Cincinnati surviving without Cronin

CINCINNATI -- Each night when he came home from work, from the business he built from nothing, without even the benefit of a college education, Leonard Davis would do the most extraordinary thing. He would sleep.

The burdens of responsibility were huge for a man who grew up one of 13, who didn't enjoy the benefits of a light bulb until his teenage years, yet scratched his way into a self-made success story with a family and business of his own.

And yet Leonard Davis never suffered a sleepless night, not one his son can remember, anyway.

"I asked him about it once and he said, 'Son, you can only control what you can control,''' Larry Davis said of his father. "He'd say, 'At the end of the day, there's nothing else that I can do, so I go to sleep, I get my rest and I tackle whatever I have to tackle the next day.'''

Larry Davis tells that story after getting barely six restless hours of shut-eye himself, on yet another day when he wrestles with the valuable lesson his father taught him versus the current reality of his life.

He, like any coach, can only control so much, but God does he desperately want to control more.

"I don't want to let this guy down," Davis says, motioning to the currently empty desk belonging to one Mick Cronin.

Cronin is in the building on this Wednesday morning at the University of Cincinnati. The Bearcats' head coach comes to work every day like always. He meets with alumni when necessary, goes out recruiting when he can. But stalking the sidelines, running practice -- the essence of what makes a coach a coach -- since Dec. 20, those duties have belonged to Davis, Cronin's longtime assistant.

By now most folks know what happened to Cronin. A quick refresher: A week's worth of debilitating headaches led to a battery of tests and ultimately to a diagnosis of an arterial dissection in the back of his skull (essentially the inner lining detaches from an artery). He is expected to recover in full, with no real likelihood of a recurrence, but the tear needs to heal, and in order for it to heal, Cronin has to rest and more, keeping his stress level at a minimum.

And since stress tends to be part of a coach's job description, doctors shut him down in late December.

"They thought I was going to be upset,'' Cronin said. "I was worried I was going to die or something. I can't coach? OK, fine, I can't coach.''

But someone had to and that someone is Davis, a 53-year-old basketball lifer, who spent nine years as Furman's head coach. Davis also doubles as one of Cronin's closest friends. He has done more than admirably. The Bearcats, who face crosstown rival Xavier on Wednesday night, are 10-6 under his watch, and a team that started this season picked to finish just fourth in the American Athletic Conference has worked its way onto the NCAA tournament bubble.

It's an exemplary job under extraordinary circumstances, but it's not quite enough -- not to Davis, at least.

"More than anything,'' Davis says, when asked how badly he wants to hear Cincinnati's name called on Selection Sunday. "More than anything. You want to win the league and all that, but getting to the NCAA tournament, that's what it's all about -- and to me, accomplishing that for him means everything. He's worked so hard, building this program back to respectability and establish what we stand for. I don't want to let him down. I want to make it."

It's nearing on 7:30, tip time for Cincinnati's game at Temple, and Cronin is finishing up his dinner at Pelican Reef, a favorite seafood joint just a few minutes from his home.

"Get well soon and get back soon, Coach," a diner says on his way out the door.

Cronin would like nothing more.

He says all the right things and does all the right things. He has adhered strictly to doctor's orders, even shelving his regular workouts to keep his blood pressure down, and if he finds himself sitting at a practice and getting even the slightest bit anxious, he walks out.

"It's funny sometimes,'' senior Jermaine Sanders says, "knowing he wants to yell at us when we do something crazy, but he can't.''

But it's eating at him, not being there with his team, not doing the only thing he's called a job in his entire adult life. He fills his time as best he can, taking over the ancillary duties that would otherwise clutter Davis' schedule -- TV and radio shows, alumni functions. On the weekends he recruits. He's a regular at pickup and drop-off at his daughter, Sammi's, school, so that's nice.

But it's mostly busy work, stuff to fill a day that normally would offer little time to breathe.

Midweek road games, when there's no one in the other offices to visit, no players stopping by, are especially tough. Sometimes Cronin just gets in his car and goes for a drive, not with a destination so much as an anywhere-but-here directive.

"It's painful to watch, sometimes, because you know how tough it is for him,'' Davis says. "He hasn't changed, but he's doing what he has to do right now. When the match gets dropped, he gets the extinguisher right now as opposed to the extra gas.''

Surprisingly, the one thing that hasn't been hard for Cronin is letting go.

"Here's why this works,'' Cronin is saying.

He's home now, folded into the crease of his deep chocolate brown leather sectional, fire roaring, television on. The house is quiet. Sammi is with her mother (Cronin is divorced), though signs of her are everywhere -- from the pictures on the wall to the toy princess castle with a pink unicorn stuffed inside on the floor.

Cronin, surprisingly, is quiet, too. He's watching Cincinnati play at Temple and it's not going well. The coaching staff gave the Bearcats one directive before the game: Don't turn it over and allow easy buckets; on its first three possessions, Cincinnati coughed up the ball three times.

