Why Mick Cronin's move to UCLA isn't just about basketball

Mick Cronin spent most of his life in Cincinnati, but has looked at home in L.A. Courtesy of UCLA athletics

LOS ANGELES -- Mick Cronin recently sat in his Santa Monica living room, feet up and cigar in mouth, the Pacific Ocean visible through a window and the NBA playoffs airing on a large TV in his new digs.

Relaxing? Not really.

"I just sent this picture to a recruit," he said of the beachside selfie. "He got a kick out of that."

Cronin's new apartment is a superior location to the on-campus hotel where he resided during his first weeks on the job running the winningest program in college basketball history. But Cronin won't be living here long. His 12-year-old daughter, Sammi, will be moving to town this summer, and she has been scouring the real estate apps.

After Darlene Taylor and Cronin divorced a decade ago, Taylor vowed to make sure their daughter had both parents in her life. They would share custody of Sammi, who became a fixture at practices and around her father's office at Cincinnati.

Sammi's the reason Cronin hadn't seriously considered previous offers to leave Cincinnati. Then UCLA called, urging Cronin to question whether all the moving parts of his life could align for such a great opportunity.

"A lot of people are looking at me like I'm crazy. 'You're moving across the country for your ex-husband?' No, I'm moving across the country for my daughter." Darlene Taylor, Mick Cronin's ex-wife

"I was never leaving without my daughter, so there's only so many places where Darlene would have come with me," Cronin said. "We weren't going to separate. Even here, we'll get places near each other because that's just how we do things. We're 'the Ozzie and Harriet of divorce,' or whatever you want to call it. So where would she have gone? Very few places."

Taylor said she was shocked when Cronin first called about the possibility; but she has lived in nine states and the thought of raising their biracial daughter in L.A.'s diverse environment intrigued her. She agreed to move her life if UCLA offered him the job.

"A lot of people are looking at me like I'm crazy," said Taylor, a former Division I track and field athlete who has run a fitness and nutrition business in Cincinnati. "'You're moving across the country for your ex-husband?' No, I'm moving across the country for my daughter. I'm all about adventure. Hopefully, it could be something awesome for me, too."

Sammi and Darlene will arrive soon. Mick concedes his daughter will have a major say in the house he chooses as his -- their -- permanent home. She already sent him a list of homes she had found online, ranking them according to the paint color in the bedrooms.

"She's old enough now where she's been on Zillow," Cronin said. "I'm not allowed to do anything as far as finding a house without her."

But there are parts of the city he doesn't want her to see.

"Oh, she ain't goin' to Rodeo Drive," he said of the Beverly Hills strip known for its high-end stores.

In addition to having the support of Darlene and Sammi, Cronin's recent medical scare factored into his decision-making. During the 2014-15 season, doctors discovered a brain aneurysm during a checkup after Cronin had complained about severe headaches. He was diagnosed with an arterial dissection. The demonstrative, emotional head coach was told he had to watch his blood pressure and get significant rest. He was forced to miss the bulk of that season while then-associate head coach Larry Davis led the Bearcats to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

Cronin's health scare also made an impact on his life view. Moving to the beach to coach basketball at a legendary program? "C'mon, why not?" he says he thought. "It's not the same when it's you," Cronin said. "You realize you're not going to live forever."

Even after Cronin made up his mind, he still admitted to mixed emotions in breaking the news to his 77-year-old father.

"I had to drive to my dad's house and tell him," the younger Cronin said. "I felt bad because he'd come watch workouts. He's retired, so whatever he was going to do that day for lunch or whatever he was up to, he would tie it around practice or going to games. His whole life had become being my dad, so that one wasn't gonna be easy."

Hep Cronin understood. He once snuck into Louisville's Freedom Hall with his friends to watch John Wooden lead Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and UCLA to a win over Houston in the 1967 Final Four. He knew college basketball opportunities didn't come much bigger than the one his son received.

