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Mick Cronin Sheds the Anchor of a Bad UCLA Coaching Search

Cronin is a fine coach, but, first, he has to escape the gravity of UCLA’s failed coaching search.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round- Iowa Hawkeyes vs Cincinnati Bearcats Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Being a writer at this site affords me a few perks. Besides the multi-million dollar contract that I got by first telling SB Nation that I had been contacted about the UCLA Bruins basketball coaching search, being a writer here means I have access to the Bruins Nation Twitter account, which is perfect for someone like me who a) is very funny and b) does not want to put in the work of organically building a following on my own personal Twitter account. So, when news broke late yesterday morning that UCLA was set to hire Mick Cronin to be the next head coach, I decided to fire off a quick opinion of the Cronin hire.

Pretty short, pretty safe, not damning Cronin nor completely praising him. It was a quality Tweet, if I do say so myself.

But, that is not how this coaching search has gone and, pretty quickly, our mentions were full of people either excited about the hire, cautiously optimistic about the hire, or apoplectic about the hire. Then I came over to our site and read Joe’s article about the hiring and I saw the same thing in the comments. All of which is to say that the hiring of Mick Cronin has not gone without controversy and it was completely avoidable had the UCLA athletic department not bungled this coaching search.

Mick Cronin has a problem, you see, and it’s not with his coaching ability. Cronin is, by all accounts, a fine coach, having taken Cincinnati to nine straight NCAA tournaments while winning the American Athletic Conference regular season twice to go along with two AAC Tournament wins. His teams have a reputation for being strong defensive teams that play hard despite being at a talent disadvantage compared to some of their conference rivals. Just take a look at this table I put together comparing Cronin’s Cincinnati team against UCLA over, I don’t know, let’s just randomly go with a six-year period:

Cincinnati vs UCLA KenPom Comparison

Year Cincinnati Overall Cincinnati Defensive UCLA Overall UCLA Defensive
Year Cincinnati Overall Cincinnati Defensive UCLA Overall UCLA Defensive
2013-2014 27 9 14 37
2014-2015 43 17 40 66
2015-2016 32 16 69 118
2016-2017 23 15 16 85
2017-2018 4 2 56 103
2018-2019 29 28 102 137

Now, this is not to say that Cronin is a slam-dunk of a hire. I put Cronin at the top of the Wait-and-See Hires category on the Hot Board for a few reasons, specifically his lack of success in the NCAA Tournament and his lack of West Coast ties. Those aren’t deal-breakers by any stretch, but it’s a lot easier to swallow the hiring of a new coach if they possess at least one of those two things. And had the coaching search not gotten so public, UCLA fans might not be as hung up on those concerns because they wouldn’t have had to publicly compare them to guys like John Calipari or Jamie Dixon.

Actually, that might be the entire problem right there.

This is the danger of running such a public coaching search. As soon as the details to the contract offered to John Calipari leaked, UCLA set its fan base up for disappointment, because Calipari was never coming for the amount offered. On top of that, it was now publicly known UCLA was willing to throw around some serious money to land a coach, which meant UCLA fans could now imagine the search committee approaching all manner of big name coaches and getting them to think about moving to Westwood. Coaches like a Tony Bennett, a Jay Wright, or a Billy Donovan. UCLA could now load up the money cannon and aim it at any coach they wanted.

But that’s the thing about a Pandora’s box. It might look like a good idea from the outside, but once opened it can have disastrous consequences and, for UCLA, the John Calipari situation was their Pandora’s box. UCLA never got a positive response from another Tier 1 coach. If they had an inkling of a chance, they would have held out on hiring Cronin. The revelation of the money cannon also hurt once the search turned towards Tier 2 candidates. Jamie Dixon is a good, albiet flawed, candidate, but he had an $8+ million buyout and TCU was unwilling to help the Bruins on lowering that amount because why should they help a program that is willing to drop stupid money on Calipari? Rick Barnes was clearly torn and, in the end, Tennessee gave him his second raise in seven months. So, he chose to stay.

The biggest success of the UCLA coaching search was that it got multiple coaches to sign new contracts for increased money and, when only one of those coaches actually signed with UCLA, it’s a problem. The incompetence of Dan Guerrero and the athletic department was on full display during this coaching search and it created a situation where any coach that was eventually hired was going to be put behind the 8 ball from a perception standpoint, because they will clearly not have been the 1st or even 2nd target. For Mick Cronin, this becomes even worse because we actually know UCLA offered contracts to at least 3 coaches, so he was the 4th option at best and probably goes to 6th or so after Tony Bennett and Jay Wright.

