Sunday, May 02, 1999

Cronin preps UC for future

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mick Cronin heads up UC's recruiting.
(Michael Snyder photo)

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        Mick Cronin winced upon glancing at the next week's schedule. The NCAA Tournament's East Regional championship, in which Duke was certain to be one contestant and the Cincinnati Bearcats longed to be the other, was set for 2:40 p.m. the following Sunday.

        At precisely the moment the Bearcats might be in New Jersey's Meadowlands battling Duke, guard Kenny Satterfield and his Rice High teammates would be across the Hudson River in the Bronx, facing Christ The King High in the New York Catholic League championship. Cronin was dying to be there. If it seemed this would be a good problem to have, the disgust in Cronin's face made clear it was, foremost, a problem.

Cronin encourages Pete Mickeal to put more loft on his shot.
(Michael Snyder photo)

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        If you wonder how someone can climb from an office job to one of college basketball's hottest recruiters in less than two years, this is a good place to start.

        Cronin largely was responsible for selling UC to Satterfield, one of nine blue-chip players he helped land since gaining his first job as a Division I assistant less than two years ago. The Bearcats had Satterfield's signature on a letter of intent for months, though, meaning this was not a game Cronin was compelled to attend. It mattered because this was the biggest game of Satterfield's career, and Satterfield is more to Cronin than another recruiting conquest.

        “Mick really enjoys it,” Rice coach Mo Hicks says. “He relates to the young guys. Kenny took a liking to him immediately. He's more than just a coach. He's very easy to make a friend.”

Behind the music
        Mick Cronin is one of those eight-year overnight success stories, like actor Dustin Hoffman in the '60s or rock's Sheryl Crow a few years back.

        Everyone sees the results. In Cronin's case, not an Academy Award nomination or fistful of Grammys, but rather the Bearcats' back-to-back top-five recruiting classes. No one sees the years of planning, training and struggle that coalesce in that sudden smash.

  Age: 27, birthdate July 17, 1971.
  Position: Assistant basketball coach, University of Cincinnati, 1997-present
  Hometown: Cincinnati
  Education: High school -- LaSalle, '90; College -- Cincinnati, B.A. in history, 1996.
  Playing experience: High school -- LaSalle, all-city, led the city in assists and was second in three-point field goal percentage.
  Coaching experience: High school -- Woodward, 1991-1996, varsity assistant, junior varsity coach; Magic Johnson's Roundball Classic, East team coach, 1996.
  Administrative experience: High school -- director, Pittsburgh Roundball Classic, 1994; College -- video coordinator, Cincinnati, 1996-97.
  Personal: Single
        Anyone can see Cronin sitting on the Bearcats bench, age 27 but sometimes looking half that, looking young enough it's as though he won a junior-high essay contest (50 words or less, preferably none profane) for which first prize was a seat next to head coach Bob Huggins. But who saw Cronin working as varsity assistant and junior varsity coach at Woodward High, coaching the Five-Star, Nike and adidas ABCD camps and directing Pittsburgh's Roundball Classic high school all-star game — all while attending UC as a full-time student?

        Anyone can see Cronin now in his Chevy Blazer courtesy car, one of the perqs of being an assistant coach in a high-profile program. But who saw when he was driving that 1985 Sedan de Ville his father got for him, a Cadillac in name only, with bumpers barely clinging to the body, a radio that rarely worked and the backseat most often full of Woodward players desperate to avoid the bus?

        “People said I got lucky. I didn't get lucky,” says Cronin, sensitive enough about his age that he'll gladly remind you Rick Pitino was a head coach at 25. “When other college kids were out partying, I was talking recruiting on the phone.”

        He still is. The pursuit of basketball talent requires relentless energy. The hours are ungodly. The travel is worse. Phone calls interrupt so many attempts to relax with a movie, a ballgame, a dinner date.

        There are rewards, of course. Vindication is one. Friends like Manhattan head coach Bobby Gonzalez recalls many college coaches “were stunned and shocked” when UC first sent Cronin on the road. “They were wondering what he'd done to get there.”