But Cronin, usually a tiny ball of pent-up angst on the sidelines, is cool and analytical, almost detached. He says he's always that way and never quite understood people who yelled at their televisions, as if their favorite team could hear them. Even though this is more than his favorite team -- it is his team -- he sees no point in venting his frustration at the giant squawk box hung on the wall.

Besides, Cronin has faith in his staff, as he makes clear when he continues his thought.

"Rick Pitino 101: He taught me that you hire the best people you can get,'' Cronin says. "And it's paying off for me right now.''

Davis has been in college basketball coaching for nearly 30 years, including nine as a head coach; Darren Savino, bumped to the position of associate head coach during this strange season, for 20. There isn't much they haven't seen, though admittedly this situation is challenging that premise.

More important, they know Cronin, his personality, his tendencies and his style. Savino is in his second go-around as an assistant to Cronin after serving in the same capacity for two years at Murray State.

Davis first met his current boss 20 years ago. Then an assistant at Ball State, Davis was recruiting a player by the name of Eric Johnson out of Woodward High School and was impressed with the JV coach he thought was "sharp, organized and on top of it." That coach was Cronin. The two stayed in touch over the years and across the typical job-jumping stops of college basketball coaching.

Then, in 2006, when Cronin got the head coaching job at Cincinnati, he called Davis to ask him to join him. Although he held a head coaching job at the time, Davis nonetheless happily accepted.

"Look, a lot of guys are going out and hiring AAU coaches, and I'm not saying those guys don't deserve a chance,'' Cronin says, "but if I had done that, would this work? Maybe, but it would be really hard.''

It is still hard, hard on everybody.

Sports teams run on pattern and routine as much as they do adrenaline and energy. Team meals are scheduled for the same time, often with the same menu. Pregame walk-throughs contain the same information, and practice has the same rhythm pretty much every day.

Unless, of course, the man providing the cadence is suddenly gone.

"Yeah, it was very different,'' said Sanders, who along with Ge'Lawn Guyn are the lone seniors on a very young roster. "The first couple of practices and games it was hard not having him there. At first we looked for him, but he'd just keeping reminding us that this was Coach Davis' team now, and we had to listen to him.''

Surprisingly, there wasn't much in the way of anarchy.

"Hey I've been that kid in the back of the class making the paper airplane when the substitute teacher comes in, so I know how it could have gone,'' Savino jokes. And once the players knew Cronin would be OK, they rolled with it.

It helped that Davis is familiar to the team and more, that he is a Cronin disciple. He had no intention, and saw no need, to change things. His voice is different, as is his style of coaching -- Davis talks a little more; Cronin tends to move through things more quickly -- but at his core, he holds the same basketball values.

What helped most, though, was Cronin.

He let go. He stayed away from practice for a good three weeks, mostly to make sure his health was in order, but also to allow Davis to establish himself as the man in charge. Cronin essentially turned over everything, told Davis to make up the practice plans and game plans, to run the team as if it was his because for this season, it would be his.

Since then, Cronin has offered advice when it's been solicited, but never second-guesses a decision and is painfully aware that as hard as this is on him, it is doubly difficult for Davis.

Davis has been here since the dark, early days, when one scholarship player was left on the roster and the program's reputation had been dragged through the mud amid Bob Huggins' protracted and ugly divorce with the school.

He has watched Cronin, who went for methodical success instead of instantaneous gratification, withstand the calls for his job to reap the rewards of four consecutive NCAA berths. The program is just that now, a program with a solid foundation and a reputation of blue-collar toughness and defense.

And now it's on Davis, along with Savino, to sustain that, or, as they see it, to not mess it up.

"He's a caretaker, not really a head coach, and that's a hard position to be in," Savino said. "You know when this all happened, the first thing you ask yourself is, 'How can I help my friend?' Well we can help him by not letting his program go up in smoke. We can make Mick feel better by having his team play well, but yeah, that's a lot of pressure. A lot. What I've learned through all of this is what kind of person Larry Davis is. He's in a tough situation, and he's handled it so well.''

Does Cronin hear the irony? On Tuesday night in his home, he explained why, when he returns to coaching, he won't change, that his current newfound Zen won't make for a kinder, calmer Cronin on the sidelines.

Not because he can't so much physiologically, but because he can't occupationally.

A movie buff, he cited an Al Pacino line from the movie Heat as an explainer -- "I gotta hold on to my angst. It keeps me sharp, on the edge, where I gotta be.''

"The minute you accept losing, you're not going to be the same coach,'' he says. "I don't think in our world you can just be OK with a loss.''

And yet hours later when a devastated Davis, who has spent the entire flight home rewinding game film to find his fatal flaw, texts him after the Bearcats have been humbled by Temple in a 16-point loss, Cronin tells him to stop. No one wins them all, he explains. There was nothing more he could have done. It's not his fault. Accept it and move on.

"And I just said, 'But Coach we lost. I didn't do my job,'" Davis says.

And then Davis pauses.

"I know there's only so much I can do,'' Davis says. "At the end of the day, I can't play for them. Like my father said, I can only control what I can control.''

But if only for this one year, for his own sake and more the sake of his friend, Larry Davis wishes he could control just a little bit more.