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Tenacious D

By Paul Feinberg '85, Photos by James Dimmock

Published Jul 1, 2019 8:00 AM

In April, the University of Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin became the 14th head coach in UCLA men’s basketball history. Known for toughness, a tenacious defense and a continuous, all-out effort, Cronin is eager to bring the program back to national prominence.


In the Mo Ostin Basketball Center, Mick Cronin with four of his players.

“Are you going to cut the grass or not?”

That’s what Coach Mick Cronin would ask his players at the University of Cincinnati (UC) whenever he wanted to know if they were going to get the job done. Houston Rockets forward Gary Clark, who played collegiately for Cronin’s Bearcats, would hear that question a lot. “Because if you can’t cut the grass,” Clark says, “he will find somebody who will, because the grass has to be cut.”

As the new Michael Price Family UCLA Head Men’s Basketball Coach, Cronin brings that fierce work ethic to Westwood. No stranger to L.A., where he once spent summers toiling at basketball camps, he says getting the UCLA job is a “great opportunity” both for him and his daughter, Sammi, who’s excited about the move to Southern California. Cronin takes over the Bruins after leading Cincinnati, his alma mater, to nine straight NCAA Tournament appearances.

Here, Cronin and a few others talk about his team’s playing style, his animated sideline demeanor, his goals for the program and what he’s really like.

Preconceived notions people have about Mick Cronin ...

Mick Cronin: Yeah, I’ve dealt with this before. “Very intense, very competitive.” I take those as compliments, because if I were a fan, I would want my coach to hate losing and be a fierce competitor, and instill that in his team. [But] people see me and think, “He never has any fun.”

UCLA Associate Head Coach Darren Savino (who served in the same capacity under Cronin at Cincinnati): I would think, “Wow, he’s a tough little guy, he’s a competitive person. Their team plays nasty and tough, physical — you’re going to be in for kind of a street fight when you play those guys, and you’d better be ready to strap it on and tie your shoes, because it’s going to be a tough night.”

The “Real” Mick Cronin ...

Cronin: I’m two different people. Off the floor, I’m very, very different. On the floor, I’m all business.

Savino: When it comes to a competitive event, he is one of the most competitive people I’ve ever been around. But when you take him away from that environment, he’s just a regular guy. He likes to blend in with everybody. He’s down to earth. Completely different personality outside of coaching.

Gary Clark (played for Cronin at UC; currently with the NBA’s Houston Rockets): Coach is hilarious. People see his body language and his demeanor on the court and are judgmental. Coach just doesn’t know how to communicate when someone is playing soft. He has to be yelling, fist balled up, for him to tell you that you’re playing soft. It took me a while to learn: Don’t take it personal. In my senior year, I would purposely not even look over there at him, and I knew it would piss him off even more. I tell the young guys, when he’s yelling and cursing, ignore him, because he will forget about it that fast. Just keep running. Just keep playing hard. The funniest thing in our relationship is that in my junior and senior years, I got to the point where I wouldn’t look at him.


Mick Cronin is "all business," pictured with the same four players: Prince Ali (No.23), Alex Olesinski (No. 0), Chris Smith (No. 5) and Jules Bernard (No. 3).

Playing Style ...

Cronin: In this day, especially [at UCLA], you’re hoping to have future NBA players. ... You may not have them long, so you’re going to have to adapt year in and year out to your personnel.

The three-point line is going back a little bit [editor’s note: In June, the NCAA approved a proposal to move the three-point line in college basketball to the international basketball distance of 22 feet, 1 inch, back from 20 feet, 9 inches] and, one thing you have to do on offense, you have to be able to shoot. You can’t have success on offense if you can’t open the floor up. [But] the style of offense you run is not what opens the floor up — it’s your ability to make open shots.

I’m known as a defensive guy. At Cincinnati, we did what we had to do to win, and the fallacy would be that we didn’t play offense. We had some great offensive teams. Two years ago we led the nation in scoring margin, because we had multiple guys who could make shots. I think defense is much more teach- able. You have to recruit offense, and it’s hard. That’s why I’m here; I hope it’s a lot easier here.

Savino: The core principles of our program have never changed, no matter who is on the team. You’re going to play hard, you’re going to play with discipline, you’re going to rebound and compete. Those four things are never going to change, no matter who is on the team.

When it comes to how you’re going to run your offense, obviously your personnel dictates what you have. If you have inside scoring, you’re going to use it; if you don’t have as many ball handlers, you’ve got to do different things to get the ball entered. If you have a good shooting team, your three-point shooting will be important.

Can we defend the whole court? Depends on our personnel. Do we play zone? Depends on our personnel. Do we switch to man? Again, depends on our personnel. A few years ago, we lost three seniors, we lost leadership, our three best defen- sive players. So we came up with our defense, and we’ve used it the last five years. It’s kind of a hybrid man-zone that we created, and that was based upon personnel.

First Impressions ...

Chris Smith (third-year guard, UCLA basketball): We didn’t really know what to expect, to be honest with you. Everyone was telling us he’s this hard guy; he’s crazy. But he’s really emotional, he puts everything he’s got into coaching the game. We didn’t know exactly what to expect, and he came in with a simple message: He said he’s going to keep it real with us all the time, he’s never going to lie to us, he’s going to be honest with us, he’s going to help us until he can’t breathe anymore, and he’s here to win. I’m on board with every single thing he said in that first meeting. I’m all for it.

Prince Ali (fifth-year guard, UCLA basketball): I get the sense that he’s a normal guy. He came and introduced himself, and he was just trying to get to know people. I thought it was genuine; he told us that we’re his guys.

Culture Shift ...

Smith: [Coach Cronin] zeroes in on a lot of things that really didn’t have as much importance in the previous years. He’s definitely a different coach. Obviously, our goal is to win a national championship, [and] I’m a big fan of the fact that he’s already told us that’s his goal. I just want everybody on the team to get along and play for each other. I don’t really feel like we’ve played for each other the past two years. All the teams that make it far, they play for each other, and with passion and with emotion, and they don’t care who gets the glory. When you win, everyone gets glory, no matter what you did.

He’s already talked about how he doesn’t care about flashy stuff — behind-the-back passes, lobs, dunking on people ... all that good stuff. He wants to play to win. He’s [been] building this whole trust thing since he got here, and it happened super fast. I just want that to trickle down and for us to trust each other out on the court.

Ali: Every head coach has his own philosophy. He likes to preach leadership to me. This year, I want to do a better job of being a leader off and on the court, and that’s not just putting points in the basket — that’s going to class, being a good example for the younger guys that come in, just showing them how to do things around here.


Mick Cronin.