Commentary: Many questions, not enough answers in Cronin suspension

On Friday afternoon, a news release came across saying Northeastern coach Greg Cronin and assistant coach Albie O’Connell had been indefinitely suspended pending an investigation into possible NCAA violations surrounding communication with potential recruits.

The suspensions came amid a week of highlight performances by Cronin’s team. On Monday night, the Huskies came within a whisker of capturing the school’s first Beanpot since 1988, losing to the nation’s No. 1 team, Boston College, 7-6 in overtime. Hours after the suspension, the Huskies again pushed the No. 1 Eagles to the brink, forcing a 7-7 road tie without Cronin or O’Connell behind the bench. On Saturday, they finally broke through and earned a 2-1 victory over the Eagles.

What should have been three memorable games for Northeastern are suddenly clouded by questions and speculation.

The school hasn’t said much. Athletic director Peter Roby spoke after Friday’s game but focused more on how proud he is of the hockey team than the specific violations that have left his team minus two coaches. His statement earlier in the day talked of a “culture of integrity” that Roby wants within his athletic department.

Integrity right now has to be a focus for Northeastern, which is on probation with the NCAA for major infractions found in recruiting for the men’s basketball team from 2003 through 2005. The probation began in April 2009 and continues through April of this year. Roby, who joined the athletic department as athletic director in 2007, is seen as part of the solution. Thus, any sort of red flag raised by compliance as an error, oversight or mistake in the recruiting process is likely to result in immediate action.

That could be part of the reason that indefinite suspensions resulted. Roby and his athletic department likely want to show swift action regardless of the magnitude of the violation. It’s known that a school’s ability to self-police violations with appropriate and just proactive discipline is looked upon with favor by the NCAA. You can speculate that Roby’s indefinite suspension of Cronin and O’Connell while all of the details are gathered could be a tool to keep the NCAA from further investigating the athletic department.

At the same time, the fact that any recruiting infractions happen within a Greg Cronin-run program is somewhat surprising. Twice prior, Cronin has been involved in programs that have been cited for major infractions by the NCAA.

The most well-known was Maine’s censure in 1996 for a number of violations that led to head coach Shawn Walsh’s suspension for a full year. Cronin arrived at Maine after most of the violations had occurred and his arrival led to his debut as a head coach, taking the reins during Walsh’s suspension and leading Maine to a respectable 27-14-2 record during that span.

The lesser-known past problem for Cronin occurred in the early 1990s while he was a member of the Colorado College coaching staff under the direction of head coach Brad Buetow. There, the staff was involved in the midseason recruiting of a goaltender who was illegally flown to the campus using an assistant coach’s frequent flyer miles, provided free accommodations and allowed to practice with the team despite still being enrolled in junior college. That case was amplified when Buetow didn’t cooperate with the NCAA investigation and was ultimately forced to resign.

Fast forward to the present to an NCAA program that is already on probation and a head coach that has been involved in programs found guilty of NCAA violations, and you would think that Northeastern’s men’s hockey program would be the squeakiest clean program in the nation.

Let me say this: As a reporter, I like Greg Cronin. He’s a no-punches-pulled type of guy who has done a great job in taking a team from 24 losses in his first season behind the bench to the school’s first NCAA bid in 15 years in 2009. He recruits with two powerhouses, Boston College and Boston University, in his backyard and does a great job to attract solid players.

He has built a culture of success and seen attendance consistently grow. Even this season, when the club had a horrific start, he turned things around and less than a week ago was the talk of the town for the Huskies’ effort in the Beanpot.

Now, unfortunately, a week later his name remains in the news but for all the wrong reasons. Selfishly, I hope that Greg Cronin comes out of this investigation clean and that he returns behind the Northeastern bench sooner rather than later. The team — and the game — need his coaching talents.

For now, though, there remain far too many questions and too few answers.