The University of Toledo's men's basketball team will bring some Chicago flair to the court next season.
When Chicago native Gene Cross was introduced earlier this month as the Rockets' new head coach, another Chicago native, Tyrone Kent, watched closely. Also in the audience was Cross' mother, Haroleon, a Chicago resident.
Kent, a Crain Tech graduate who will be a senior next season at Toledo, led the MAC in scoring this year with 16.9 points per game.
Cross, 36, grew up on the Northwest side of Chicago and in suburban Olympia Fields. He played high school ball at Rich Central. The Toledo job is his first as a head coach.
He agreed to a five-year deal with Toledo. Financial terms were not disclosed; former coach Stan Joplin had a base annual salary of $170,000.
Cross played four years at the University of
Illinois, lettering twice. He later completed a master's degree in
sports management at Ohio State.
As an assistant coach for 11 years, he had an impressive record at schools including Notre Dame, DePaul and UIC. His last seven teams each had winning records and six of them played in postseason tournaments.
Cross' efforts landed a Top 20 recruiting class at DePaul and a Top 25 class at UIC. In 2005, Rivals named him one of the nation's top 25 recruiters. He has been president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches' Assistant Coaches Board and is a member of the Black Coaches Association.
"He ranks right up there with any of the assistant coaches I had. â€¦ He's a tremendous recruiter and a class act," says Digger Phelps, former Notre Dame coach and now an ESPN commentator.
The last two years at Notre Dame, the Irish won a combined 49 games and advanced out of the Big East to play in the NCAA Tournament. Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey credits Cross for much of that success.
"He has done a fabulous job for us here at Notre Dame," Brey says. "Gene has a tremendous work ethic and built great relationships with our players. He was an important part of the success we have had the past two seasons."
Brey was quick to tell Toledo's O'Brien exactly that during the interviewing process.
"He's one in a million," Cross says about Brey.
Cross wants to establish the same kind of success at Toledo,
which won a Mid-American Conference West championship in 2007 but slipped to a
10-19 record this last season.
Toledo athletic director Mike O'Brien hopes Cross can turn things around.
"Gene has all the characteristics we are looking for in a head coach," O'Brien says. "He is a bright, hard-working young man with a great love for the game of basketball."
The Rockets have not played in the NCAA Tournament since 1980, the first and only time they won the MAC Tournament championship. But until this year, the Rockets finished in first or second place in the MAC West four consecutive years.
"You look at the tradition there is," Cross says. "There's a nice base there. I want to build on that infrastructure. I want to build a program."
At the same, time Cross sees building the Toledo program as a long-term project.
"This is not a quick fix," he says.
But having Kent return for another year will help the repair job. Kent is likely to be moved from point guard and into even more of a scoring role next season.
"I want him to play where he's the most effective and the most comfortable," Cross says. "Ultimately, he's a scorer, he's an athlete. He's my best player."
Cross will continue to be a familiar face in Chicago. He wants the Rockets to continue a home-and-home series with UIC and already has been promised games at Notre Dame by Brey.
"I love coming home to Chicago to play," Cross says.
Beginning as an assistant coach at UIC in 1997, Cross has aggressively recruited players in the Chicago area. As a DePaul assistant, Cross looked at Kent.
"I went to a lot of public-league games," Cross says. "There's so much good basketball in and around the Chicagoland area."
Paul Bowker, a Chicago-area journalist with 25 years of experience, covers Chicago Public Schools for the Daily News.