"It's one of those deals where this is Kentucky, this is North Carolina, this is Duke, this is UCLA," Hep said. "If you're trying to win it and you're trying to extend your career, are you going to win it from Cincinnati or you going to win from UCLA? The blue bloods usually win it."

Hep says he's not moving to Southern California, but that doesn't mean Mick isn't trying to convince him. Every morning, Mick trolls his father with selfies of himself next to the Pacific Ocean.

"You keep sending those, I told him, and I'm getting on the next plane and you're gonna have a roommate," Hep said.

Mick Cronin was never UCLA's first choice -- for the fan base or the administration. The Bruins made a run at John Calipari, who subsequently signed a 10-year, $86 million contract to stay at Kentucky. Los Angeles native and TCU coach Jamie Dixon rejected an offer from the Bruins, with reported issues over his buyout a sticking point. Then, there was Rick Barnes, who said he "probably would've been" UCLA's head coach if the school had paid his $5 million buyout at Tennessee. Instead, Barnes received a new deal from the Vols that will elevate his average annual salary from $3.5 million to $5.2 million. Cronin, in the end, signed a six-year deal worth $24 million.

Amid the frenzy, the 47-year-old Cronin looked like the guy waiting for the Bruins' prom dates to keep standing them up.

"I didn't get caught up in all that," Cronin said of the search and the way his candidacy was characterized. "[UCLA's leaders] were talking to me the whole time. I knew what was true and what wasn't true. Some people got paid off of it, and I don't blame them. That's what has to happen sometimes in coaching. It's free agency. To get a raise, you've got to let people know you might go somewhere else, whether you could have or you couldn't have."

But what of those other candidates, against whose tenures Cronin's will undoubtedly be compared?

"It really don't matter who really got offered the job or who didn't," he said. "I didn't worry about it the whole time. I'm not saying I was the first choice, but it's not what it was made out to be. There's a lot of folks out there that are happily married and you can look at them and tell they weren't their wife's first choice."

Cronin arrived on campus with little fanfare. Students didn't stop him. Nobody yelled, "Hey, Coach!" People didn't ask to shake his hand. Folks didn't tell him how excited they were to have him there. It's not easy to get noticed in Los Angeles, where fame comes in tiers, especially for a guy without national buzz.

As he walked from his spacious office toward the team's practice facility one day last month, Cronin noted the contrasts from his former gig.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was recently on campus tossing the football around, Cronin said. And he thought he might see stars Novak Djokovic or Serena Williams smashing tennis balls at the school's renowned training facility someday (they've both been known to train there).

Cronin has a surfboard in his office, a trinket left by the previous regime, and this is one of the few Division I locations where he could actually use it if he wished.

He's now the head coach of the game's most storied franchise, the program Wooden raised by winning 10 national titles in 12 seasons during the 1960s and 1970s. Cronin swears he's not focused on the shadow, even while he appreciates the program's place in history and the duty he has in preserving it.

"It's still fresh," he said about his new job. "I've run a practice in Pauley [Pavilion] already. I'm still ripping and running so hard. There hasn't been one night, before I leave, to just go and sit in Pauley -- they've got Coach Wooden's seat there still -- and go sit next to it with the lights off and grasp it all. I haven't had time. It's been so crazy."

Although he's widely respected as one of the top coaches in the country under the age of 50, Cronin is also among the handful of top coaches who never played college basketball. He also lacks the physical size to stand out in a room. But anyone who has ever mistaken his unassuming stature for weakness has been surprised by what they found.

"He's just a 5-foot-8 redhead who busted his ass to get here," Hep said.

Cronin's gift is his ability to work a room and push players to the brink with an assertive coaching style. UCLA lacked toughness a year ago and the Bruins got embarrassed by teams that played harder than they did. If the current Bruins compete with the same energy as workouts begin, they won't play for Cronin.