        Money is another. Cronin made such an impression as a recruiter that Georgia Tech's Bobby Cremins, under pressure to reorganize his coaching staff, tried to lure Cronin from Cincinnati this spring by dangling a six-figure salary. He's staying.

  Consider the odyssey of Bearcats' assistant coach Mick Cronin in the days following the team's loss to Temple in the second round of the NCAA Tournament: <
  • Sunday, 3/14: Temple 64, UC 54. Cronin flies with the team from Boston to Cincinnati in time to beat the snowstorm that engulfs the Northeast. <
  • Wednesday, 3/17: Catches a morning flight to Pittsburgh, then makes the a one-hour drive to the Butler High gymnasium to watch recruit B.J. Grove play for George Jr. Republic in Pennsylvania state playoffs. <
  • Thursday, 3/18: A morning flight to Cincinnati connects to a flight for Wichita, Kan. He then drives 90 minutes to Hutchinson Community College for an all-day scouting mission at the national junior college tournament. <
  • Friday, 3/19: Spends the morning and early afternoon watching NJCAA tournament games, leaving in time to catch a 5:30 flight out of Wichita to Cincinnati. Connects to a flight for Miami that arrives late in the evening. <
  • Saturday, 3/20: Wakes in time to attend a 10 a.m. practice of the Coast-To-Coast Basketball Club, an AAU-type team featuring several prospects. Lunches with Miami Hurricanes coach Leonard Hamilton, who jokes that Cronin should “get out of Miami.” Scouts the Dade-Broward high school all-star game that night. <
  • Sunday, 3/21: An early wake-up call gets him to an 8 a.m. flight to New York's LaGuardia Airport. Drives across three boroughs to reach Fordham University in the Bronx, where UC recruit Kenny Satterfield is playing for Rice High in the New York Catholic League championship at 3. Cronin watches Satterfield lead Rice to victory. <
  • Monday, 3/22: Cronin visits Rice, located in Harlem, to check on Satterfield's academic progress and meet with the school principal. Cronin also makes the rounds at several other New York schools before departing by plane that night.
        “There isn't one guy I've ever known who's done more with the opportunity he's gotten than Mick,” says Toledo assistant coach Monte Mathis, one of Cronin's closest friends. “He got his foot in the crack of the door, and he didn't knock on it, he didn't wait for someone to open it, he just ran right through it.”

        Cronin got his job as a recruiting assistant under uncommon, even unpleasant circumstances. In July 1997, UC basketball was mired in an investigation into the eligibility of point guard Charles Williams. Assistant John Loyer was on administrative leave. Assistant Larry Harrison left for a job at DePaul. The summer evaluation period, the most crucial 24 days for college basketball recruiting, was about to begin.

        Cronin had been UC's video coordinator during the 1996-97 season, organizing game tapes for the coaching staff. Cronin figured to spend one year in that position, learning from Huggins, building a reputation. “And then I was going to move on,” Cronin says. “I couldn't take another year of not being on the floor, coaching.”

        In fact, Huggins intended to make him an assistant coach for 1997-98, but his plan was for Cronin to be third man on the staff, with no on-the-road recruiting duties. With Loyer and Harrison missing, those plans changed.

        “I watched Mick for a long time, how hard he works and all the contacts he made. I didn't have any question it would work,” Huggins says. “His father was a coach. He grew up around the game and prepared to do this. I didn't think we were taking a chance at all.”

        Cronin demonstrated his recruiting flair at the first possible moment. He attended a workout at Independence Community College in Kansas for shooting guard prospect Cory Powell that began at 12:01 a.m. on the opening day of the evaluation period. Sort of a semi-private midnight madness.

        By the time the early signing period ended that November, UC had Powell along with 6-11 center Donald Little, 6-7 forward Eugene Land and 6-6 forward Pete Mickeal, with whom Cronin became enraptured during a junior college showcase camp. Mickeal was team MVP and all-conference in his first year with the Bearcats.

