Great leaders inspire. It’s not necessarily via charisma or energy or a “rah rah spirit,” either. As Stanford professor, author and tireless researcher Jim Collins will tell you, the best leaders are extraordinarily disciplined, they believe in the process, they outwork people, they do not have ego problems, they command respect, they won’t be denied, they possess massive courage and they know that surrounding themselves with the right people is the key to success.
Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Mick Cronin embodies the attributes of the great leader. He’s not big and scary like his mentor and former UC head coach Bob Huggins…but he’s anything but scared. You get the feeling he’d fight the current UFC champion if it needed to be done to help the progress of the UC basketball program.
And his players would have Cronin’s back in that fight.
The situation Cronin inherited when he took the Cincinnati job has been well-documented. A legend, Bob Huggins, was forced to resign (huge shoes to fill!). No recruiting had been done for over two years. There was just one scholarship player available when Cronin was hired. UC had a negative image, stemming from a number of off-the-court incidents involving both players and coaches. And, Cincinnati had a poor standing in terms of academics and graduation rate for its basketball program with the NCAA. So Cronin not only had to find players out of the scrap heap well after the majority of kids had committed to colleges, he had to find players that could fare well in the classroom and stay out of trouble.
Mick’s first four seasons at UC could either be looked at as a struggle, a failure, or simply the early stages of “the process.” Leaders know drastic improvements don’t happen overnight. They know there are days, weeks, months and years of fighting the proverbial uphill battle…of persistently banging away at the cell wall and then crawling through 500 yards of human waste like Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption. That’s “the process.” Leaders accept that it must be faced and completed with an unwavering belief that success will be theirs no matter what it takes or what gets in their way.
In 2010, Cincinnati qualified for the NIT, the postseason tournament one rung below the NCAA Tournament (March Madness). To UC fans that had just enjoyed a decade and a half straight of NCAA Tournament berths (1992-2005), it wasn’t good enough. And Cronin surely wasn’t satisfied. But he knew it was a small victory, one of many that deserve to be celebrated on the road through “the process.” The following season, the Bearcats broke through, finishing strong in the second half of the brutal Big East schedule to earn that first NCAA Tournament bid for Cronin as head coach at his alma mater.
Cronin and his troops weren’t content with just making it to the tournament. “Our goal isn’t just to make the tournament. Our goal is to win the tournament,” Mick told the media. UC smacked Missouri in the Round of 64 and then took the hottest team in America (maybe ever, really), UConn, to the final few minutes before falling valiantly to Jim Calhoun’s eventual national champion Huskies. Although the team fell short of its goal, it was another victory to be celebrated.
Led by seniors Yancy Gates and Dion Dixon, UC marched back to the NCAA Tournament in 2012, ready to fight any and all challengers. After dispatching Texas in the Round of 64, the Bearcats were matched up against ACC Tournament Champion Florida State, a team that many predicted would reach the Final 4. Mick’s “I’m not scared of anybody” personality had paid off in a big way one week earlier, when UC knocked off #2 Syracuse in the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden in front of the whole world. So his players knew they possessed the guts and cajones necessary to take care of a very strong, very big, very talented Seminoles team. And they did. (Here’s the recap of that huge win.)
UC had reached the Sweet 16 and earned a boatload of respect in the process. Last season, despite a devastating injury to its best player (Cashmere Wright), Cincinnati made it three trips in a row to The Dance, something that fewer than 25 teams had done.
And now, after finally ending a miserable 8-year, 4-game (games played at USF) losing streak to South Florida in Tampa yesterday, the Bearcats are 17-2 and 6-0 in the American Conference. UC is ranked in the Top 20 in the country. Mick’s record in the past four seasons: 90-33. The list of legendary/Hall-of-Fame coaches he’s beaten: Jim Calhoun (3 NCAA titles), Jim Boeheim (1 NCAA title, a million wins), Rick Pitino (2 NCAA titles), Larry Brown (only coach to win NCAA and NBA championships), Bob Huggins (Final 4’s with two different schools).
When I watch the way the Bearcats compete night in and night out, it truly inspires me. It makes me think about the culture of values and discipline Cronin and his coaching staff have instilled at UC. I look at the three senior leaders, Sean Kilpatrick, Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles…and I see three extensions of Cronin. None of these guys were Top 50 dynamos in the recruiting world. But all three have become great leaders, which isn’t a huge surprise considering the leader they’ve developed under. The tri-captains play as hard as humanly possible, and the younger players on the team follow suit. These guys are tireless workers, easily classifiable as “grinders.” Some of the basketball court skills may not look very pretty, but they will not be denied. They will not be outworked by their opponent.
Watching the Bearcats lock down opponent after opponent in the latter portion of these games is, on a purely discipline-focus-leadership level, a beautiful thing to watch…and it’s the main reason this team has won 17 of its first 19 games this season.
Here are my questions for you, UC fan: Do you feel any semblance of inspiration from what Mick Cronin has done at Cincinnati? Or do you choose to focus on the negatives, like the team’s offensive struggles? Is there an area of your life you’re not satisfied with, or a challenge staring you in the face? Can you emulate what Cronin has been able to do at UC to get you where you want to go?
I feel like each and every one of us can gain value from identifying with the culture Cronin has installed down in Clifton with that program. His players are nice kids. They’re well-rounded, they possess strong core values and discipline, they perform well academically and they represent the city of Cincinnati in an admirable manner. They lay it all on the line every time they step on the basketball floor.
And they win.