On Saturday, after one of the most graphic and brutal brawls in the history of college basketball, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin took his seat at the postgame podium. He talked about the game for a few minutes, but by this point no one cared about the game. The brawl was the only thing worth asking about.
After directing some anger at officials, who failed to heed Cronin's warnings about Xavier's players talking to the Cincinnati bench throughout the second half, the coach delivered an impassioned and impressive diatribe on behalf of the game of basketball and his players' place in it.
Among his concerns, Cronin said he hoped he wouldn't be asked to resign. He didn't yet know who among his players would still be able to call himself a Cincinnati Bearcat by Monday morning. He seemed genuinely hurt by what he had just seen, and he appeared to take it as seriously -- if not more so -- than anyone else.
"If my players don’t act the right way they will never play another game at Cincinnati. Right now, I just told my guys, I will meet with my AD and my president and I’m going to decide who is on the team going forward. That is what the University of Cincinnati is about. Period.
"I’ve never been this embarrassed. I’m hoping President Williams doesn’t ask me to resign after that. We represent an institution of higher learning, it’s way more important than basketball games. Whoever puts that jersey back on -- I made everybody take their jersey off and they will not put it on again until they have a full understanding of where they go to school and what the university stands for and how lucky they are to even be there, let alone have a scholarship, because there’s a whole lot of kids that can’t pay for college. And don’t get to go to school. My mom didn’t get to go to UC, she grew up on campus. They couldn’t afford it."
When a reporter asked Cronin if his players were still sitting in the locker room without uniforms, he continued:
"Absolutely, they are all sitting in there with no jersey on. Some of them I physically took them off."
"More important than basketball games." It's a key phrase, and one of many that seemed to indicate Cronin understood just how serious this was.
But tough talk only goes so far. A day later, Cronin and the Bearcats -- alongside their counterparts in crime, coach Chris Mack and the Musketeers -- have proven that at the end of the day few things are more important than basketball games. Especially when conference play is involved.
That's the only conclusion one can draw from the punishments handed out by the two schools, which pale in comparison to what any sane observer would have expected given the ugly nonsense both teams displayed. You've no doubt read Andy Katz's latest report on the ordeal by now, but for the record, the suspensions are as follows: For Cincinnati, Yancy Gates, Cheikh Mbodj and Octavius Ellis are suspended for six games each, while Ge'Lawn Guyn is suspended for one game. For Xavier, Dezmine Wells and walk-on Landen Amos are suspended for four games. Mark Lyons is suspended for two and Tu Holloway for one.
It's remarkable, really. Does a single punishment in that list match what we saw on the floor? Should Gates -- who arguably did more than any collegiate athlete since LeGarrette Blount to deserve a season-long suspension or dismissal from his team -- miss only one Big East game this season? Should Mbodj, who tried to kick Kenny Frease in the head as Frease recovered from Gates' right-hand howitzer, be allowed anywhere near a basketball court in the near future, let alone in time for UC's second conference game on Jan. 4?
And what of Xavier? Forget for a moment Holloway's choice of words in his postgame news conference. (The use of the word "gangster" is easily misinterpreted, and Holloway should never have said it, but anyone with a passing familiarity with the way young people talk could see Holloway was using the word colloquially. He didn't mean "actual gang members who will violently hurt you if you violate our interests." He meant "tough guys.")
That's forgivable. What isn't forgivable are Holloway's and Lyons' actions before and during the fight, when they reveled in a blowout victory by constantly talking to, and instigating dust-ups with, Cincinnati players both on the floor and off. Also unforgivable is the attitude both displayed in the postgame presser, when they essentially chalked it up to "hey, this is our rivalry, you're gonna see stuff like that" and "where we're from, we're not going to let people take shots at us, we're hard core." Cool, guys. You're so hard core.
Holloway even had the gall to recount what one Cincinnati player said about him in a pregame radio interview -- basically, that Holloway wouldn't start for Cincy. What a terrible affront! If that's not the most innocuous piece of trash talk to ever end in a bench-clearing brawl, I don't know what is.
Given the moment, the whole thing was incredibly misguided. And both players -- who just so happen to be Xavier's best -- will not play together for just two games?
The punishments on both sides are toothless, but Cincinnati's decisions are especially surprising. It was not so long ago that Bearcats basketball had the reputation -- well-earned in many ways -- of being a stopover haven for academically apathetic future NBA talents.
The word unfortunately, and frequently, used to describe the low-graduation-rate Bob Huggins-era Bearcats was "thugs." Forget the racial overtones associated with that word. Vaguely racist or not, appropriate or not, it was there -- and Cronin has spent much of his tenure working to make sure UC's basketball team doesn't resemble the ugly overtones of the past. This fight sets that effort back by years.
So perhaps no punishment would fully repair the damage the fight caused. But six games? Six games? It doesn't get anywhere close.
In the wake of Sunday's announcement, Cronin was again talking tough, with admirable overtones of personal responsibility and perspective:
"Before any of them put a uniform back on they will apologize and that's just the first step before putting the uniform back on," Cronin told ESPN.com on Sunday. "Just because the press release says what it says that doesn't mean they're all back. They're going to sit in front of a camera and say how sorry they are and how grateful they are for getting a second chance.
"If I don't believe it then they won't be on the team -- and if they don't demonstrate that they won't ever put on a jersey again -- period," Cronin said. "They're going to sit in front of a camera and say it. I can tell the difference as to how genuine they are. The university issued the suspensions and I supported it. But for me it's different. I have the autonomy to not let anybody back on the team."
But as we saw this weekend, talk is one thing. Actions are another. Cronin can deliver one profound soliloquy after another. They won't change the fact that his -- and the Musketeers' -- punishments don't fit what we saw Saturday.
You can say there are things more important than basketball. But the Bearcats and Musketeers had a chance to deliver the real message with their punishments on Sunday. In the end, that message came through loud and clear: Fighting is bad. Don't fight, guys. We don't like fighting. But -- sshh -- we like losing even less.
If there's another way to interpret the fallout from one of the uglier brawls we've ever seen in college hoops, I'm not sure I can find it.