        “He's as good as there is out there, and I think I've seen a lot of guys over the years,” says UC assistant coach Rod Baker, who joined the staff a few weeks after Cronin.

        “A lot of guys can go into a gym and find the best player. That's not that hard to do. But to be able to find a guy that can make an impact in your program ... I cannot, off the top of my head, give you five guys in the game who are better than he is. I really can't.”

The accidental coach
        It never was in Cronin's mind to become a coach. His father, Hep, coached high school basketball for 27 years at Roger Bacon, Oak Hills and finally La Salle while working full time as a scout for the Atlanta Braves. Mick grew up sitting on his father's bench and became an all-city guard, good enough to play for a Division II college, at least, but a knee injury near the close of his junior season ruined those plans.

        He had to undergo surgery and an exhausting rehabilitation to play his senior year.

        “Once he did that,” Hep Cronin says, “he knew he couldn't continue. He realized that was no way to play and he had to go in a different direction. It might have been a blessing. Everything's destiny.”

        Mick chose to attend UC, which kept him close to his family — and closer to the game than he intended.

        “My father never had a losing season, the greatest guy in the world, and he'd still hear comments from parents,” Cronin says. “I didn't want to coach.”

        He was with his father scouting a game, though, when Woodward High coach Jimmy Leon approached and asked how whether he might be interested in coaching. Against his own better judgment, under the influence of Leon's persuasion and the game's allure, Mick said yes.

        While Cronin coached there, Woodward won three city titles, his JV teams went 57-3 and he got to work with such players as Damon Flint, Eric Johnson, B.J. Grove and the Peek brothers, Antwan and Mike.

        “If it wasn't for Jimmy — he talked me into it, gave me an opportunity,” Cronin says. “It was the best move I ever made.”

        Cronin brought Mathis into the program and together they carried players in that Cadillac to games and practices and fast-food dinners. Cronin would drive slowly because the car carried so much weight in the back any severe bump would scrape the rear end against pavement.

        Mathis once got his foster brother, Brian O'Neal, to hook up a car stereo. By the time O'Neal was done rewiring, the turn signal lever was switching on the windshield wipers and the radio dial operated the heat.

        “We'd be getting ready for early morning practices at Woodward, and we'd just pray it would start,” Mathis says. “We were trying to get these kids Burger King burgers, and we didn't have any money. Having nothing and helping out so many kids ... he didn't have to do that. The kid was broke until he was 26.

        “He's come from Snickers for dinner to being able to go to Applebees and not worry about the check.”

        It seems as though Cronin put as much planning into building his network as MCI WorldCom, but there was no great design that led him to close contact with such backstage basketball icons as Howard Garfinkel of the Five-Star camps and Sonny Vaccaro of adidas. It wasn't an accident, either. He accepted every solid opportunity presented to him, even if it meant giving up more hours of his time.

        In 1991, he got an opportunity to work at Rick Pitino's Kentucky camp because the Wildcats had an interest in recruiting Flint. There, Cronin went out of his way to introduce himself to Gonzalez, a New York City high school coach who was about to become an assistant at Xavier.

        “I thought he was a good young coach coming up, so I called Garf and got him in there,” Gonzalez says. “He was an ambitious young guy. He was passionate about the game. He knew who was who, what was what.”

        That also was the summer Cronin went with Flint to the ABCD Camp in Indianapolis and met Vaccaro. He eventually joined the camp staff and wound up coaching such players as Reggie Freeman, who would go on to Texas, Chris Herren (Fresno State), Jason Lawson (Villanova) and Devin Davis (Miami).

        Camps took care of the summers. Woodward and school occupied the winters for Cronin, although his parents admit to wondering how much time the former left for the latter. Cronin took breaks along the way to focus on his basketball pursuits and completed his history degree in six years.

        “I guess he knew what he was doing,” Hep Cronin says. “His plan was better than mine.”

        In the spring and fall, Mick attended major club competitions such as the Boo Williams tournament each April in Virginia and the Charlie Webber tournament in Maryland every September.

