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For Mick Cronin, Sweet 16 Means Extending UCLA's Surprising Run—And Precious Time With Dad

With the tournament near his hometown, the Bruins coach has been able to see his father, Hep, in person for the first time since March 2020.

Newly in possession of his drivers license and a hand-me-down car, Dan Cronin was given a job by his parents one Saturday in the mid-1980s: drive his younger brother, Mick, to three eighth-grade basketball games in Cincinnati. On the way to the first game, in his sky-blue Ford Granada equipped with an AM-only radio, Dan proposed a wager.

I bet you $20 that you can’t score 100 points total on the day.

Mick, both hypercompetitive and a highly advanced player for that age, took the bet. The first game, for St. Ann Catholic School, he filled it up—more than one-third of the way to winning the bet, he recalls. The second game, for Northside Knights of Columbus, Mick stayed ahead of pace. But in the third game, which was again for the St. Ann team, the coach didn’t put Mick in the starting lineup.

He eventually got in the game and started launching shots, scoring points, only to be pulled again. With his playing time limited for mysterious reasons, Mick Cronin failed to hit the century mark.

What happened? Hep Cronin, the boys’ father and a renowned high school coach, arrived at the gym for the last game. Somehow—to this day Mick says he’s unsure how—Hep heard about the bet and told the St. Ann coach to bench his son.

“I’ll see you two at the house,” Hep told Dan and Mick afterward, in a tone that told them they were in trouble.

Chastised for the wager, the boys were sent to the room they shared. Going to bed, they argued over whether the bet needed to be paid off. But they shared the knowledge that almost nothing got past Hep, the father who always knows best.

For UCLA head coach Mick Cronin, a deep tournament run means much more than putting the Bruins back atop college hoops.

Mick Cronin related that story this week from his hotel room in Indianapolis. The room faces West, so the coach of the UCLA Bruins can at least feel the warmth of the setting sun as he talks from the lockdown that is this NCAA tournament. “They let me walk the prison yard for an hour yesterday,” he jokes. 

It isn’t an easy existence, but it sure beats the alternative—being eliminated and back home with no more basketball to play. UCLA has won three games as a No. 11 seed, defeating Michigan State in a tense First Four game, then dominating No. 6 BYU and No. 14 Abilene Christian. The Bruins are now in the Sweet 16, facing No. 2 Alabama on Sunday, trying to make their deepest run since 2008.

But the best moment of the tournament for Cronin came shortly after the victory over Michigan State in Purdue’s Mackey Arena was secure. Mick walked over to the edge of the stands to see Hep—“my best friend”—in person for the first time since March 1, 2020. Hep was in a group of nine friends and family members who made the three-hour drive from Cincinnati to West Lafayette to see the game.

The Mackey Arena security guard told the 80-year-old Hep he needed to leave the arena and couldn’t come down to the railing to see Mick. That didn’t go over well. “He decided to exercise his security guard power,” Hep says. “I told him the best thing he could do was step aside. Because I wasn’t stopping.”

Separated by the pandemic, this was a sweet reunion extended longer than many expected. The two talk on the phone most days, and Hep has been introduced to FaceTime, but the pandemic had kept them apart for more than a year. The father who taught Mick how to play basketball, how to coach basketball, how to read the Daily Racing Form, how to work—he was on the other side of the country, no trips to California allowed.

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When Mick departed the University of Cincinnati for the UCLA job in 2019, he left behind his hometown, his alma mater and—hardest of all —Hep. He was a presence at all Bearcats practices for years, quietly watching until the end and then grabbing some player to offer his own feedback. Having won more than 400 high school games without a single losing season, coaching for Hep was like breathing. “It gave me something to do every day,” Hep says of those UC practices.

The routine: hit Camp Washington Chili Parlor on Colerain Ave. for lunch. (“Not Skyline,” Hep says staunchly, in reference to the more famous Cincinnati chili proprietor.) Walk in and give the timeout signal to the counter, which meant Hep was having the usual: a coney dog plus a small four-way chili, with spaghetti, onions and cheese. Banter with the staff. Then drive four miles to UC for practice. 

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“That was life after retiring from scouting,” says Hep, whose other vocations beyond coaching basketball included teaching, working as a respected scout for the Atlanta Braves, and punching tickets at River Downs racetrack.

“The guy never took a day off,” Mick says. “If I wanted to be around my dad, I had to go to work with him. So I did. And I wouldn’t trade it—I saw all walks of life, at every level.”

