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Published: Friday, 3/12/2010

Cross' decision sticks O'Brien with pressure

Two years ago, Gene Cross looked like the right choice at the right place at the right time.

He was young, smart, handsome, and articulate. He was enthusiastic and hungry to prove worthy of his first head coaching job. He claimed a good coaching pedigree, had been with several major programs, most of them in the Midwest, and presumably came with a strong recruiting pipeline into his hometown of Chicago.

With a new arena, a surprisingly firm financial commitment from the administration, and Cross on the bench, it seemed like the sky might be the limit for the University of Toledo men's basketball team.

Eleven wins and 53 losses later, including a downright embarrassing 2009-10 season, the bloom was well off the rose. In fact, the rose had withered.

Whether UT cut its losses or whether Cross simply decided he'd suffered enough of them, a coaching change was announced yesterday at Savage Arena.

Mike O'Brien, the UT athletic director, insisted Cross had resigned. O'Brien said he did not fire Cross, did not ask the coach to resign, and said if Cross had not made this decision "it's fair to say" he would still be the Rockets' head coach.

"We had meetings, and the more we talked about the current program and the future, the more Gene started leaning toward taking some time away and seeing what other opportunities might be out there," O'Brien said.

If so, Cross, who was not at yesterday's press conference and who did not return phone messages, did both himself and UT a favor. What seemed like an ideal marriage two years ago was on the rocks and wasn't showing much promise of a happily-ever-after.

The Rockets lost 19 straight games late this season and ended on a 1-21 skid and Cross looked at times as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders.

Yet, after UT's season-ending loss in the MAC tournament last Sunday, reporters found him upbeat about the future, eager to hit the recruiting trail, and talking confidently of next season.

Four days later, he resigned.

Sound fishy?

But all signs are that's exactly what happened. O'Brien said he and Cross negotiated a settlement by which the coach will be paid through Aug. 1. Had he been fired, UT would have potentially been on the hook for more than three-quarters of a million dollars, based on Cross' base salary of $280,000 for the three years he was still under contract.

So, yes, Cross did UT a favor because this is a change that is in the school's best interests.

I'm not sure if Cross underestimated what it took to win in the MAC, even a somewhat lame MAC, based on the caliber of his recruits, or if he was simply unable to seal the deal with better players.

The Rockets started three freshmen and a sophomore most of the past season and that youth was an ever-present excuse as the team spun its wheels offensively, took some physical poundings inside, and slinked to a final record of 4-28 and 1-15 in league play.

More indicting than the record, though, was that Cross' players showed little improvement. They seemed worn down by the constant losing and an inability to even compete, and so did their coach.

Maybe, just maybe, with the season over and a couple days to reflect, Cross realized that both he and his players were in over their heads. It's hard to make a call like that to your own detriment, so if that's indeed what happened, give him a hand, folks.

Two years ago, the community was apathetic about UT basketball with a new arena about to open, and O'Brien was moved to replace longtime coach Stan Joplin. As this past season progressed, O'Brien saw those same season tickets not being used, the same empty seats, and the same lack of interest with a good bit of angst mixed in as the losing reached epic proportions.

The last hire looked good on the surface. This one needs to be good to the bone. O'Brien must do a better job of due diligence and, ideally, needs to hire someone with head coaching experience.

If the next coach isn't the right coach, then the two seasons lost under Cross will be multiplied by two or three. It's a long way back from rock bottom. It's hard work, and the right guy needs to be doing it.

Cross did the Rockets a favor. The pressure is off him and back on O'Brien.

Contact Blade sports columnist

Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398.



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