You'd have to be a fool, Mick Cronin thought.
More than four years ago, Cronin crossed the Ohio River on a bridge into Kentucky. The city of Cincinnati was in his rearview mirror. Fitting, Cronin thought. "Whoever takes that job is going to be screwed," he said.
Funny how things work out. That day, Cronin was headed back to Murray, Ky., as coach of the Murray State Racers, a team he led to the NCAA tournament in two of his three years at the helm. In less than a month, Cronin would be getting, well, screwed.
"The normal guy walks in and he has players on his team," Cronin said.
He came home to bail out the University of Cincinnati's sinking basketball program. Cronin grew up in Cincinnati, went to UC and coached under Bob Huggins. This was his dream job. Some dream.
Cronin inherited the biggest mess in big-time Division I basketball. He has cleaned it up to a degree; all but one of his players has graduated and the program is off academic probation. "The faculty and alumni are proud of the fact we don't have a negative image," Cronin said.
Cronin likes to point out that Cincinnati is one of just five schools whose win totals have increased every year in the last four years. The numbers at UC are 11, 13, 18 and 19.
But the Bearcats have whiffed on the NCAA tournament. A fan base accustomed to Huggins' winning and charisma has never warmed to Cronin. More to the point, Cronin's teams don't sell tickets. The Bearcats averaged fewer than 8,000 paying customers last winter -- in a building that holds 13,176.
Mick Cronin isn't household, but his situation is. College coaches come with the shelf life of a bunch of bananas. What will you do for me tomorrow, and can I get that today?
Cronin serves two masters: Win and Win Properly. It's a heck of a line to draw in the quasi-amateur dust.
The financial stress on athletic departments makes athletic directors and school presidents do strange things, such as applaud the BCS and move the Michigan-Ohio State football game to October. How long does a coach get now? What's the tipping point? Cronin has shocked the patient back to life. It's not quite healthy. How much more time should he get?
It's not exactly a test case. But it's close. Cronin is Tom Crean at Indiana, without the Final Four resume. He was Crean before Crean. "There is so much talk in our business about doing things the right way, representing the university properly, all that," he said. "Look at the Sweet 16 the last few years. Look at the longevity of the coaches. There's continuity. Find the right guy and support him."
Cronin says he is the right guy. He says four years is barely a beginning. "I'm a different case because of what I walked into," he said. "First two years, I had no chance." His original deal was for six years -- "I wouldn't have taken the job for anything less than that," he said. -- and before the start of last season, it was extended two years, through 2014.
"I've tried to preach the message that it's a long-term process and I'm going to be here for the long-term," he said. "Nobody wants to hear the truth. When I got here, I couldn't bring in a guy who could help us right away, if he might go off the [academic] deep end."
The university has been understanding and remarkably patient. But four years is forever in college basketball. And big bills need paying. Basketball is no longer the athletic rainmaker at UC. That matters when a school's football aspirations are soaring, right along with the costs of running the program. Cincinnati has already built an indoor practice facility. Next on the want list is a large, and difficult, expansion of century-old Nippert Stadium. Picture adding a deck to Wrigley Field.
All of it requires lots of money. Cronin's teams aren't producing enough of it. He has had four years to rebuild the jigsaw puzzle, piece by piece. He believes he has done well. "I'm proud of what we've done to stabilize the program," Cronin said.
UC could do the loyal and good thing and allow Mick Cronin to try to finish what he started. He says he likes his team this year, even as its two top scorers -- Deonta Vaughn and Lance Stephenson -- have left the building. Or, it could do the typically quasi-amateur athletic thing: If the Bearcats miss the Madness again, write Cronin a check, thank him for his services and return him to the world of assistant coaching.
It's an impossible dilemma. It's getting more impossible all the time.
It is a weird livelihood that hangs on the performances of 18-year-olds with girlfriend problems. And street-agent problems and over-engaged booster problems and problems with administrators who want you to win games while filling the gym and graduating future captains of industry.
Doing things the right way is nice, but, generally, only when it doesn't interfere with making money. Will Cincinnati do the right thing by Cronin? Is that the same as doing right by the program? Welcome to the world of quasi-amateur sports.