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April 12, 2006
CINCINNATI - Mick Cronin and his new coaching staff were fixated on their cell phone keypads when the food arrived at their restaurant table. With hardly a word exchanged, they went on texting and recruiting.
''The waitress said, 'I've never seen anything like this. You guys haven't talked to each other the whole time,''' Cronin said Wednesday, recalling his dinner from the previous night. ''We said it will be funny in a year or two. We'll look back on this like, 'Can you believe how crazy that was?' I'm sure we will.''
There aren't many certainties these days for Cronin, who is three weeks into resurrecting a University of Cincinnati basketball program that has been through a turbulent year.
Since coach Bob Huggins was forced out last August, one of the nation's most prominent programs has faced player defections, uncertainty over the next coach and fan backlash.
It's up to Cronin to piece the program together - and fast.
''I do believe this was a great fit,'' Cronin said. ''I just need to prove that now.''
For the 34-year-old Cronin, it's a dream job coming under the toughest circumstances.
Fans disenchanted by Huggins' ouster warmed to interim coach Andy Kennedy, who led the Bearcats to a 21-13 record and the NIT quarterfinals. Instead of keeping Kennedy, the school chose Cronin, whose local ties have at least temporarily quieted the program's critics.
Cronin was a prep star in Cincinnati and one of Huggins' top assistants. Cronin left to become Rick Pitino's assistant at Louisville before the 2001-02 season, then led Murray State to two NCAA tournament appearances in three seasons as the Racers' head coach.
There is skepticism over whether president Nancy Zimpher - a stickler for academic excellence - will give Cronin enough leeway to rebuild a program that made the NCAA tournament 14 years in a row before Huggins was forced out. Cronin understands the concern.
''There's so much uncertainty in the last nine months,'' he said. ''What I'd like to say to our fans would be: I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe our administration cared about Bearcat basketball and wanted to continue our great tradition. That would have been career suicide for me as a young coach.''
Cronin, who got a six-year contract, has to rebuild a program that couldn't recruit last season because there was no commitment to a head coach. Most high school seniors have already committed to other schools, leaving Cincinnati to look at junior college transfers in the short term.
And there are a lot of slots to fill. Cincinnati is losing five seniors - four of them starters - from last season, and freshman point guard Devan Downey decided Tuesday to transfer.
Cronin spoke with Downey the night he got the job, and knew then that he'd need to start looking for another point guard. Downey wants to play closer to his home in South Carolina.
''I spoke to him that night as he was driving home,'' Cronin said. ''The fact that he was driving home concerned me.''
Cronin took a first step in restocking the roster Wednesday by signing his first recruits - guard Marvin Gentry from McLennan Community College and forward John Williamson from Cincinnati State.
''With recruiting right now, we're trying to do a two-year process in 30 days,'' he said. ''That's tough.''
Four scholarship players return from last season, but only one of them - forward Cedric McGowan - played significant minutes. McGowan started 33 games and averaged 8.5 points.
How soon the Bearcats get back into the Top 25 will depend upon how fast Cronin - known as a tireless recruiter - can attract top prospects.
''It's going to be a process,'' he said. ''We've got to get to the point where we're competitive. Right now, we need to be able to put a team on the floor.''
One of his other priorities is to make an impact on his hometown. As an assistant high school and college coach in Cincinnati, Cronin daydreamed about being able to do something for youths in the community.
''For me, it's still funny to say I'm in that position now,'' he said. ''It's wild. But I can't wait to get to the point where I have time for that.''
First, he has to make up for lost time.