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Published: Sunday, 2/14/2010

Rockets' Cross not running from challenge

Gene Cross wasn't always the seemingly unflappable $300 suit that patrols the bench area at University of Toledo men's basketball games.

He was a kid in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago's far west side. It once was a well-heeled suburb with large, comfortable homes on tree-lined streets, but Austin underwent a cultural and economic change in the late 1960s. The most populated of Chicago's 70-plus neighborhoods with more than 100,000 residents, it has long been no place for the faint of heart.

"I went to Catholic grade school at St. Angela on Massasoit near Potomac," said Cross, the son of a single mother who called himself "a latchkey kid. We got out of school at 2:30, and the nearby public school got out at 3. So we'd run to get home before 3 so we wouldn't get beat up. I had 10 minutes, 15 minutes at best to mess around, but then I had to book it."

With a laugh, Cross adds: "I'm reminded of that when I walk from the locker room through the arena to the media room after games. It has been as tough a trip at times. But nobody has thrown a brick at me yet. So, I'm doing OK."

His team is not. UT's men have lost 15 straight games and are 3-22 overall, 0-11 in the

Mid-American Conference entering today's game at Central Michigan. The Rockets have won just 10 of 57 games in two seasons under Cross.

These are uncharted, deep, and chilly waters for the Rockets. They have arrived at one of the lowest points - if not the lowest - in the program's 94-year, 17-coach history.

But Cross is not about to run away from this challenge. He figures that getting beat up has to end sooner or later, with the sincere hope that it's sooner. UT fans would second that motion.

"It's sort of a unique situation and challenge," Cross said. "I know people judge [coaches] by wins and losses, and I'm sure people look at our record and say, 'What's he good for? What's he done? The program's going backwards.'

"I feel exactly the opposite, but I know I'm looking at it from a different perspective. So, I'll take the daggers and the arrows. I'll stand by these kids until I'm blue in the face. Question me all you want. Come after me all you want. But not them. They're doing everything we're asking of them and when we have success it will be because of those young men and what we're doing."

When Cross uses words like "kids" and "young" he isn't just whistling Dixie. The Rockets have no seniors and have started three freshmen on a fairly regular basis this season. Jake Barnett has started all 25 games, Jordan Dressler 20, and Malcolm Griffin 14 of the 18 games in which he has played.

Although the Rockets haven't won since Dec. 10, there are signs all the growing pains may be starting to pay dividends. While UT has struggled to score points - not once during the current losing streak has the team reached 60 - it has at least been competitive of late. The last three losses, coming against Ohio (in overtime), Buffalo, and Miami, have been by single-digit margins.

Toledo's freshmen scored 47 of the team's 59 points against Buffalo. In a 59-45 loss at Akron, the frosh had 38 of the Rockets' points. Barnett is the MAC's leading freshman scorer.

"When you have as many freshmen playing as many minutes as we do people have to understand what the building process is all about," Cross said. "It's building from the bottom up, not the top down.

"We're building for a sustained level of success, and I'm confident we'll get there. I'm not a bit discouraged. All that we're going through strengthens my resolve. Being discouraged is not an option."

UT has eight freshmen, seven of them scholarship athletes, on its roster and five have seen playing time. Three are redshirting, one because of injury.

The Rockets went 7-25 in Cross' first season with hardly the same scenario. That team included four seniors, three of whom had contributed in some measure to a regular-season MAC championship in 2006-07. But the old players and the new coach, admittedly a more fiery coach than this season's version, were oil and water and could never bring out the best in one another.

Cross said the job has not been harder than he anticipated, "but it has turned out differently than I would have liked. You'd always prefer to win. But we're gaining ground in so many different areas. We're having success off the court. I don't think it will be long before we're successful on it too."

Chances of snapping the current losing streak before it carries over into next season lessen by the day. After today's game at CMU, only five games remain in the regular season. Then, UT will have to hit the road - and that's been the dirtiest word in the Rockets' vocabulary the last two years - for a conference tournament opener.

Cross, 38, embraces technology. He has a UT basketball page on Facebook and "tweets" on Twitter. But he stays far away from Internet fan sites and chat rooms.

"No, no, no," he said, laughing. "I learned about that a long time ago. I'm sure there's a "Fire Coach Cross' site out there somewhere."

Well, yes. It's up on Facebook. It has one member and no posts, as best this social networking illiterate can tell.

So, Cross indeed appears to be OK. He's not running away and nobody is throwing bricks yet.

Contact Blade sports columnist

Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398.



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