Friday, March 19, 2004

Cronin handles controversy with wisdom

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COLUMBUS - Last Saturday, the police found Kelvin Brown hiding in a closet in his apartment. Murray State's second-best scorer was its top-ranked defendant. The cops charged Brown and his roommate, point guard Adam Chiles, with marijuana possession and possession of drug paraphernalia. Chiles also was charged with hindering prosecution.

There was also a warrant out for Brown's arrest for getting gas at a service station and supposedly not paying for it. This isn't the kind of thing they teach in Fundamentals of Basketball.

But there was Mick Cronin, Murray's rookie coach, Cincinnati kid, taking the call no one in his profession ever wants, but almost everyone in his profession inevitably gets:

"Coach, we've got a problem ..."

If you were Cronin, five days before your first NCAA Tournament game, you had a few options. You could suspend Brown and Chiles immediately and look righteous. You could keep both on the court until the courts determined their fate, and look mercenary. Or you could do what Cronin did: Talk to the players and the police and get all the information you can to make the decision that's best for everyone.

Cronin did the latter. You guessed he might.

You don't get to be a head coach at age 32 at a place like Murray State - six NCAA Tournament appearances in the last decade, a .733 winning percentage in the last seven years - just because you can recruit. Even if the players Cronin recruited for UC and Louisville could fill an all-star team.

You get there because someone has seen in you something bigger than victories. Cronin has been coaching since he was 19, when he was an assistant for Jim Leon at Woodward High. When Woodward lost in the state playoffs that year, with a team that included Damon Flint and Eric Johnson, Cronin was distraught.

"You can't coach for wins and losses or you're going to be sick every year." This is what his father, Hep, told him then. "You have to have some fidelity to a higher cause."

Cronin remembered that this week, when he suspended Kelvin Brown indefinitely and kept

Chiles on the team. Looking at the facts, he figured it was the right thing to do.

"The reality of being a head coach," Cronin called it. "The ecstasy of winning the conference tournament, then you're at the ultimate low. The only thing that was difficult was making sure we had all the information to make the right decision. Winning and losing played no factor, nor will it ever in my career."

Here's a lesson all big-time coaches learn sooner or later: When you're serving two masters - winning and good citizenship - occasionally one will fly off the track. Your best players aren't always your best people. You cut a devilish deal and hope your phone never rings at 3 in the morning.

When good players do bad things, you hope their coach has the moral starch to avoid what's easy or profitable or both. You hope his integrity fills the room. Ultimately, he has to respect the man in the mirror.

Mick Cronin showed some starch. "You have to address the type of behavior you're going to condone in your program," Cronin said. "It can't just be talk."

I asked him how much responsibility a coach should have for his players' off-court behavior. "As far as being accountable for somebody else's actions, unfortunately that's part of the business," Cronin said. Print that out and paste it in every coach's office in America.

Cronin rousted his players at 5 in the morning for preseason conditioning. He has suspended them for being late for practice, because "in the real world, if you're late for work you might get fired."

As a coach, "You have to be responsible for trying to make a difference in their lives. You can sleep at night if you do everything to try to teach your kids about life."

Fidelity to a higher cause. Cronin says he sleeps well.

Murray State, seeded 12th in the Atlanta region, faces fifth-seeded Illinois here today. Kelvin Brown won't be playing. "You can only hope young people are going to do the right thing," Cronin said.

How much of that boils down to saying a little prayer, I asked. "Every time you go to bed," he said.


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