        He was permitted to talk to players when coaches were not. If a particular college coach wanted to get a message to a kid or get an idea of what schools might interest him, Cronin could serve as an intermediary.

        “As I met these people, I started to see I had a chance,” Cronin says. “It became apparent the key was developing relationships. I was taking care of people, so they'd remember when I was a college coach.”

Eagle scout
        There were days when Hep Cronin had a heck of a commute to work. He would leave Cincinnati at 6 a.m., drive to Knoxville to scout a baseball game, then turn around and head home. He took Mick along as often as possible, and not just for company on the highway.

        Some days, his father would tell Mick there was a big-league prospect in the game they were to watch, then instruct him to discern which player during the course of the afternoon.

        “There are good players everywhere, but there's that other element,” Hep Cronin says. “He's trying to get players for the University of Cincinnati. He's trying to win a national championship. I think it's helped him as far as looking at talent.”

        Mick Cronin needed more than a good eye to help the Bearcats follow their outstanding 1998 class with one perhaps even better, with Satterfield joined by Grove, 6-foot-9 DerMarr Johnson and 6-6 Leonard Stokes, who was primarily recruited by Baker.

        When last July's recruiting period began, the Bearcats were not favored to sign either Satterfield or Johnson, the two McDonald's All-Americans set to join them for the 1999-2000 season. Cronin did the necessary research to discover they both might be approachable, then did the legwork to get UC involved.

        He figures he left “800 messages” for Hicks, who does community work in the summers and isn't always easy to find.

        “He was very persistent, but when I had a chance to talk to him, he was just the nicest guy,” Hicks says. “It's not inexperience. What it is ... it's just an innocence. It's not like he's trying to put on some facade, like he's trying to act like he's been coaching 30 years.”

        Cronin is the same way with Baker, who does have extensive experience. Baker was head coach at Cal-Irvine and recruited for P.J. Carlesimo at Seton Hall, and Cronin eagerly seeks his counsel. Each claims there is no competition between them, which can be rare in Division I programs.

        With Huggins to close the cases his assistants set up for him — “He's so honest and so good, I have to bring him to the table only with guys we really want,” Cronin says — UC has itself a recruiting machine with such momentum the Bearcats will not be playing from behind this summer. They are being considered by seven of the top 15 juniors nationally.

        It is an ensemble production, but Cronin is out front.

        “If he really wants you, he'll recruit you real hard,” Satterfield says. “He doesn't come on like other people come on. He just speaks to you as a friend.”

        There are some coaches whose gift making or deepening an acquaintance is causing the other guy feel important. Some coaches have charisma to make an overwhelming first impression. Those who meet Cronin are struck by the bond, the relationship that can form almost instantly.

        “That's because he's present in the interchange,” Baker says. “A lot of times, guys aren't there. They're saying things and doing things, but they're not there.

        “All you need to do is walk into a national arena with Mick: ABCD, Nike or Vegas. You see the number of guys that come up to him, from all walks of college basketball. A lot of guys know a lot of guys, but a lot of guys know Mick. There's a difference.”

Temple of Doom
        Mick Cronin was no happier when he learned he would be free to view Satterfield's championship game.

        Temple eliminated the Bearcats from the NCAA Tournament a week earlier, in the second round. They returned to Cincinnati to hear criticism of a season in which they won all but six of 33 games.

        Cronin did not have to linger through much of it. His “offseason” began with two days of meetings, office work and travel planning at the Shoemaker Center.

        “I didn't really expect to be recruiting that week,” he says. Cronin then began a six-day, four-city, 5,500-mile odyssey, with the final stop on the itinerary being New York City.

        He sat in the stands at Fordham's Rose Hill Gym — with the Rice students, rather than other college coaches — and watched Satterfield score 32 points to lead his team to the New York Catholic League title.

        “Unfortunately, he was there,” Hicks says. “But he really enjoyed it. He said he sat up with the student body so he could cheer. And that's what he did.”

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