It was the end of the 2001-2002 season. The future of Bob Huggins with the Cincinnati Bearcats was up in the air.
Mick Cronin was told by an assistant close to the Cincinnati coach, that Huggins was ready to head back down that country road to his home and coach the West Virginia Mountaineers.
Knowing he would not be named the Bearcats next coach, Mick Cronin had to make an agonizing decision: stay with Cincinnati and risk losing a job or take another job offer elsewhere.
He chose the latter.
No one can blame him for the decision he made to leave. Everyone thought Huggins was heading to West Virginia, including himself.
Huggy-Bear changed his mind late. He wanted to stay in the Queen City.
The decision was made too late, however, for Cronin. The '97 UC graduate decided to leave the program. He was just being a professional. He was just trying to climb the coaching ladder.
Then, on came the dogs, or perhaps, the birds.
It was not the decision to leave that angered Huggins and many Bearcat fans. It was the choice of going south to Louisville, to join Rick Pitino as an assistant coach for the Cardinals: a long-time conference rival of the Cats.
Ever since, tension has boiled over between the two. Although both dance around the questions concerning their relationship, it is evident that, well, they are not too fond of each other.
The rest is history. Cronin is noted nationwide as the NCAA's best assistant coach with Louisville. He then takes the head coaching job at Murray State, leading them to two NCAA Tournament appearances in three seasons.
Huggins, on the other side of the spectrum, was disliked by new UC President Nancy Zimpher. A couple athletes in trouble, plus an embarrassing DUI led to his untimely firing, leaving his beloved program in the most impossible situation. A year later, he took the job in Manhattan, Kansas, as head coach at Kansas State.
Manhattan was livid. A packed house showed up for his first press conference. Purple "Huggy-Bear" shirts were sold on every street corner in the entire town. The former Bearcats coach had found a new home. A home that appreciated is superior coaching ability.
Then, before he could even lead the university to an NCAA Tournament, he left.
So, how can Huggins blame Cronin for leaving? Mick was stuck between a rock and a hard place.
This blame is coming from a man who took a giant chunk out of the "Little Apple" when he abandoned Kansas State for his alma-mater West Virginia. We went from being in the Little Apple Hall of Fame, to the Hall of Hate. He went from loved to despised.
Some can say Mick went to Louisville for selfish reasons. With Huggins, not just some, but all will say Huggins went back home for selfish reasons. He knew it was his last chance to do so.
Now, both are exactly where they want to be. Both are at their alma-maters. Both are at a place where they could coach forever.
It just goes to show that everything happens for a reason.
If anything, the two should be proud for each other. Huggins developed Cronin into a fine basketball coach. Cronin recruited Huggins some of the best players he ever coached.
Tonight, their teams will square off in Morgantown, West Virginia, in front of the national audience on ESPN.
One has to believe the players understand the magnitude of this meeting, because it is off the charts.
Cronin, already having taken down former mentor Rick Pitino, will look for his Bearcats (9-11, 4-3) to do just the same to Huggins' Mountaineers (15-5, 4-3).
As entertaining as this game may be with all the story lines, history, and drama, the thing I will be most watching for is the pregame handshake, or even a nice little pregame hug.
For the blind Bearcat fan, it may be an awful reminder of what transpired over the last five seasons.
But for the true faithful, it will be fun to watch Huggins jump up and down on the sideline, or even chase referees to the locker room. But most of all, it will be entertaining to watch little Mick Cronin to continue to lead his Bearcats to big places.
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