spending several hours in meetings and negotiations with Cronin. "In good faith he knew he had to go home and take care of some business. So I expected to get a call today saying he'd taken care of his business, wanted to tell his school, his athletic director and his president - his president who he very much respects ..."

But that’s not what happened. Kunzer-Murphy said she found out Cronin wasn't coming to UNLV on Twitter, when then UC President Santa Ono announced Cronin was staying here.

"He lied and we've moved on," Kunzer-Murphy said at the time.

Cronin responded in a text, saying: "I never officially accepted. The interest was flattering and I understand these things are difficult for everyone."

OK, everyone knows how business is done with coaches trying to leverage their success to get what they want.

In Cronin’s case, three years ago, it wasn’t about salary, UC Athletic Director Mike Bohn said. In the end, UC didn’t match UNLV’s offer, but it added more years to Cronin’s contract.

Observers said Cronin had become discouraged with UC's delay in renovating 27-year-old Fifth Third Arena and in doing something as simple as making improvements to the basketball locker room. He wanted more money for recruiting and a chartered plane for recruiting trips, among other things.

There's no mistaking that Cronin's program had to take a backseat to football - witness the $80 million renovation to Nippert Stadium and the $18 million practice bubble - as UC ramped up to try to get into a Power Five conference like the Big 12 or ACC.

Since then, Cronin got an $87 million renovation to Fifth Third Arena. But UC didn’t get a Power Five football conference, and neither did Cronin.

Now, after taking the Bearcats to the NCAA Tournament for the ninth straight year, it apparently is about money, or so says Sporting News reporter Mike DeCourcy, a Cronin confidante.

UC’s last offer to Cronin last fall included – for all practical purposes - a pay cut, not a raise, DeCourcy reported March 27.

According to USA Today, Cronin is the 49th-highest paid coach in Division I men’s basketball, making $2.2 million last season. He earned less than 20 coaches who missed the NCAA Tournament, DeCourcy said.

Bohn is not a Cronin fan – that’s been clear since 2016 when Ono stepped up to keep Cronin. But Ono is gone so assume, for a moment, that Bohn keeps a hard-line stance and dares Cronin to leave.

Would Cronin go? Would UC fans – the big-money kind – even care? What would UC lose?

Cronin’s resume includes an average of 30 wins over the past three seasons and the last two American Athletic Conference tournament championships. But nobody thinks about that or the fact that he resurrected the program after Bob Huggins’ ugly departure. Or that only Duke, Michigan State, Gonzaga and Kansas have longer NCAA streaks.

What stands out is the early NCAA exits, a so-so recruiting record and a coaching style that emphasizes defense.

That’s what makes it sound preposterous to hear that UCLA is high on Cronin. It’s hard to see fans filling Pauley Pavilion to watch the Bruins use a full-court press to whip Cal or Washington State in a 70-60 slowdown.

Is UCLA asking itself if Cronin gives the Bruins a chance of adding to Wooden’s 10 NCAA titles in 12 years, or of even getting past the first NCAA weekend?

More importantly, what would Lonzo Ball’s dad or Bill Walton say?

According to the Times, Cronin and Dixon "emerged as leading candidates after a bevy of more coveted coaches expressed no interest, were eliminated through the school’s vetting process or declined to be interviewed until after the Final Four."

UCLA is also considering St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett, Texas coach Shaka Smart and former Phoenix Suns coach and UCLA alumnus Earl Watson as fallback options, the Times reported.

When you put it those terms, maybe Cronin is not such a bad candidate after all.

It’s fair to say money wouldn’t be an issue for UCLA. It might not have been able to come up with the mega-millions to get John Calipari out of Kentucky, but it did offer a six-year, $45 million package, so UCLA could do a lot better than $2.2 mil/year for Cronin.

Even if UCLA goes with Dixon, Cronin may have yet another coaching option beyond UC. He’s thought to be in line for the Virginia Tech job if Buzz Williams leaves for Texas A&M. The AD at Virginia Tech, Whit Babcock, was UC’s AD for 2 ½ years and has a better relationship with Cronin than Bohn has.

Or does Cronin, like other West Siders, have a tether that only stretches as far as Clifton?

Cincinnatians are familiar with Cronin’s close ties to his dad and his family in town. Even the UNLV AD said she realized that it would be hard for Cronin to leave his daughter behind.

“He's got a 9-year-old daughter soon to be 10 – Sammi – who's real special for him,” Kunzer-Murphy said three years ago.

Writing for WCPO.com in 2016, John Fay reported that Cronin is divorced and shares custody of Sammi.

“The hardest part of his split with his ex-wife Darlene in 2008 was getting to see less of his daughter,” Fay wrote.

“Sammi was sitting there playing with the little blocks," Cronin's sister, Kelly, told ESPN in 2014. "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.”

So what happens next?

If you’re Cronin and UCLA offers you the job, do you say, “I’ve got to go back to Cincinnati and talk to my AD first?” Or do you say, “Yes. Hell yes!” before UCLA changes its mind?

Turning down UNLV is one thing, but what coach with a chip on his shoulder would turn down UCLA?

Maybe only a divorced dad with a soon-to-be teenage daughter.