GEORGETOWN -- There's much to be said for being a large fish in the small pond.
At the level of college coaching at which they have long plied their trade, Bill Cronin and Happy Osborne are Orcas.
Cronin, the Georgetown College football coach, has gone a robust 123-22 with two NAIA national championships in his 11 years as head man of the Tigers.
Osborne, the men's basketball coach at Georgetown, is 371-67 in 12 years as Georgetown head man with the 1998 NAIA national title making for a nice line on his resume.
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Both live in a town they like, work at a college they love and have coaching jobs where one can realistically aspire to championships every year.
Pretty good gigs.
Yet each also has that internal voice that questions: How would I do swimming against the sharks in the ocean of major-college sports? Will I ever get that chance?
"Sure, you wonder that," Osborne says. "We've had the chance to test ourselves in (basketball) exhibitions, we've played Kentucky and Louisville. I think the people we've played, they have respect for our program. But, sure, there's a part of me that wonders how I would do at that level. So far, a bigger part of me has loved more what we have here."
Says Cronin: "To a certain extent, I do wonder about that. I've never said never, but I would be real picky in terms of any jobs because of my family and the life we've had here. But, sure, I would think everyone who has success at our level at least wonders about whether you could do it at the higher levels of the sport. It's a matter of getting the right opportunity."
Lightly traveled path
The road from small-college success to the multimillion-dollar contracts of big-time college sports coaching is not untraveled -- but it is a very rare trip.
New Michigan head football coach Rich Rodriguez had his first taste of head-coaching success in leading Glenville State (of West Virginia) to the 1993 NAIA national title game. Brian Kelly, who took the University of Cincinnati to a 10-3 season in 2007, made his name winning back-to-back NCAA Division II national championships at Grand Valley State (Michigan).
In big-time college football, they are the exception to the rule in terms of backgrounds for head coaches.
Both Rodriguez and Kelly had to take intermediate steps before reaching the big-time. Rodriguez left Glenville State to work as an assistant on Tommy Bowden's staffs at Tulane and Clemson before getting the chance to become head man at West Virginia.
Kelly landed a lower-rung Division I head-coaching job at Central Michigan. He had enough success there in three years to catch the eye of the Big East's Cincinnati.
Though his name seems to get tossed around each time the Eastern Kentucky University head-coaching position opens, Cronin has not yet had that chance to move into that transitional job.
"I'm not looking to get out of Georgetown by any means. I love it," Cronin said. "But I think I'd at least consider anything. At this point in my career, I do enjoy being a head coach. I like this part of the country. I like running my own program. So those factors, maybe, limit my choices.
"But I think every coach is looking for a challenge. It's why you get into the profession. I think every coach is looking for the opportunity to do things that people say couldn't be done."
Life being a series of trade-offs, Cronin says that, in many ways, he feels his experience has been richer because he's coached at a level of college football that is not all-consuming.
"We raised three boys," the 52-year-old coach says. "I coached Little League baseball for 15 years. Heck, I miss that now. In fall practice, if a kid has a big family reunion, I try to make sure he gets out of practice to go. That's not going to happen at the Division I level. At our level, I do think things are in perspective a little more. And there's something to be said for that."
Saying no to D-1
As recently as 2000, the hot coaching rivalry in Kentucky small-college basketball was between Georgetown's Osborne and Campbellsville head man Travis Ford.
That's the same Travis Ford who recently signed a seven-year, $9.1 million contract to become basketball coach at Oklahoma State. Between Campbellsville and Stillwater, Ford landed head-coaching jobs at Eastern Kentucky and Massachusetts. His job advancement was helped, of course, by being a former Kentucky Wildcats player with membership in the coaching trees of Rick Pitino and Billy Donovan.
Osborne doesn't have those advantages.
He looks at the success of Ford and other former small-college head men such as Tennessee's Bruce Pearl (NCAA Division II Southern Indiana) and Wisconsin's Bo Ryan (NCAA Division III Wisconsin-Platteville), and "I'm happy for them," the Georgetown coach says. "But, sure, it makes me wonder for myself."
In recent years, Osborne's name has been mentioned with openings at Eastern Kentucky and Morehead State. Both schools eventually hired assistant coaches off Division I staffs.
This spring, after his previously undefeated Georgetown Tigers (35-1) lost to Mountain State in the NAIA national semifinals, Osborne found himself with a viable chance to silence that internal voice asking how he would do in Division I.
He had an opportunity to become head coach at Centenary College in Louisiana. The alma mater of former Celtics great Robert Parrish plays in the Summit League (formerly the Mid-Continent Conference) and went 10-21 this past season.
So this would have been inheriting a struggling program in a low-major conference -- but it was NCAA Division I.
After visiting the Shreveport campus and mulling the situation, Osborne, 50, said no.
He did so knowing there is no promise that the chance ever comes again, no matter how many 30-win seasons he has in the NAIA.
"I like Kentucky -- a lot," Osborne said. "I'm not saying I'd never leave here, but it would be tough. If the right opportunity came at a place where I thought I could get it done, I'd consider it. But if all I ever do is coach at Georgetown College, I'll feel blessed."
The Mumme Effect
In the commonwealth of Kentucky, there might be another factor working against small-college coaches being given the chance to move up.
Before the 1997 season, the University of Kentucky plucked little-known Hal Mumme out of obscurity at NCAA Division II Valdosta State to become its head football coach. After initial success with his high-volume passing attack, Mumme's program imploded amid a major NCAA cheating scandal.
Mumme resigned under pressure. He'd lasted only four years.
The general consensus was that Mumme had not been ready as a manager to oversee all the facets of running a big-time college sports program.
Asked whether he thought the Mumme experience had impeded the chances of other small-college coaches ever moving up in the state of Kentucky, Cronin chuckled.
"That's a good question," he said. "I've always had a lot of respect for Coach Mumme. I had a decent relationship with him when he was here. But I'm sure what happened with him is in the minds of fans here. Hopefully in the minds of administrators, they would look for a quality guy for an institution.
"But going from where Coach Mumme was at to a school at the level of the University of Kentucky, I don't think you're ever going to see that again."