Beyond the screaming, there's a (winning) method to Mick Cronin's madness at UCLA

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He looks like a madman, stomping around the sideline as if he’s smashing grapes.

Yelling at officials and his own players with equal abandon, his howls can be heard in the upper reaches of any arena.

Win or lose, the words flow freely in his public comments afterward, no one spared from biting critiques.

Some see these animated displays and wonder if Mick Cronin is being abusive.

His players have come to invite the invective, knowing where it will lead them.

“He doesn’t care about how you feel,” said Jaylen Clark, the Minnesota Timberwolves rookie who went from a lightly recruited high school player to a Final Four participant and the Naismith college defensive player of the year under the guidance of the UCLA basketball coach. “He’s going to get everything he feels like he can get out of you even if you don’t see it yourself.”

It usually doesn’t take long for the Bruins to see it. Center Kenneth Nwuba, who signed up to play for the easygoing Steve Alford only to find himself sticking around for five more seasons under the demanding Cronin, once approached the latter mentor with a startling message.

“Coach,” Nwuba told him, “we play better when you yell.”

That’s not much of an ask. Type “Mick Cronin” into a YouTube search and one of the auto-populated options on a drop-down menu is “Mick Cronin mad.”

Yep, he can run hot beyond the three technical fouls he’s earned this season, the redlining going back to his days at Cincinnati.

Among the videos that pop up are “Mick Cronin very upset after Shootout brawl,” “Mick Cronin tries to fight Xavier bench” and “UCLA coach puts players on BLAST!!”

He’s freely ripped since his arrival in Westwood, calling out nearly everyone on the roster. Just listen to Cronin’s takes from earlier this season …

On freshman guard Sebastian Mack: “On a veteran team, he’d play about five minutes a game.”

On freshman guard Ilane Fibleuil committing a turnover: “First time you touch the ball, you try to be Michael Jordan and look what happens.”

On freshman forward Berke Buyuktuncel throwing a bad cross-court pass: “We invent new ways to turn it over.”

Former shooting guard David Singleton got a sense of the verbal volleys to come in his first meeting with Cronin in the spring of 2019, not long after the coach had taken the UCLA job.

“I didn’t know who he was talking to,” Singleton said, “but he looked up and said, ‘Why isn’t the video ready? If you were working for coach [Rick] Pitino, you would have been fired already.’ And I’m like, who is he talking to? Is he serious? He was talking to the video guy. So that was like, ‘Oh, OK, this guy means business.’”

Some fans have called him Cronin the Barbarian, a playful twist on the fictional warrior Conan. His influences include his father, who was a warm but no-nonsense high school coach, in addition to two former bosses who are crusty college icons — Bob Huggins is notoriously gruff, even under the best of circumstances, and Pitino openly berated his St. John’s players last weekend after they lost for the eighth time in their last 10 games, saying “about five guys are slow laterally.”

Cronin’s Bruins (14-12 overall, 9-6 Pac-12) are on a different trajectory, having won eight of their last 10 games heading into a rivalry showdown against USC (10-16, 4-11) on Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion. It’s just another late-season surge for a coach who has taken UCLA to two Sweet 16s in addition to the 2021 Final Four as part of his three NCAA tournament appearances with the team.

He’s also helped four players get selected in the NBA draft — two in the first round — while sending a handful of others to the G League and overseas professional teams. Leaning heavily on the teachings of a legendary predecessor, Cronin favors results over public opinion.

“Sometimes people think I’m testy or edgy or I don’t care,” Cronin said, “and I don’t say this as arrogance, I don’t care because coach [John] Wooden tells you not to care about praise or criticism, just do your job and be a good person and I try to get [my players] to do the same thing.”

Those watching from afar might be surprised to learn that Cronin has a soft side, like flipping over a Brillo pad to find cashmere. After his team beat Stanford and California during a recent trip to the Bay Area, the coach visited for several minutes with a young special-needs fan who attended both games, ending each exchange with a hug.

The feel-good vibes carried over to the locker room. Addressing his team after the 61-60 victory over the Golden Bears, Cronin quipped, “It was a one-point blowout.”

Cracking up his players as much as he challenges them, Cronin loves to drop pop culture references during practices. He quotes lines from old movies — few of which his players get — and last season told star forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. after an egregious traveling violation that “Ray Charles could have called that one.”

If you hear Cronin refer to Uncle Smitty, he’s using a catch-all phrase for anyone in a player’s entourage who might have strong opinions about things that don’t matter, like failing to score 20 points in a game.

Chris Smith, a forward for the Iowa Wolves of the G League who spent his final two college seasons under Cronin, said part of the coach’s genius was connecting basketball to other things.

