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Don Owen: As Cronin departs Cincinnati for UCLA, NKU fans brace for potential Brannen-less future

When Northern Kentucky University made the decision to transition to NCAA Division I athletics, two absolute certainties needed to be accepted by all Norse fans:

•NKU will most likely never win another national championship, something the Norse had accomplished three times at the Division II level (twice in women’s basketball, once in men’s soccer).

•NKU basketball coaches who enjoy tremendous success will inevitably move on to greater opportunities at higher-profile programs.

That second certainty is creeping up on NKU fans as John Brannen’s name is being touted as one of the favorites to land the now-vacant University of Cincinnati coaching position. Mick Cronin accepted the job at UCLA on Tuesday, leaving the Bearcats without a head coach and needing to act quickly.

UC might have to look no further than a few miles across the Ohio River to fill the job, much to the dismay of virtually all NKU boosters.

NKU head coach John Brannen has guided his team to three consecutive 20-win seasons. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

Brannen, having led NKU to a pair of NCAA Tournaments and an NIT appearance in the past three years, has displayed his superior in-game coaching skills and is a motivator deluxe. He’s guided the Norse to three consecutive 20-win seasons and two Horizon League Tournament titles. In addition, NKU captured a pair of Horizon League regular-season championships under Brannen. He’s also articulate and a well-polished spokesperson for NKU.

Plus, Brannen graduated from Newport Central Catholic High School, and we all know how Cincinnati embraces the local heroes as coaches or managers.

The only unknown is whether Brannen can successfully recruit players at the American Athletic Conference level. It’s a much different recruiting landscape than the Horizon League. Yes, he was an assistant at Alabama prior to taking the NKU job and recruited Southeastern Conference players for the Crimson Tide, so he knows talent. Can he bring those blue-chippers to Clifton, though?

If UC athletic director Mike Bohn answers “yes” to that last question, NKU might be in the market for a new head coach very soon.

The social media reactions from NKU fans and speculation about Brannen possibly leaving for UC have been entertaining, to say the least. There’s plenty of fretting at the prospect of life on the NKU sidelines without Brannen. There are lots of Norse fans hoping that UC will instead look to former Bearcat great Nick Van Exel, though that seems very unlikely, or even promoting current UC associate head coach Darren Savino as Cronin’s successor.

Former UC standout Erik Martin is another name being tossed out there as a possibility. Martin is currently an assistant coach at West Virginia under former Bearcats mentor Bob Huggins, but he has no experience as a head coach at the Division I level.

In case you are wondering, UC’s last two head coaches (not counting interim Andy Kennedy) both came from mid-major programs. Huggins arrived in Clifton after a successful stint at Akron, while Cronin coached at Murray State before taking the UC job.

It’s safe to say that both Huggins and Cronin were outstanding hires by UC. Now, will the Bearcats revisit that same formula and pluck another successful mid-major head coach for their latest opening?

If so, and it is indeed Brannen, don’t be too upset. Just remember those two absolute certainties I mentioned earlier. It’s a part of being a mid-major in Division I. Embrace the wins as they accumulate, and accept the inevitable when the coach departs for greater opportunities.

Contact Don Owen at don@nkytrib.com and follow him on Twitter at @dontribunesport

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