Friday March 4th, 2011

It was noble or career-suicidal, depending on how you looked at it. Maybe it was both. A month ago, heading into the most important and defining stretch of his career, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin suspended his best player for a game. The Bearcats were dancing on the proverbial tournament bubble and Yancy Gates was pulling them off.

This is Cronin's fifth year at Cincinnati. He's a local guy. He went to UC. He took over a near-dead program and gave it a pulse. The locals weren't enamored. Attendance lagged. Fifth Third Arena was barely half full most nights. It was widely assumed that without an NCAA tournament invitation, Year 5 would be Cronin's last.

And there he was, leaving Gates home as the Bearcats departed for Pitt on Feb. 5.

"Your program has to stand for certain things," Cronin explained then. "The minute you begin to sacrifice that, you compromise your credibility as a coach. You'll pay the price in the long run."

That's great.

What if there was no long run?

This push-pull between coach and star player is played out everywhere. The expedient thing for a coach isn't to draw lines in the dirt; it's to win and bear it. Cronin and his junior star needed each other. But at what cost?

Gates watched from his dorm room as his teammates got pounded at Pitt. Two games later, a home loss to St. John's, Gates played one minute in the second half. The home crowd booed him loudly, a shocking occurrence for a college player.

Shortly after that game, a tearful Gates and Cronin met in the coach's office. Gates saw a potentially lucrative future slipping away. What transpired has revived Gates' career and, possibly, saved Cronin's. The coach won't offer detail, but the meat of what he said sounded a lot like this:

"Do not listen to people outside this building who claim to know what's best for you. I know what's best for you. I have your best interests at heart."

In college basketball, if you are a good player, there is never a shortage of folks eager to offer you sweet nonsense: You are too good for this coach and this program. You need to declare for the draft. Shoot more, pass less. It's your future ...

"The kids in our programs have major dreams. Sometimes, (their) families or entourages have unrealistic dreams. You have to manage that," Cronin said. "That's the biggest trick of coaching at the high-major level."

Gates was a Cincinnati high school star. The day UC hired him five years ago, Cronin says he started hearing unsolicited opinions from local high school coaches about the big kid at Withrow High. He was talented, but lacked passion, Cronin was told. Gates was a high school sophomore at the time.

"Not only was he local, but he came (to Cincinnati) at a time when he had to play right away, and he was being asked to do things he wasn't ready to do," Cronin said. "Being judged on a daily basis since your ninth grade year is something I don't envy."

At 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds, Cincinnati followers looked at Gates and saw former Bearcat Danny Fortson, a wide-bodied offensive force and former lottery pick. Gates has suffered by comparison, even as he has averaged 10 points and six rebounds all three years. Gates preferred to play on the perimeter, and was seen as soft and occasionally unmotivated. Those traits kept him home from Pitt and got him booed at home eight days later.

A feud blossomed between coach and player. "[Gates'] athletic career has been a process of telling him how great he is," Cronin said two days after Gates' one-game suspension. "Not his immediate family, but everyone around him. He's a microcosm of today's athlete. He's far from the only guy on our team or any team that deals (poorly) with taking responsibility for their own actions."

Then, after the St. John's loss, when I prefaced a question to Cronin with, "Because Yancy is such a huge part of your team ..." Cronin cut me off and said, "He's not a huge part of our team."

At that point, it looked as if coach and player were on the same sinking ship, locked and loaded at 10 paces.

"People assume we have a bad relationship," said Gates. "We don't. It's like with your father. When you're doing good, he'll let you know. When you're doing bad, he has to stop that. It was (Cronin) doing his job, like a father disciplining his kid."

Gates also took extra time to watch some tape. What he saw was a very good player not trying very hard. He got beat for rebounds. He was slow getting back on defense. "I was caught watching a lot of the time," Gates admitted. "That's just a lack of effort."

Cronin said Gates needed to remember he was on a team. "His actions affected the group. This isn't golf," Cronin said. The coach also stuck Gates' big body on the low block and told him, "Stay."

One of Cronin's assistant coaches, George Jackson, has been a mentor of sorts to Gates, sort of a human Serenity Prayer. Jackson has urged Gates to control what he can, and leave the rest alone. "I can only be me," Gates said.

Maybe Gates has seen the light. Maybe he has just had a few good games in a row. Regardless, Cronin's noble gamble has paid off. In the five games since the St. John's meltdown, Gates has averaged 14 points and nine rebounds. Not surprisingly, Cincinnati won four of the five, to move well off the bubble.

Player takes coaching. Coach's job is safer. Potentially disastrous situation avoided.

"He's in a good place mentally" is how Cronin described Gates this week. "He's doing what he can do, not trying to live up to anyone else's expectations."

Except Cronin's, of course. Coach and player are yoked to the same wagon. Finally, they're pulling in the same direction.

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