"The fallacy, I think, is that people here have succumbed to unrealistic expectations. Each individual situation has been different. You can't just put them all in a lump and say that. People are realistic. Nobody here thinks anybody is gonna do what [Wooden did], especially nowadays."
Mick Cronin

In L.A., Cronin believes he can win with a caliber of talent he couldn't attract at Cincinnati, where he managed to win with blue-collar, tenacious athletes.

"Hopefully, [the fans will] appreciate that we'll play hard," he said. "I would like to have the same culture and the same character [from Cincinnati] with more talent."

Impressing the fans at Pauley Pavilion will be a challenge. The UCLA fan base has been notorious for falling out with just about every coach of the post-Wooden era, and for a variety of reasons. Steve Lavin, who had the Bruins in the Sweet 16 five times in seven years, couldn't reach the Final Four. Ben Howland got the Bruins there three times, but he couldn't win it all and critics said his teams didn't play an exciting enough brand of basketball. Steve Alford finished 124-63 at UCLA and reached the Sweet 16 three times, but he failed to win the Pac-12 and was viewed as someone who didn't show enough reverence for the program's tradition.

For his part, Cronin says he's undaunted by that history and the notion that the UCLA masses are pining for the return of Wooden is misguided.

"The fallacy, I think, is that people here have succumbed to unrealistic expectations," Cronin said. "Each individual situation has been different. You can't just put them all in a lump and say that. People are realistic. Nobody here thinks anybody is gonna do what [Wooden did], especially nowadays."

Brendon Ng, president of The Den (UCLA's student section), believes Cronin doesn't have to. He said the group appreciated Cronin's support when its members met with the coach shortly after he arrived. They just want to feel relevant again.

"Hopes were high when the coaching search started," Ng said. "It was an interesting coaching search, but I think we got a good guy and I think a lot of students recognize that we got a guy who really wants to be here and who's trying to take the program in the right direction."

A group of UCLA boosters who gathered for an event last month to discuss the hire also sounded supportive.

While agreeing that they'd hoped the Bruins would hit a home run with a Tony Bennett or a Billy Donovan, one booster dismissed as outdated the notion that UCLA fans will rebuke any coach who fails to win championships.

"A consistent winner, someone who can win Pac-12 titles and compete in the NCAA tournament," one of the boosters said, "we'll take that."

Bruins fans seem willing to give Cronin a chance, but he must lure top prospects from the region's rich talent pool to sustain the positive emotions. That's not an obstacle he faced at Cincinnati, where just two players, Lance Stephenson (2010) and Jacob Evans (2018), were drafted during his tenure.

Cronin, who came home to coach the Bearcats in 2006 after a stint at Murray State, before which he'd served as an assistant under Bob Huggins at his alma mater and with Rick Pitino at Louisville, went 296-146 (.670) in 13 seasons, reaching the NCAA tournament in each of the past nine.

It looked like he might become a lifer in his hometown, and he solidified his intentions to perhaps retire at Cincinnati when he bought a "big-time" house in 2014.

When UCLA called, however, the people he trusted told him to take the job.

"Some people would say to me, 'You stay at Cincinnati, your name will be on the court someday.' Is that really what I want? To me that shouldn't be what drives you. My only legacy is that my daughter knows her dad loved her."
Mick Cronin

Huggins called it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and Pitino echoed that advice.

Cronin also couldn't stop thinking about something Jeff Van Gundy, the current NBA analyst for ESPN and former NBA head coach, mentioned to him when they met for the first time at a recent grassroots tournament in Las Vegas.

"He said legacy is the most overrated thing in life, in coaching," Cronin said. "What he was trying to say to me was happiness is what matters. Chasing your dreams is what matters. Your family is what matters. We were talking about coaches worrying about their legacy instead of their happiness because some people would say to me, 'You stay at Cincinnati, your name will be on the court someday.' Is that really what I want? To me that shouldn't be what drives you. My only legacy is that my daughter knows her dad loved her."

Cronin stared out at the ocean, knowing he made the right choice.