Mick Cronin was the head coach of men’s basketball in Cincinnati for 13 years, which means he’s led somewhere north of 1,500 practices. For all but a few, very few, his father, Hep, was sitting in a folding chair against the wall near the practice gym in the Bearcats’ basement. It was the biggest advantage of the job.
The courtesy car was enjoyable for Mick, as was working at his alma mater and passing the Oscar Robertson statue every day. But a chance to see his father sit down on his practices? It was a huge reason why Cronin at one point made college want to give him a long term extension of his contract. He didn’t need to leave for more money and the opportunity to work with lasting power if he could live in his hometown and have his dad in the gym every day.
That offer never came, however, and that of UCLA did. In April 2019, the Bruins offered him the opportunity to replace Steve Alford as head coach, to sit in the same chair where John Wooden has already won 10 NCAA championships. It was impossible to say no under these circumstances. And, hey, Hep could spend much of the winter in the west if he wanted to.
Then came the pandemic, and COVID-19 handled what neither of them thought they could handle 2,000 kilometers away: It separated the Cronins.
They saw each other Thursday night at the opening of the NCAA tournament. Luckily for both of them, the Bruins have been invited to compete and the event takes place in Indiana, down to Interstate 74 from Hep’s house in Cincy.
The two saw each other in person for the first time in a year. And together – though separated by a railing between the bleachers of Purdue’s Mackey Arena and the basketball court – they celebrated UCLA’s 86-80 overtime win over Michigan State in the top four.
“It’s good to see him. You know he’s getting old,” Mick Cronin told reporters after the game. “I tease. You know, I talk to her every day. And as I walk over to Sepulveda (Boulevard in Los Angeles), I call her and ask her how the weather is in Cincinnati and explain the sun to her. . I already come over the mountains of Santa Monica. I have to put on my sunglasses. So I play with him every day.
“I hadn’t seen my dad since we won Arizona state last year at the end of February. COVID hit, he canceled his flight to Vegas (for the Pac- 12 2020), trying to stay safe, not traveling by plane. So talking to someone everyday, it’s weird to see him. Last year he flies up every month, having a week with me, so it was awesome.
This is the 10th consecutive NCAA tournament for Cronin, his first at UCLA. Few coaches have streaks this long: Kansas’ Bill Self, Gonzaga’s Mark Few, and the man on the opposite side in this affair, Tom Izzo.
Winning against Michigan State, behind 27 points for forward Jamie Jacquez and 23 points for goaltender Johnny Juzang, means the Bruins advance to play Saturday against the No.6 seed BYU in the first round of the tournament.
And that means one more thing to their coach.
“Now I can see him again,” Mick Cronin said.