Mick Cronin agreed to become the next basketball coach at UCLA on Tuesday, 100 days after the Bruins fired Steve Alford from the position. In the interim, UCLA stumbled and embarrassed itself repeatedly in its search for a head to its once-proud program.
First off, let’s get this out of the way: Mick Cronin is a good basketball coach. He’s done a really nice job at Cincinnati and knows the game inside and out. But here’s the thing: The 47-year-old is solid, not spectacular. If you told UCLA fans a few months ago they’d wind up with Cronin, there’s no doubt they would have been incredibly disappointed. If you told those same fans their athletic department would be made to look like chumps by John Calipari, then fail to lure coaches from TCU and Tennessee, they would have been furious.
UCLA and its bumbling athletic director, Dan Guerrero, got absolutely clowned by Calipari and his agent, who used feigned interest in a move to LA to leverage a new, “lifetime” deal with Kentucky. It was a seriously embarrassing episode during which Bruins fans got fired up about a potential blockbuster move just long enough to be sorely disappointed.
Jamie Dixon then appeared to be on his way to UCLA soon after that, but the Bruins wouldn’t pony up the cash to pay his buyout at TCU. Dixon opted to stay in Fort Worth.
Next up was Rick Barnes, who was reportedly offered $5 million a year by UCLA over the weekend. Despite reports he was planning to bolt west, he wound up staying with Tennessee, which isn’t exactly known as a basketball power.
After a long, torturous process, the Bruins settled on Cronin, who seemed like their sixth choice.
There was a time when UCLA owned the premier basketball program in the West. Gradually Arizona and Gonzaga have blitzed past the Bruins to take over. UCLA still grabs top recruits but, like Indiana, it is living off a reputation from the distant past.
Very little suggests Cronin will be the guy to change that.
In 13 seasons at Cincinnati, Cronin put together a 296-146 (.670) record and led the Bearcats two AAC regular season titles and was the conference’s Coach of the Year in 2014. He also took his squad to the NCAA tournament in each of the last nine seasons. That said, he’s had a complete lack of significant tournament success. Cronin led the Bearcats to the Sweet 16 in 2012, but hasn’t gotten out of the first weekend since. He’s had four first-round exits since then, and was bounced in the Round of 32 three times.
Steve Alford took UCLA to the Sweet 16 three times in his first four seasons and was (rightly) considered a failure. Ben Howland took the Bruins to three consecutive Final Fours and the fan wanted more. This is a program and a fan base that expects its teams to compete for titles. Cronin has shown nothing to suggest he’s capable of that.
I’m sure UCLA will continue to bring in high-level recruits. When visit that campus it’s not hard to understand why that school and that program appeals to young basketball players. But Cronin doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would be willing to deal with the headaches that come from the kind of one-and-done talents UCLA regularly attracts. It’s just an odd fit.
There is no doubt in my mind Cronin will get UCLA playing solid basketball. He’ll certainly turn things around from the dumpster fire currently burning in Westwood. But there’s no reason to believe he’ll elevate the Bruins back to a championship level.
UCLA fans expect better than competence. Maybe it’s time they lower those expectations for the program.