Cronins are family, friends and teammates, too
The Enquirer/Gary Landers
UC coach Mick Cronin and his father, Hep, spend a lot of time together during the basketball season. Hep sits behind the Bearcats' bench at home games, attends most practices and stays with Mick on the road.
CINCINNATI University of Cincinnati basketball coach Mick Cronin's best friend sits just behind the UC bench during home games and is never far from his side on the road. He attends almost every practice and travels with the Bearcats, sharing living quarters with Cronin at the team hotel.
He has a wealth of coaching experience and a relationship with Cronin that no one can rival.
His name is Hep Cronin. He's Mick's dad and a big reason why the Bearcats coach's oft-stated goal is to spend the rest of his career at UC.
"I know how lucky I am," Mick said.
Few head coaches in major college sports have the luxury of working at not only their alma mater but their father's alma mater as well. Fewer still are blessed to have as their best friend a father who understands what coaching is all about because he spent 45 years as a high school coach.
Just as Hep now spends much of his time during basketball season at Mick's side, watching him run the UC program, Mick and his older brother, Dan, grew up tagging along with their father while Hep was coaching at Roger Bacon and Oak Hills high schools. Both Mick and Dan also played for their dad at La Salle High School.
"I grew up in a gym, sitting on a bench," Mick said. "My dad was a coach. His friends were coaches. The fact that I'm a coach would be directly a result of my dad being a coach."
But Mick didn't set out to follow in his father's footsteps. As a kid, he had a close-up view of how hard his dad worked.
Hep held four jobs to support his family. He was a basketball coach, a teacher, a baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves and an employee at River Downs during the summer.
That wasn't a life Mick wanted to emulate. His plan was to go to business school or perhaps law school. When his high school playing career ended and a knee injury prevented him from competing in college, Mick thought he was finished with basketball. But then, while accompanying his dad to scout a Woodward game, Mick was offered a job coaching the freshman team and assisting with the varsity by then-Bulldogs coach Jim Leon.
Mick, then a freshman at UC, accepted the offer and began a career path that would lead him into college coaching, making more money than his father ever could dream of, having recently agreed to a six-year contract worth $1.25 million per year.
After beginning his college career as the video coordinator at UC in 1996, he moved up to become an assistant under Bob Huggins. Mick left to work for Rick Pitino at Louisville in 2001 and secured his first head coaching job, at Murray State, in 2003.
He landed his dream job in 2006 when he was hired to take over UC's decimated program. Hep remembers exactly where he was when he learned that Mick had gotten the job.
"I was riding down the Florida turnpike about 80 miles an hour to see a (baseball) game in Miami," Hep said. "He called and said, 'You need to turn around and come back.' I had only been gone for two days. Usually I'd be gone for 10 or 12. I thought, 'Oh no, somebody's sick.' He said, 'No, I'll be named the UC coach tomorrow. I want you at the press conference.' I had to pinch myself."
The Enquirer/Gary Landers
Hep Cronin spend 45 years as a high school coach. "The fact that I'm a coach would be directly a result of my dad being a coach," said Mick, who played for Hep at La Salle.
Neither Hep nor Mick is prone to emotional gushing, but when Mick walked onto the court at Fifth Third Arena on Nov. 10, 2006, to preside over his first game as UC's head coach, Hep was beaming with pride.
"When he walked out as the assistant (in 1996), it gave me goosebumps," Hep said. "When he came out as the head coach, it was, wow, this is hard to believe."
The Cronin family members always have been diehard UC fans. Hep, 69, went to Hughes High School just across the street from UC. He played baseball and one year of basketball for the Bearcats on the same freshman team as Tom Thacker and Tony Yates, serving as a practice player for two of the major cogs on UC teams that won the national championship in 1961 and 1962 and lost in the title game in 1963.
"I always kidded those guys," Hep said. "I said, 'I gave you so much confidence you almost won three straight national titles. You thought you were really good because I was guarding you.' "
Hep met his wife, Peggy, while he was playing on UC's baseball team. Peggy lived on what now is part of UC's campus, and a foul ball off Hep's bat hit her grandfather in the arm while he was watching the game. Hep found out where the grandfather lived and stopped by to see if he was OK. Peggy opened the door, her parents invited Hep to dinner and the courtship began.
"If that line drive had been three inches to the left or the right, there might not be any Mick," Hep said.
Peggy Cronin, who died of cancer in June 2005, never had the chance to see her son become UC's head coach, but she was on hand for Mick's debut as an NCAA Division I head coach at Murray State.
"She was in bad shape when he got to Murray State," Hep said. "We'd sit her in the back seat with pillows and drive her to Murray State. She said, 'I'm not missing when he walks out on that floor as a head coach in Division I.' I said, 'We'll get you there.' She was there."
Mick, 39, played for his dad at La Salle from 1988-90 and says he wouldn't trade the experience for anything.
"I saw a guy that was a great coach," Mick said. "My father was not just a good coach. He was a great coach. He's also the best person I know."
Mick has had other coaching influences along the way, beginning with Leon at Woodward and continuing with Huggins and Pitino. But he has retained some of the traits his father exhibited as a coach, the most important of which is being honest with his players, even if the truth hurts.
In the eighth grade, Mick was on the receiving end of his dad's sometimes brutal honesty when, after a particularly strong performance, he asked his dad how good he could be as a basketball player.
To Mick's surprise, Hep told him he'd be better off playing baseball because he would not grow tall enough to compete in basketball at the highest level. Rather than follow his dad's advice, Mick decided to try to prove him wrong.
In the end, he discovered that his dad was right.
"He talked to me like I was an adult," Mick said. "He told me the truth. Since then, I've gained about four pounds and I haven't grown a centimeter."
Hep gave up the head coaching job at La Salle after Mick graduated in 1990, but he remained as an assistant under Dan Fleming until three years ago, when Mick convinced him the time had come to take it easy.
When Mick raised the money to allow the Bearcats to travel by charter, he told Hep there was no reason why he shouldn't travel with the Bearcats.
It was a difficult decision for Hep, but ultimately he agreed with Mick. The chance to spend quality time with his youngest son in such a stimulating basketball environment was too good to pass up.
Gradually, Hep weaned himself from La Salle and took advantage of the chance to share his Mick's coaching dream.
Hep can be found at practice sitting on the UC bench, observing his son at work, careful not to get in the way. He understands that this is Mick's team, not his.
"I just like to see what's going on," he said.
And Mick likes having him there. The two hang out during the offseason, making occasional trips to Churchill Downs or to Saratoga. Hep also spends time with Dan, 41, and lives with his daughter, Kelly, 43.
But his time at UC's practices and games is a gift that few fathers get to enjoy, as he watches Mick face off against Hall of Fame coaches such as Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and Connecticut's Jim Calhoun.
"I know how much he enjoys it, so it makes me happy," Mick said. "If you can be in a position in life where you can help other people, it's great. And if you can be in a position where you can help your dad enjoy his time, it's even better. Every day is Father's Day for me."