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Interview with Mick Cronin

February 17, 2004 Columns No Comments

An Interview with Murray State Coach Mick Cronin

by Jeff Smith

(Ed. note: interview conducted in mid-December, 2003)

Photo courtesy of Murray State Athletics
I was fortunate to catch up with Murray State coach Mick Cronin during a press luncheon the week after the Racers defeated Western Kentucky in a double overtime thriller to move to 6-0 on the season. This season is Cronin’s first as a head coach at the Division I level, and it has been successful so far.

The former Louisville associate head coach was introduced April 5 as Murray State’s 13th head basketball coach in the program’s history. Cronin worked the past two years at Louisville and the previous six seasons at Cincinnati as coach Bob Huggins’ top recruiter. During his stints at Louisville and Cincinnati, Cronin has attracted the nation’s best recruits. Several publications had honored Cronin by labeling him as one of the top assistant coaches available for a head coaching position.

Cronin, a Cincinnati native, played his prep hoops for his father at LaSalle High School, garnering All-City honors. He attended the Cincinnati, graduating in 1996 with a degree in history.

Cronin began his coaching career as an assistant at Woodward High School in Cincinnati, before joining Huggins’ staff in 1995 as a graduate assistant. Cronin also coached summer all-star teams, and in 1996, he coached the East Team, led by current Los Angeles Laker star Kobe Bryant, in the Magic Johnson Roundball Classic.

In 2001, Cronin joined coach Rick Pitino at Louisville as top assistant and recruiter and quickly established himself as a hard worker. Cronin’s ability and work ethic was not lost on his boss.

“I have been fortunate to have a long list of outstanding assistant coaches who have gone on to be successful head coaches, and Mick ranks high on that list,” Pitino said. ” Mick is a relentless recruiter, and he communicates with players as well as any coach I have ever worked with. The Racers and Mick are entering a great marriage that is going to be successful for both parties.”

Cronin answered a few questions about coaching, his relationships with Pitino and Huggins, and his philosophy on recruiting.

Jeff Smith: Coach, you were fortunate to mentor under Rick Pitino and Bob Huggins. Which of them would you say your style most mirrors, or is it a combination of the two?

Mick Cronin: Well, I’d say, on the surface, coach Pitino, with the pressing, up-tempo style we play, but a lot of things I learned from coach Huggins we use as well. But one thing I learned from coach Pitino is anything you can use to make yourself a better coach or the program better, you use it. [Pitino] wanted to know what coach Huggins did to make himself successful, which I admired that in coach Pitino. He didn’t think he had all the answers. So, it’s definitely a combination. On the surface, because of our pressing, up-tempo and trying to push the ball we’re playing the same style that Louisville’s playing. At the same time we’re trying to incorporate a lot of the things I learned from coach Huggins.

Smith: Have you spoken with either coach Pitino or Huggins for advice or encouragement this season?

Cronin: I’ve spoken to both. I speak to coach Pitino a lot more on a regular basis. Coach Huggins and I remain friends, but coach Pitino and I are really close. We talk five times a week, but might not talk about basketball though. I’m just really close to the whole Louisville staff and program. I did, definitely, talk to coach Pitino about Western Kentucky.

Smith: Did coach Pitino encourage you to apply for and accept the Murray coaching job?

Cronin: Yeah, I wouldn’t have taken the job if he didn’t think it was a good move. When I was contacted about the job, I told the people here at Murray State that I would like them to contact coach Pitino and talk to him. I wasn’t going to leave Louisville without his recommendation. I’d have stayed if he didn’t think this was a good opportunity and if he didn’t think it was the right time for me to take this job, I would never have taken it. We went down to his house in Miami and talked about it for four days, and he helped me do some research. He and I both thought this was a great opportunity for me, for a first year head coach and the program was ready to take another step forward.

Smith: Expanding on the Murray State program being ready to take another step forward, do you think it’s possible for the Racers to become a Division I power and become attractive enough to an up-and-coming young coach to stick around? Do you think maybe Murray needs to look at moving up to a higher profile conference to take that step?

Cronin: First of all, I think the program here has great potential, with the [Regional Special Events Center] building. A lot of people don’t have a building like this. What we are working on now is upgrading our locker room. [The media room] is going to be the men’s and women’s basketball weight room.

What we’re trying to do from behind the scenes is take this program to another level. To be able to recruit with the people that we’re trying to beat and have beaten – we’ve beaten Western [Kentucky], Southern Miss and TCU – you have to upgrade behind the scenes, to be able to compete with those people on a consistent basis. The athletic department is making that commitment, they’re out there right now raising money to upgrade this weight room and make it a reality.

Secondly, I don’t know how important the conference is. When UNLV was in their heyday, they were in the Big West and they just played a lot of national non-conference games. But they were able to recruit at the national level because they got TV exposure. So, I think the most important thing is to upgrade facilities to the point where you can recruit with the people who are recruiting big-time players. We have some things behind the scenes we need to improve to bring in that type of athlete.

Smith: Do you think the switching of conferences, which is so rampant right now in the college game, is good for the game?

Cronin: No, it’s bad for the rivalries. When you look at Boston College moving to the ACC, they had a lot of long standing rivalries with some Big East teams. College basketball is about fans and rivalries, and when you start tearing apart long-standing rivalries, I don’t think that can be good for the game in any way.

Smith: Let’s switch gears and talk about recruiting. First, you are renowned for your recruiting prowess. What was the secret to your success and what role has kids leaving early for the NBA had on recruiting and college parity?

Cronin: Well, working for great coaches at big-time programs [was key to my success.] But, we also beat out other big-time programs for players. I think relationships; you have to get in early with kids. The key is to separate yourself; you have to do something different. Kids never forget the first person to offer [a scholarship] to them. So, you have to identify early, and get in there early, before all the other heavyweights do. That’s the biggest key.

As far as parity, guys are leaving early and the five-and-eight rule is stopping a lot of the big time programs from just gobbling up players and then running them off if they don’t work out for them. And what’s happening is players like Kelvin Brown and Adam Chiles are ending up at Murray State, and without the five-and-eight rule, they might be at a major program right now.

Smith: How has your recruiting philosophy been altered in the switch from the higher profile schools of Cincy and Louisville compared to Murray State?

Cronin: Well, we do a lot more evaluating. It’s different because the pool of players who can help me win here is a lot greater. When you are at the highest level, and it’s all about the Final Four and the national championship, the only way you’re going to get there is with the elite guys that are future pros. Just look at last year’s [Final Four] teams. Hinrich and Collison, T.J. Ford, Carmelo Anthony. I’m forgetting the other team but I guarantee you they had a pro, whoever they were. Oh, Marquette, Dwyane Wade. You’re just not getting that deep in the tournament if you don’t have some NBA players.

Here, the pool is a lot bigger for us to choose from, so you just have to do a much better job evaluating, a lot more hours spent on finding guys, a lot more time watching guys actually play in the summer. At the highest level, you know whom you want, and it’s just a matter of finding a way to get them, following them around and chasing them. We call it babysitting them. Where at this level you do a lot of evaluating. You can really outsmart people here and find a guy like Cuthbert Victor, like ]previous coach] Tevester Anderson found, or a guy like Kelvin Brown, and if you can get them here, it makes a big difference.


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