U.C.L.A. has perpetually settled for Plan B (or C or D) in its coaching searches.
Jim Harrick, who won the program’s last national championship, in 1995, was given the job after Jim Valvano and Larry Brown said no. Ben Howland, who took U.C.L.A. to three consecutive Final Fours, was hired after Rick Pitino, Roy Williams and Mike Montgomery could not be lured to Westwood. When Howland left, and Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart could not be sold on the job, the Bruins settled for Steve Alford.
It was no different when Alford was fired at midseason two years ago.
U.C.L.A. pursued John Calipari, and met several times with him, but he said no — a decision made easier by a 10-year, $86 million extension from Kentucky. There were discussions with Texas Christian’s Jamie Dixon and Tennessee’s Rick Barnes, but none that produced a deal. The Bruins chose not to wait to pursue Tony Bennett, who was in the middle of a championship run at Virginia.
After a nearly 100-day search, U.C.L.A. settled on Cronin, who had built a steady winner in Cincinnati, but one that had little N.C.A.A. tournament success.
The hire itself was an interesting experiment. High school stars come to U.C.L.A. for myriad reasons — access to Hollywood, the beach, connections. It’s a pleasant way station for a rising star waiting for the N.B.A. to call. What players rarely come to Westwood for is to play defense. Yet for Cronin, the lure was obvious: Coming to U.C.L.A. would give him the opportunity to recruit elite players.
Cronin picked up Johnny Juzang, who languished on the bench at Kentucky as a freshman last season but has taken several star turns in this year’s tournament. He added a five-star guard, Daishen Nix, only to have him bolt for the G League last summer. And he has signed Peyton Watson, a guard from Long Beach Poly whose arrival will break a two-year streak of not having a McDonald’s all-American on the U.C.L.A. roster.
These are all players he never would have gotten at Cincinnati.
“If he walked into a gym and saw Izzo, Self and Roy before, he’d have to go to another gym,” said Hep Cronin, referring to Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo, Kansas Coach Bill Self and North Carolina Coach Williams. “You can’t chase a bad hand. The only way you get in the living room of some of these guys is with an underground tunnel. At U.C.L.A., you walk in the front door.”
Last weekend, and now this one, Hep Cronin has been driving to Indianapolis from his home in Cincinnati. It is the first time he has seen his son and his team in person since the start of the pandemic. The way the Bruins have played, with their newfound determination and discipline allowing their skills to shine, they have been his latest prospect worth following.