What if Mick Cronin had received the UC contract extension he was seeking?

By Bill Koch

In December 2017, UC flew to Los Angeles to take on UCLA in one of its biggest non-conference games of the season.

I had been looking forward to the trip out West because I had come of age in the early 1970s when UCLA was the king of college basketball, with John Wooden and Bill Walton.

The day before the game I spent the afternoon strolling around the beautiful UCLA campus. When I attended practice, I took the time to walk through the Pauley Pavilion concourse, pausing to take pictures of some of the displays honoring the Bruins’ great players of the past.

The next day UC beat UCLA, 77-63, and although this was far from the UCLA of the 70s, it was still one of the bluebloods of college basketball. For the Bearcats, a win at Pauley was still a huge deal.

At the time I was writing for gobearcats.com, UC’s athletics website, which meant I flew on the team charter. As I boarded the plane for the flight back to Cincinnati, I passed UC coach Mick Cronin sitting next to his dad in the front row, basking in the glow of the win. Before I sat down, Mick called me back to his seat.

“We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?” he said.

I told him that he surely had come a long way, and that after what he had been through during his first few years at UC, when he rebuilt the program virtually from scratch, he deserved to savor the moment. I asked him later why the win over UCLA was so satisfying, considering that by then he had coached his team to many noteworthy wins, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2012.

“I mean, it’s UCLA,” he said, “beating up on the Bruins in Pauley Pavilion. The thing about it for me is it gives you a reference. Some guys have lived in Camelot. It gives me a lot of perspective.”

Three-plus years later, as the head coach at UCLA, you could argue that Cronin now lives in Camelot, although his team, like the ones he had at UC, don’t play like a privileged bunch. They play with all the intensity the Bearcats displayed not so long ago.

I thought about that trip to UCLA on Sunday while I watched the 11th-seeded Bruins upset No. 2 seed Alabama in overtime to reach the Elite Eight in Cronin’s second season.

I also thought of another exchange we had. This one occurred during a media availability before practice the following season. It was late in what would become Cronin’s 13th and final season as UC’s head coach. By then, Mick’s name had been mentioned in the media as a possible candidate to replace Steve Alford at UCLA. When he finished addressing reporters as a group, I pulled him aside and asked him if there was any truth to those rumors. He told me his agent had been contacted, but that there were so many coaches on the list it didn’t really mean much to him.

UC beat UCLA again that season, this time in a 93-64 blowout at Fifth Third Arena. It was obvious that the Bearcats played much harder and were much more physical than the Bruins, who seemed to have no interest in competing. Not long after that game, UCLA fired Alford, who was replaced by interim head coach Murry Bartow.

During a subsequent media session, I asked Cronin about the progress the program had made since he took over in 2006. He gave me a strange answer, saying there were some people in the UC administration who apparently didn’t think he had made much progress at all, despite eight straight NCAA Tournament appearances at that point.

When I asked him later what he meant, he told me had been seeking a contract extension for months, but had been able to make any progress. When I asked why, he said, “Go to talk to (athletic director) Mike Bohn.” He tracked me down later and said, “If you value your job, you probably shouldn’t ask Bohn about this.” Since Bohn, UC’s athletic director at the time, was technically my boss, I didn’t pursue the issue with him. And even if I had, there’s no way UC would have allowed me to write such a story on ‘gobearcats.com.’ But I knew then that if UCLA ever became serious in its pursuit of Cronin he would listen.

Much of the UC fan base never embraced Cronin, even though he was a native Cincinnatian and even though he had pulled the program back from the abyss in the wake of Bob Huggins’ firing. They didn’t like UC’s style of play under Cronin. They were frustrated over early exits from the NCAA Tournament, especially after the Bearcats blew a 22-point lead and lost to Nevada in 2018.

Soon there were reports that UCLA had targeted Kentucky coach John Calipari, but Calipari stayed in Lexington with a contract extension; Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, who also received an extension; and TCU’s Jamie Dixon. But in order for Dixon to take the UCLA job, the Bruins would have to buy out his contract. When that didn’t work out, Cronin reportedly was next in line. At that point, I was sure this was serious. Mick Cronin really could be leaving.

Sure enough, on April 9, 2019, Cronin was announced as UCLA’s head coach. The following year he was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year. And now, a year after that, he has the Bruins in the Elite Eight.

It took only a week for Bohn, now the Southern Cal AD, to find Cronin's replacement. On April 16, he introduced NKU coach John Brannen as the Bearcats’ new head coach.

“John was a clear choice on our list that we wanted to look at,” Bohn said. “But we scrubbed the entire nation. He emerged (on top) every single time. It was like, that guy doesn’t trump John, this guy doesn’t trump John. No one ever trumped John Brannen.”

Now the UC program is in deep turmoil from which it might take years to recover. Six players have announced they’re entering the NCAA’s transfer portal, leaving only four on the current roster. And last week, UC athletic director John Cunningham announced the school will “commence a review of allegations related to the men’s basketball program,” leading to speculation that Brannen will not return next year.

In some respects, it still seems hard for me to believe that Mick Cronin, who grew up on the West Side of Cincinnati and never played college basketball, is UCLA’s head coach. It’s even harder to believe that UC let him get away.

I wonder what would have happened if UC had offered Cronin a contract extension before all the UCLA talk intensified. Would he still be in Cincinnati? Would the program's NCAA Tournament streak still be alive? Maybe it wouldn't have mattered. Maybe the job would have been too lucrative to turn down even if he had been extended.

We'll never know.