This also wasn’t going to be just a problem for Mick Cronin, but really anyone who was hired after that Pandora’s box was opened. Hire Jamie Dixon and now he has to produce immediately because UCLA just spent $8-10 million on his buyout instead of for a Tony Bennett-level guy. Hire Rick Barnes and you have to contend with settling for an older coach. Hire Rick Pitino and you have to contend with having to build a new addition for the Mo Ostin Center just for the FBI to have permanent offices. Hire Earl Watson and watch the fans attempt gladiatorial combat with each other over his qualifications. The problems stretch on and on, because the stench of this inept coaching search was not going to wash clean for most potential hires.

The good news for Cronin is that this is all fixable. In fact, I’m willing to sit here and offer a few helpful suggestions for Cronin, free of charge, to help him turn his image with the UCLA faithful around.

  1. Don’t be Steve Alford. - As far as I know, Mick Cronin is not Steve Alford, so he’s already doing well so far! But, seriously, we talk a lot about lowering the expectation level at UCLA. So, the fact that I have to give a coach congratulations for the fact that running a Google search for their name followed by the word “rape” doesn’t turn anything up is a bit depressing.
  2. Hire a few West Coast-based assistants. - Not having West Coast connections isn’t a deal breaker by any stretch, but Cronin does need to recognize how that could be a problem and should be willing to open up some spots on his coaching staff to assistants who know the lay of the land. There’s good news here, as Kerry Keating is not only available, but is willing to return to UCLA as an assistant. Bringing on a few West Coast assistants would go a long way towards easing the minds of the fan base.
  3. Involve the former players. - One of Alford’s many shortcomings, from what I understand, was freezing out a lot of the former players from the program, which, to me, is crazy, because the former players are the exact kind of guys who can really help your program out, especially when it comes to things like recruiting. The former players can be some of your best salesmen and there are a host of former Bruins, like Sean Farnham and Ryan Hollins, who work in sports media and would just love the chance to sing UCLA’s praises. Plus, after a bruising coaching search where a good amount of former players vocally supported Earl Watson, bringing them back into the fold would just help mend some rifts.
  4. Win. And win big. - It seems obvious, but it should be said. If Cronin has UCLA competitive nationally within a few years, no one will remember that he was the 4th choice, especially because he doesn’t have the baggage that Alford had at the start.
  5. Give me a credential and also a host of exclusive interviews - Ok, this one is just me being selfish. I’ll stop now.

The point is that Cronin can shake the perception issues that currently exist fairly quickly and the road to being embraced by the fan base is not as long and impossible as some in the national media would have you believe. UCLA fans are, by and large, not the irrational fan base they are made out to be. Is that due to years of program mismanagement leading to UCLA fans just hoping for some sort of positive consistency from their major sports teams? Quite possibly, but UCLA fans are also realists who recognize that it’s hard to win a national championship in 2019. One year, you could be a #1 seed losing to a #16 seed. The next year, you’re winning a national championship. So, we don’t expect a team to win the whole thing every other year. But this is also UCLA and it should be a reasonable expectation for UCLA to have a team that routinely competes for and wins the conference championship and can make deep runs in the NCAA Tournament. That is the same expectations they have at Kentucky, at Duke, at North Carolina and Kansas and Michigan State and all the other blue blood programs. Why should UCLA want anything less?

To Cronin’s credit, he absolutely nailed his first test at the opening press conference. One of his first actions was to turn around the ceremonial jersey in the introductory picture, because as he stated “The Four Letters are more important than my name”, which is just a perfect quote from someone who clearly gets what makes UCLA special. He talked about the history of UCLA in a way that made it clear he wasn’t just a casual observer, and he spoke of hard work being the most important aspect of his coaching. Cronin talked about his West Coast connections and said he was going to make sure to add some West Coast guys to his coaching staff. He repeatedly mentioned the former players as the lifeblood of the program, and how he is planning on reaching out to them. He talked about wanting to come to UCLA to win national championships, not to compete for conference titles. He was not Steve Alford. It was just a perfect press conference, but we’ll have more on the press conference in a bit in a separate article.

So, with all that said, let me welcome Mick Cronin to Westwood and wish him the best as UCLA coach. The coaching search that led to his hiring should not be held against him and he’s a fine-enough coach who should be able to succeed at UCLA and that’s all we really want at this point.

Go Bruins!