Mick Cronin Is Still California’s Favorite Public Employee

The UCLA men’s basketball coach exceeded all expectations since he came to L.A., even after losing to Gonzaga on Thursday

Mick Cronin first walked onto the Nell and John Wooden court at Pauley Pavilion as the head coach of the UCLA Bruins Men’s Basketball team in 2019 a lucky man. The fourth option in a messy hiring search, Cronin moved from his longtime job coaching the University Cincinnati Bearcats in the respected—but smaller—American Athletic Conference to the bright lights of Los Angeles and the Pac-12.

The move also saw Cronin double his salary (from $1.8 million at Cincy to $3.6 at UCLA). Now, after a pair of contract extensions, UCLA pays him $4.1 million annually.

That places Cronin among the top 15 highest paid coaches in college basketball and in the top earners among California state employees, which includes investment officers, doctors and Chip Kelly, the UCLA football team coach who earns $5.7 million annually.

But even after losing 79-76 against the Gonzaga Bulldogs on Thursday night in the team’s third straight Sweet 16, Mick Cronin has set up UCLA to be the best basketball product in Los Angeles, and himself to be California’s favorite public employee.

At first glance, one might bristle at the notion that a public employee is getting paid millions of your tax dollars to coach a basketball team— and that the practice is standard across the industry isn’t much of a salve.

And yet, longtime UCLA Bruins reporter and publisher of Bruins Report Online Tracy Pierson tells LAMag, “Mick will continually keep surprising you.”

The first time Cronin surprised Angelenos was when he began recruiting players to UCLA.

At Cincinnati—where Cronin grew up—he recruited tough athletes, rather than skilled players, Pierson explains, “because he [couldn’t] get five-star elite prospects” to play for the Bearcats. Many thought that Cronin would continue that pattern in Los Angeles (an accusation at which Cronin bristled) or that he would swing in the opposite direction and recruit only one-and-done NBA prospects to UCLA.

Instead, Cronin has split the difference, offering UCLA fans what they need, rather than what they want or expect—a true man of the people.

“The way he recruits,” says Pierson, “it’s not for everyone. If you’re looking for an easy road in college, this UCLA program is not the place for you. It is going to be tough.”

So although Cronin has recruited well—landing a top-15 class each of the past two years, and a five-star the year prior—he’s only inviting elite players who are willing to work just as hard as the lesser recruits who have driven the team’s recent success, such as Jaime Jaquez or Tyger Campbell.

The notion that basketball in L.A. is “a little soft” is something Cronin won’t stand for.

The on-court product has reflected this methodology. Cronin is only the third coach in UCLA history to make three straight Sweet 16s and, and were it not for Covid-19, this year would likely be his fourth straight tournament appearance.

Simply put, whether you are measuring the culture Cronin has built, the talent he has developed, or simply his win-loss record, he is killing it.

“Going back to John Wooden, the best formula for winning at UCLA is to combine hard work with the flashy kind of existence in Los Angeles,” says Pierson, and that is exactly what Cronin has done.

As for Cronin’s competition among public employees in Calfornia, well, he doesn’t face much. One doesn’t need to look hard to find reasons to critique L.A. Mayor Karen Bass; the same can be said for Governor Gavin Newsom.

Of course, they have harder and more consequential jobs than Cronin does, but you couldn’t find a reason to be disappointed in him even if I paid you. Even Thursday night’s loss to Gonzaga came with the team down two key rotation players and visibly tired. They didn’t score a single basket for about 11 minutes in the second half… and they still kept the score within three points.

Am I a prisoner of the moment, buying into the Cronin hype at the peak of his success? Maybe.

But I do know that he has had success every year at UCLA, and in most years at his prior jobs. Plus, I have mixed feelings about some of our other public employee, and it’s fun to ride the hype train.

I mean, if CBS Sports’ lead college basketball writer can (facetiously) call Cronin the best coach in UCLA history, then I think I’m safe in placing him atop the California public employee power rankings.

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