Dan and Mick were always in the gym as kids, growing up to be savvy point guards who would play for their father at La Salle High School. Mick, who stopped growing after seventh grade, led the city in assists before a knee injury ended his career. He started coaching a high school junior-varsity team at age 19, having learned so much already “by osmosis” from watching Hep. “There’s no way I’m a coach if he’s not my dad,” Mick says.

If they weren’t in the gym, they were at the baseball diamond—Dan as a player, Mick more often as a tagalong. When Hep would load up the family Impala for a scouting trip to Tennessee or Kentucky, they loved going with him. Baseball scouting is rife with missed evaluations, but Hep had more than his share of hits. He touted the Braves on a kid who was at tiny NAIA Thomas More College named David Justice, who would be the NL Rookie of the Year in 1990 and a key cog in the great Braves teams of the 1990s.

And Hep wrote the first scouting report on Chipper Jones. After laying eyes on Jones one time, Hep called Bobby Cox and told him, “I’ve got your draft pick.” Cox reminded Hep the Braves picked No. 1 that year. Hep told him the Braves brass had better get to Florida and see for themselves. 

“I followed the kid every game for two weeks,” Hep says. “The guy working the ticket gate said, ‘We might have to invite you to the team banquet. You’ve been to more games than some players.’ “ The Braves drafted Jones with the No. 1 pick in 1990; he was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in 2018.

When the boys weren’t following Hep to the gym or the diamond, they were at the track. “I probably could read the Racing Form before I could read my homework,” says Mick with a laugh. “My mom [Peggy] would say, ‘Don’t take him to the track,’ then walk away. My dad would hand me the Form and say, ‘We’ve got a problem in the early daily double.’ “

Hep remembers when the Form was printed in Chicago and would be flown in to Cincinnati, arriving in convenience stores late at night with all the information on the next day’s races. He would buy the Form and the boys would stay up to help him handicap.

Today, there is still some pinch-me wonderment in Mick’s voice when he talks about owning race horses. After betting the cheap ones at River Downs, he now owns a couple of pretty good ones in Southern California. They’re trained by Doug O’Neill, who won the 2012 Kentucky Derby with I’ll Have Another.

The best of times: Mick and Hep hanging out for a week at Del Mar, the tony, seaside track outside San Diego. For blue-collar Cincinnati guys, this was the life. That was after Mick became the coach of the Bruins, but before the pandemic changed everything.

UCLA had just beaten Arizona State and Arizona, running its winning streak to seven, a wobbly first season coming together right on time for first-year coach Mike Cronin. The Bruins were 19-11, 12-5 in the Pac-12, finally in good enough shape to earn an NCAA tournament bid with one regular-season game remaining. The day after the Arizona game, Hep Cronin headed back home to Cincinnati after an extended stay with his son. “Why am I leaving?” Hep joked. “It’s 75 degrees here.”

The plan was for Hep to return home for a while, then meet the team in Las Vegas for the Pac-12 tournament. The pandemic tore up that plan, and all other plans. Mick wouldn’t see Hep again until last week in West Lafayette. 

“It was hard enough for me and him when I left,” Mick says. “But he was loving coming out here. He was hanging out at practice with the old UCLA guys. Michael Warren (a former guard for John Wooden who became a major television actor) watched practice with him. But we couldn't risk him coming out here this season.”

Indeed, Hep contracted COVID-19 in November, falling ill on Thanksgiving Day. He ate one bite of dinner, then went to bed. He was down for about a week but recovered, luckier than many in his age range. (He’s since had his first vaccine shot, with the second one coming up.)

So Hep watched every game on TV—nervous, armchair coaching, wishing he could be there to celebrate or commiserate with his son. Many of the games were late, but he’d stay up to watch and calm down with a sandwich, texting Mick that he was still awake if his son wanted to call. If the Bruins won, the phone would ring. If the Bruins lost, maybe not.

UCLA white-knuckled its way into the tournament. The Bruins lost their last four games—all to teams that made the NCAA tournament—and narrowly slid into the First Four ahead of the likes of Louisville and Colorado State. But they were in, and that gave Hep the chance to see Mick again in person. 

The first distance greeting was on a Thursday night in West Lafayette, when the old man told a security guard to step aside. The second was two days later in Hinkle Fieldhouse, when the Bruins walloped BYU. The third was Monday in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, a beatdown of Abilene Christian.

This weekend, Hep Cronin will commute again from Cincy to Indy, for UCLA vs. Alabama. Even if a railing separates him from his younger son, just being back in the gym with Mick is the best March gift he could ask for. The fact that one game has turned into three, and maybe more, only makes their reunion sweeter.

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