Cincinnati basketball coach Mick Cronin must have really calmed down since the press conference Saturday following the brawl between Cincy and Xavier. Let him tell it, he went Bruce Banner – mad as hell, ripping jerseys off his players and threatening to kick players off his team. Watch for yourself:
Then, even though his entire roster was on the floor the moment Dez Wells pushed Ge'Lawn Guyn, he suspended Yancy Gates and Cheikh Mbodj six games and Guyn one.
Pardon me if I laugh at that.
This is how Cronin shows his guys, as he so passionately said, that they're not more important than the university? By issuing a penalty that will have the whole squad back together for the second game in Big East play?
To be clear, the punishments don't offend me. Six games is a lot, and lots of adults need to answer for how they allowed such a tense atmosphere to get worse as the game went on. But given the embarrassment, the public thirst for accountability and the enthusiasm for Cronin's ham-handed monologue, Cincinnati certainly could have gotten away with a much more stringent punishment. Yet, for self-evident reasons, it did not.
As we speak, someone is watching Gates knock Kenny Frease's block in slow motion, and that's just one of his suspension-worthy acts. For an act similar to Mdobj stomping Frease from behind, Randy Moss caught a charge when he was in high school. Guyn not only started the whole thing, but was actively pursuing a fighting partner when the fracas was waning.
Yet the suspensions conveniently stop just as the real games begin. Cronin played a lot of people, and they have no one to blame but themselves.
So many saw a coach standing for everything good in college basketball in Cronin's post-game presser. I saw an obviously scared man.
He was scared to lose his job – he admitted as much – and his behavior during the brawl and after made me wonder if he was afraid of his players. His tough talk was hollow overcompensation for the fact that he, clearly, had no control over his team and, within two seconds, had no ability to stop his team from embarrassing his program. He rambled and talked about the guy who invented Benadryl, as if any of his scholarship players are chemistry majors. And he did all this while divorcing himself from the fact that he gets paid seven figures to be in charge and carry the responsibility that comes with it.
Rather than notice those things, the masses were enthralled by his tired rap about humility, embarrassment and representation. They loved his promise of stiff punishment. He received applause in the press room – from, as I understand, a significant proportion of the present media – and was a Twitter superstar among writers.
They were so hypnotized inside the press room and out, they forgot to ask how in the hell Cronin "saw this coming" and moved slower than Christmas when it actually did. Or how he reconciles being so tough as to rip jerseys off his players after the fight, yet doing nothing of consequence when it was going on. Or mentioned that, yanno, they were going to take their jerseys off anyway, so they could take showers. Or asked whether Lance Stephenson came to Cincinnati in 2009 "for an education."
It was a sham, a man throwing anything he thought might stick.
At first, I couldn't tell what was more misguided: Cronin's act or its sycophants. Now that Cronin has hit Gates, the most responsible party for the escalation of the brouhaha, with a softer penalty than the NCAA gives a player for staying with a friend, the answer is clear.
Here's the question: how many times will people fall for this trick?
Color me surprised Cincy didn't go all Chip Kelly on Gates and Mdobj.
Kelly was a hot-shot assistant with a small school resume who looked overwhelmed after his first game. He desperately needed to look like a head coach, and he did so first by swearing to the media how terribly embarrassed he was when LeGarrette Blount dropped Boise State's Byron Hout with one punch. Shortly thereafter, Oregon's athletic director and president, plus the Pac-10's commissioner, issued statements making sure everyone knew how offended they were immediately afterward. It was publicly humiliating for Oregon, and they knew the quickest way back into good graces: making sure everyone knew they didn't stand for that.
As if it takes a lot to say, "we don't think punching people is the right thing to do." It was low-hanging fruit, like saying you're "tough on crime," as if anyone likes crime. That coupled with a season-long suspension did the trick, and Oregon began a march toward the Rose Bowl looking good.
That would be the same Rose Bowl that seemed like Oregon had no chance of reaching after Boise beat them up and down in September. But after the Ducks turned it around behind Jeremiah Masoli and LaMichael James, it decided to reward Blount for meeting the conditions of his suspension and reinstated him in November. That was awfully convenient.
Kelly won on all counts. He said he was embarrassed. He delivered "a message" and asserted his control. Then, when his team was on a roll, he brought back a future NFL starter and showed that the player had changed, thanks to the message and control. Save for Blount's fumble in the Rose Bowl, Kelly ran a clinic on crisis management of this sort.
Cronin came into the season with questions about his job security. Two years ago, he was desperate enough for an edge to take on Stephenson, who was a bubonic recruit. The Bearcats are 5-3, and six teams ranked in the Top 25 await them in Big East play. They were blown out by their most bitter rival, and his squad - almost to a man - was clearly most responsible for Saturday's catastrophe. Cronin did what he's always trying to do: what was necessary to save his job.
So he went, effectively, to the same playbook as Kelly. He said he threatened to kick guys out of school, and made sure they knew they represented more than themselves (a dangerously presumptive statement). He even got in a recruiting pitch about Cincinnati's academics, with which the basketball program has an awkward relationship.
And, like Kelly, Cronin kinda delivered. He punished Gates, his one of his best players...but not too much. Yancy Gates, Cheikh Mbodj and Ge'Lawn Guyn will all be back to help push the Bearcats toward the NCAA Tournament, which Cronin has made once in five years. Miss the tournament, no matter why, and the questions will be about him, not his players.
This is where Cronin's case deviates from Kelly's. Kelly, at least, kept it up long enough to seem like he meant what he said. Plus, he was just on the clock when Blount lost his head. Cronin had ringside seats Saturday. And where Kelly seemed overwhelmed by his situation, Cronin seemed overwhelmed by his team. And within 24 hours of being a light in the darkness, Cronin looks like a phony.
Since this is so clear in this instance, I have to ask how so many continue to go for this. Why is that message the one they so want to hear? If accountability is what people want, it typically starts with the man in charge, the one making the boatload of cash and primarily responsible for each member of his team. If he didn't condition them to pop up off the bench in unison, then how did he happen to get a team full of guys who respond as such? If he told his team not to get into a fight, why didn't they listen? If he didn't, why not?
He has to answer for that. Not just as an answer to whether he deserves to keep his job, but whether he's qualified to do it at all.
For all the jokes people had about the players Bob Huggins recruited at Cincinnati, nothing as ugly as Saturday ever happened while he coached the Bearcats. It's worth noting that Huggins was not, even a little bit, afraid of his players.
Can you say the same for Mick Cronin?
These are the questions to ask when so many people drop the ball. There are no blameless parties. There is no one deserving of cheers. Everyone involved – including the players and Xavier's coaching staff and sports information department – earned hard scrutiny.
But none more than Cronin, and his bombast turned him into some folk hero. It's shameful that it worked.
His words were music to so many ears. He really just played an old, tired song.
So why does that make you want to dance?