Brawl changed course of season for Cincinnati

It was one of the worst nightmares that can befall a coach, Mick Cronin standing helpless on a sideline as his Cincinnati Bearcats engaged in a full-on brawl with the crosstown rival Xavier Musketeers.

Mick Cronin and Cincinnati have bounced back from the brawl at Xavier without doing further damage to the program.
(US Presswire)

Punches were thrown. Kicks were delivered. Pushing, Shoving. Blood. Mayhem. The first impulse is to make sure no one gets seriously hurt. The second is a mix of anger and disappointment – this, Cronin thought, is not how you’ve been taught to conduct yourself.

Cronin is 40, young yet experienced. This is his ninth season as a college head coach, his sixth at UC. None of that specifically prepared him for this.

Soon, Cronin was sitting at a news conference, delivering a powerful statement about priorities and perspective and disgust at the fight.

“I’ve never been this embarrassed,” Cronin said, adding that he, at that moment, could only hope he wasn’t asked to resign.

In fact, he wasn’t asked to resign. And, in fact, that moment was the start of an unusual, unexpected turnaround for a team, a difficult challenge answered by a up-and-coming coach and perhaps even the start of a new era for the Cincinnati Bearcats.

A team that was stumbling at 5-3 after the loss to Xavier (“rudderless,” Cronin said) now is 19-8 and playing host to Louisville on Thursday with its eyes squarely on the NCAA tournament. A coach who was worried about his job wound up deftly handling what could’ve been a cataclysmic situation. And a program that seemed to be playing to the worst of its once-thug reputation finally may have decided enough was enough.

“The entire season has been adjust and roll,” Cronin said Wednesday. “It’s been good, not because of the wins and losses … although it obviously made us a better team.

“It’s been good because we’ve shown who we really are.”

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Cronin said his comments in the postgame news conference came across so smoothly because it essentially was a speech he had given his team dozens of time before.

“That’s the stuff I talk about, how lucky we all are that people care about sports and we get to do what we love,” he said. “That’s why I was so disappointed. We’d been over this.”

One of his key points is that young players have to understand each choice they make impacts an ever-widening circle of people. It starts with themselves, then their family and teammates. Then, all the Bearcats that came before them. Even the ones that will come after. It’s also the school itself, even the city.

The actions of a few hurt the image of many.

“[Image] is important,” he said. “Everyone is going to need to get a job. Even if it’s just in basketball. You want Cincinnati to mean something positive.”

Upon returning to UC, he and his staff immediately repaired to his office, where footage of the fight was broken down. “At that point, I hadn’t seen what had happened clearly,” Cronin said.

They gathered their game film, Xavier’s and the ESPN broadcast. They even watched for local news footage.

Each player’s actions and reactions were broken down, from every available angle. Did he throw a punch? Did he smartly not retaliate?

Soon, Gregory H. Williams, the school president, and Whit Babcock, the athletic director, joined the film study. They also sat in Cronin’s office and watched all the angles, took notes and came to conclusions. It was ugly. Stomachs churned. The humiliation lingered. The anger built.

Dinnertime came and everyone decided to sleep on their decisions so emotion wouldn’t play too great a role. They’d meet first thing Sunday morning. Cronin was scheduled to pick up his 5-year-old daughter from his ex-wife right after the game. That had been blown.

“My ex-wife and I have a great relationship and she texted me and said, ‘I know what you’re going through,’ ” he said.

Yancy Gates' punishment for his central role in the brawl was considered light by many observers.

He was told not to worry about his daughter that night.

He’d have none of it.

“I learned from Coach [Rick] Pitino [who Cronin served as an assistant] never to hold onto an excuse with your job to affect your time with your family,” he said. “Because where do you draw the line? When you do this job, you can always be working. I don’t want to be a guy who had to quit a job one day just so I can go get to know my kid.”

He picked up his daughter, then headed to his house. His phone was overwhelmed with text messages and calls. His mind still was racing. It was the most rattling day of his career.

He put it aside and played with his little girl.

“I live alone, so you know that formal living room that no one ever uses?” Cronin said. “I made that the ‘sports complex.’ We play soccer in there. Golf. We’ve got it all laid out.”

The phone kept ringing. Cronin kept ignoring it.

“We just kept playing all sorts of games,” he said. “We played one-on-one soccer. When I beat her 2-to-1 in the ladybug game, that’s when she wasn’t interested in playing any longer.”

