For the first time since being gut-punched with that appalling announcement—“Steve Alford has been hired as the next head coach of the UCLA men’s basketball program”—I am excited to see what’s over the horizon for the Bruins’ flagship program.
The ship’s new captain Mick Cronin is a steady, fundamentally sound skipper with a talent for recruiting quality athletes when he did not have the world to offer them. Imagine what he can do at UCLA. His values are right for Westwood. He has fought in the battles; his seamanship is established, and a bluff course into the weather gauge will be set.
“I spell fun, ‘W-I-N,’” said Cronin at his introductory press conference in Westwood.
That same gathering also featured the coach flipping over his honorary jersey from the back, where his name was stitched, to the front, where the Four Letters arced across the chest with a bright patch of the Pyramid of Success off to the right.
“This is most important,” Cronin said. “The four letters are more important than my name,” as applause broke out from Bruin partisans who had showed up to meet the man.
Prior to taking the UCLA job, Cronin guided the University of Cincinnati, a mid-major working under both financial handicaps, facilities deficits, and recruiting challenges to nine straight NCAA Tournaments. But, he also did so while winning more games in America than every program except Villanova and Gonzaga over the last three seasons. He was the national coach of the year in 2018.
Amongst coaches under 50 (Cronin is 47), he is at or near the top in NCAA Tournament appearances. Fortunately for the UCLA Bruins, it is there where Cronin is poised, because of a mega-upgrade in talent being added to his extensive experience, for a big breakthrough in March.
And this is where the immediate sports narrative veered hard into the land of dumb.
Think of NCAA Tournament success a bit like you think of coming into physical and emotional maturity. Given a baseline competency in a coach and a position where he can develop his craft, he will figure out how to advance in his own time. Keeping in mind always that the tournament in its best scenario requires a couple of rolls of the dice. Fate itself is a factor.
I have spent—no, that is too neutral—wasted, too much time over the last half decade telling people Tony Bennett was an elite basketball coach; a legitimate hoops mega mind who would have his day on top of the podium, sooner than later. For anyone who knows what they are looking at when they watch basketball, it was luridly obvious how special Bennett is.
But never mind Bennett’s unprecedented success with Virginia in the ACC, the country’s premier basketball league, where he was routinely challenging and beating both superpowers Duke and North Carolina for conference titles, loud-mouthed dabblers gathered, hoard like, to scream the ultimate last-refuge-of-a-scoundrel insult: “IF HE’S SO GOOD, THEN WHY DOES HE ALWAYS LOSE IN THE TOURNAMENT?!”
The fact that there are many good and real reasons for tournament heartbreak did not quiet them. Not even the fact that just one off day and, in fact, just one off half means you are going home in a single elimination bracket.
When Bennett’s team became the first number one seed to lose to a sixteen seed in tournament history, his haters went berserk, pointing again to the only place left to needle at him, the NCAA Tournament.
But it was irrelevant. For Bennett, it was just bad luck. Bad days. Bad matchups. Everything crashing in at once....
Well, here stands Bennett now, two years older than Cronin at 49, in his twelfth season as a head coach and ninth NCAA appearance, exactly one year off the most infamous loss in tournament history, a crowned National Champion at Virginia. What’s left to say?
Tournament past is not tournament potential. Bennett is just one example. What about all the successful coaches, some legitimately great, who began to learn to navigate the drive deep into March later in their careers?
Tony’s father, Dick Bennett, who took then-lowly Wisconsin to a Final Four in his 15th season as an NCAA head coach, his 23rd overall.
And Nolan Richardson at Arkansas, who went to his first Final Four in his 10th season as an NCAA head coach, and won a national championship in his 14th.
Or the great John Beilein, who took Michigan to his first Final Four appearance in his 20th season coaching.
Or the Pac-12’s Dana Altman, the current top coach in the league, who took lightly-regarded Oregon to a Final Four in his 27th season in charge, his seventh at the school.
This year, Bruce Pearl guided Auburn to the tournament’s final weekend with a chance to win it all in his 15th season as an NCAA head coach.
Last on this list, though nowhere near the final example available, is UCLA’s own Jim Harrick, who struggled in the tournament despite putting together excellent teams and finally broke through in his 16th season as a head coach, winning UCLA’s 11th national championship in dominating fashion with a 32-1 overall record.
Do not be one of the “big sports fans” out there ignorant enough to say these men could not coach basketball until reaching those milestones. Any clown can tell you a coach is capable of winning after they have already won. Identifying them before it happens is what takes skill.
UCLA’s search committee identified and hired a good basketball coach, and that should make everyone happy.
Cronin will put UCLA’s floundering program back on course immediately. The Bruins will aggressively challenge for the Pac-12 title every season and, with the league in the shape it is in now, that could commence immediately next year. He is going to have a good group of kids to coach.
UCLA should be back in the NCAA tournament next year too, and certainly every year after that, which after all is less than the bare minimum for a program with a Land of Milk and Honey college experience to offer talented high school basketball players and both the greatest tradition and uniforms in the game. Kids like to look good while winning. There is nothing wrong with that.
There is no reason to think Cronin will not strike deep into the dance at any time under these conditions. The future is bright at UCLA. Can you see it?