“You play basketball how you live life, you know?” Smith said. “If you’re half-assing it on the court, then you’re most likely half-assing in life.”

Half measures never fly with Cronin. After watching Clark fail to box out a San Diego State player as instructed in his college debut, Cronin threatened to never play the freshman again. The next day, even as the Bruins went to triple overtime against Pepperdine and two players fouled out, Clark never got off the bench.

“They looked at me,” Clark said of assistant coaches contemplating putting him in the game, “and [Cronin] said, ‘No, somebody else.’”

Clark eventually worked his way out of the dog house via relentless defense that two seasons later won him the team’s Hungry Dog Award that goes to the player who logs the most deflections.

Perhaps the best measure of Cronin’s popularity among his players is that only four have transferred in five seasons and those who now play professionally flock back to see their former coach. Clark, Singleton, Amari Bailey and Johnny Juzang were among those in attendance Sunday when the Bruins played Utah at Pauley Pavilion.

That’s not to say they always enjoyed being the subject of a high-volume rant. Singleton recalled his coach once screaming at him to set a screen to free Juzang for a shot.

“I’m looking at him like, ‘I got it,’ and he just kept yelling at me and when it was time to inbound it and I set it and Johnny was open and he knocked it down,” Singleton said. “I looked at [Cronin] and I’m like, ‘I told you, I got it,’ and he was like, ‘All right, well, do it again.’ It was just constant, like he wanted more, he always demanded more.”

Does all that yelling rattle the Bruins? Sometimes. In the middle of the team’s most recent Final Four season, Singleton said, players gathered to discuss the volatility.

“We said, ‘Just because he’s yelling at us, we can’t play scared,’ ” Singleton said. “So I would say after that is when we really took off as a team, to listen to what he says, not how he says it.”

Cronin, who will turn 53 this summer, likes to say he’s got a PhD in dealing with young players after spending his whole life in locker rooms beginning with his dad’s teams as an infant. He tries to tailor his delivery to each player based on their personality and experience level. That can be particularly challenging on a team with seven freshmen like this one.

“You’ve got to have some feel,” Cronin said. “You’re not always right, but you’ve got to be observant and see who responds to what through trial and error. Certain guys, the more aggressive you coach them, the better they play. Other guys may go into a shell. So you have to be observant of that.

“We’re like a starting pitcher and it’s a long season, you’ve got a lot of different battles. You can’t throw fastballs all season to every hitter, right? So you’ve got to have a changeup at times. You know, there’s times where they need a little softball, a little batting practice. Other times they need the fastball down the middle or maybe under the chin — they might need the brushback.”

If he’s particularly hard on a player, Cronin said, he tries to circle back to him later to let him know he’s trying to help him get to where he wants to go in his career. Whenever he yanks players for mistakes during games, the coach has an assistant check in with them to discuss the issue and make sure they’re staying mentally prepared to return.

Mack has found Cronin’s messages increasingly resonating the deeper he goes into his first college season based on their prognostic prowess.

“I wouldn’t want to call him a wizard,” Mack said, unintentionally referencing Wooden’s nickname, “but, I mean, the stuff he does say usually ends up happening.”

What about Cronin’s tendency to share his unvarnished thoughts with the media? Myles Johnson, the former UCLA center once described by Cronin as “too nice” to be as dominant as he should be, said it just comes with playing for the steward of one of the best brands in college basketball.

“It’s UCLA, you’ve got to hold yourself to a higher standard playing for UCLA and we all knew that,” Johnson said, “and even if it does come out in the media and he was tough on you in the media, most of the time what he’s saying is factual, it’s not like he’s just making it up out of thin air.”

It would be easy for Cronin to say he’s mellowed since suffering a brain abnormality called arterial dissection nearly a decade ago that forced him to miss the final 25 games of the 2014-15 season at Cincinnati, but the coach conceded that’s not the case.

“It’d be a lie,” Cronin said. “You get older, you know, all of us, theoretically you’re a little smarter. So you take better care of yourself, get more rest, you know, things of that nature.”

You just don’t necessarily take it easier on your players. They don’t seem to mind given the results.

“He’s someone that tries to push you to your limits and get the best out of you every single day,” said guard Lazar Stefanovic, who was lured from Utah to UCLA before this season mostly because he figured Cronin could help him improve. The junior is now averaging career highs in points (11.1) and rebounds (6.1). “I think that’s what every young player needs.”

Maybe it’s why the quiet moments tend to stand out most for those who have played for the man some fans see as a screaming meanie. Among his favorite memories of playing for Cronin, Singleton mentioned pouring a Gatorade container full of confetti over his coach to celebrate their making the Final Four.

It was a gentle swishing that said it all.

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