Late that night, he returned a text from Pitino and sought advice. He talked to his father, Hep, a longtime successful high school coach in Ohio. He texted some coaches back. He noticed his friend Mike Brey, the Notre Dame coach, was particularly persistent, so he called and they talked for a stretch.

It was really coaches from all over the country, offering their condolences, support and just an upbeat word. They all knew this could’ve happened to them.

The next morning, Cronin said he, Williams and Babcock took the approach that it didn’t matter if a thrown punch or a kick connected. If the intent was there, it would be dealt with.

“What’s right is right; what’s wrong is wrong,” Cronin said.

They decided no one should be kicked off the team, not even senior Yancy Gates, the most aggressive fighter. Four players who went on the attack would be suspended. That was contingent, though, on how they took the news, how sincerely they apologized.

“If they didn’t feel that this was actually the university supporting them, that they were very fortunate or if I heard through the grapevine that they were telling people or their family that they’d gotten a raw deal, they’d have never been back,” Cronin said.

“That never happened. They were great.”

The suspensions were announced and critics complained. UC knew that was coming. In many ways, the easiest thing to do was to dismiss everyone, claim a victory for discipline and win the news conference.

Instead, the coach and administration took more heat.

“I give our president and athletic director the credit for that,” Cronin said. “What would’ve made them look the best was to put someone’s head on a platter. It’s easy to bury a kid, and sometimes a player does have to be dismissed. But at the end of the day, you’re dealing with a kid’s life.”

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The Bearcats were young and not particularly deep before the suspensions. Shorthanded, winning games was going to be a challenge. Just getting his guys to focus on something positive, on competing, on trusting each other again, was an uphill climb for Cronin.

With the brawl behind them, Gates, Cronin and the Bearcats are closing in on the NCAA tournament.
(US Presswire)

This was a coaching challenge. No one would’ve been surprised if the season spun into a gutter full of losses and stress and further turmoil. It happens to Hall of Fame coaches at more established programs under less difficult circumstances every season.

Cronin said he sat down and decided the key was pounding home a simple reminder: We’re not as bad as we just acted.

He liked this group of guys. He couldn’t help it. Ten of the 14 players showed incredible restraint by not getting involved in a wild fight right in front of their bench. The ones that acted poorly, he was disappointed in, yet still believed they were good people.

Yes, Cincinnati had just acted down to its old stereotype. And that hurt everyone. Now, though, was the chance to act up to what they believe is the truth.

“Now we have to prove this isn’t who we are,” Cronin said. “I said, ‘We’re not going to let people outside the locker room define who we are. I’m always talking about changing perceptions. Well, here’s our chance. We know we’re great guys. We know how to act, how to carry ourselves. And now we’re going to show everyone. Now’s our chance. And if we don’t do it, then it’s our fault. If we don’t rise to the challenge, then it’s our fault. Here’s our chance to show Cincinnati players aren’t pampered, they do appreciate the opportunity, they are good role models for the school.’ “

Cronin said the reaction was immediate. A team that was rattled came together. There was a purpose and it wasn’t just winning games. It was how they acted on the court. How they walked across campus. How they did all the little things.

“Accountability,” Cronin said.

The taunts and chants came during road games. The brawl was rebroadcast a thousand times. The players just played. They just did their job.

Cronin made a point to lighten up practice and team meetings, encourage guys to laugh and hug on the court. He started showing movie clips. He encouraged jokes. There were less Xs and Os. He didn’t want a bunch of zombies. He didn’t want the season to feel like an endless chore. The players had experienced enough self-inflicted negativity. Might as well create some positive moments.

The victories somehow followed. The season never caromed off-course. The Bearcats beat three teams that were ranked at game time. All were on the road, all with the chanting crowds in their ears. They blew out a good Notre Dame club. They gave then-No. 1 Syracuse a serious game. It hasn’t been perfect, just closer to it than most expected.

The mock brackets have UC in the NCAA tournament. There’s work to do, Cronin reminds. A tough stretch run, the Big East tournament, who knows how this ends. He’s just proud of where they are.

Two and a half months after an ugly, ugly brawl, after a stress-filled night saved only by support of his administration, coaching friends and a 5-year-old soccer opponent, after all the doubts and all the smears, after charting a bold course to repair his school, his program and, indeed, his budding career, he looks at a team that acts almost exactly how he always hoped his players would.

“I love my team,” he said. “I have great guys. I’m telling you, I have great, great guys.”

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Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Feb 23, 2012