The longtime coach brought stability, winning culture to Red Raiders’ boys basketball program
By Mike Whaley / email@example.com
While Spaulding High School boys basketball coaches were coming and going in rapid succession, the one thing Tim Cronin knew for certain was that he wasn’t going anywhere.
Of course, now he is.
After nearly 20 years coaching basketball at various levels in Rochester, Cronin took the leap in 2001 to take the head basketball position at Spaulding. He held that post for 19 seasons. In the process he turned the Class L/Division I bottom-feeder into a perennial contender.
Cronin, 68, recently announced his decision to step down as the program’s most successful coach. He leaves having served the position longer — by more than double — than any predecessor, with the most wins and the most playoff appearances.
“I’ve been thinking about this the last couple years,” Cronin said. “I’ve got some other priorities in my life I want to focus on right now. It’s not the end of my life. It’s the start of my next life. I’ve got grandchildren and my family, and some other things I want to focus on right now.
“It’s a very time-consuming job. I don’t think people realize that, the time you put in; in the offseason also.”
When Cronin took over the program in 2001, Spaulding had appointed 10 different head coaches since 1975. No coach spent longer than four years with the team over that stretch. In the Red Raiders’ history going back to 1939, the longest coaching tenure was eight years.
“I think that (coaching) stability is a big part of it,” he said. “It does start at the youth level and work its way up so people know what to expect.”
Cronin said there was great long-term coaching support at all levels. Kevin Connelly and Gerry Gilbert put in the time with the youth programs. The middle school was led for years by former Spaulding star Butch Emerson, while Cronin had committed assistants on his high school team in Steve Foster, DB Betz and Chris Proulx.
Cronin began coaching in Rochester at the recreation level in 1982 when his children started to play the sport, coaching a team at Chamberlain Street School. In the late 1980s, he made the jump to the high school team, assisting Terry Carter for four years. But it was a coaching carousel.
“The coaches stayed a couple years and left,” he said. “All the guys were good guys. They were good coaches. I learned a lot from them.”
Cronin recalls those uncertain times. “We were just trying to develop a winning attitude,” he said. “We were always trying to get everyone on the same page.”
That proved to be a challenge during his early years as head coach.
“Everyone thinks they’re going to change the world in a day,” Cronin said. “It certainly didn’t happen for three, four, five years. We struggled. I was questioning myself.”
He refused to give in.
“I was determined I was going to stay and try to make a difference,” Cronin said. “Things started to turn.”
That was the 2006-07 season. The Red Raiders, who hadn’t won a playoff game since 1991, played at Manchester Memorial in the opening round of the D-I tournament. They pulled out a 65-58 victory, led by Lucas Croteau and Ben Higgins.
They lost in the quarterfinals at the University of New Hampshire to No. 1 and eventual champion Salem, a team they had upset during the regular season.
“It started to turn there,” Cronin said. “(The Memorial win) was huge. There was a belief these kids had that it could happen. I think there were more kids playing in the offseason. You had kids who actually wanted to be part of this. Winning breeds winning, and we started to win a little bit.”
The following year, led by Croteau and a good supporting cast, Spaulding upset Nashua North and Exeter in the first two rounds to earn their first trip to the D-I semifinals in 34 years where they lost to Trinity at UNH.
“Things were starting to change,” Cronin said. “Having someone like a Lucas Croteau helped. He was the guy who kind of stirred the drink for us. He was a very, very good player.”
Croteau was the first in a succession of high-quality players who helped to elevate and sustain the program’s status as one of the top teams in the division. He was followed by Dominic Paradis, Darian Berry, Cal Connelly and Arie Breakfield.
“(Croteau) had a group around him who bought into what we were trying to do,” Cronin said. “It all changed there basically for us.”
Thus began a string of 13 straight playoff appearances, which included 13 playoff wins and five trips to the D-I semis — all program records.
“You go back (in time) and Rochester wasn’t a basketball town,” Cronin said. “We started to change that.”
One highlight was a tight loss in the D-I quarters at eventual champion Bishop Guertin in 2011.
“We lost the game, but we took them to the very end,” Cronin said. “We had the place packed. Spaulding had more fans than Guertin did. It was a great thing to see and be a part of.”
His youngest son, Brian, was a starting guard on that team.
Cronin pauses, slowly adding, “We didn’t get to the finals. We came close.”
The Red Raiders were 0-5 in semifinal games under Cronin.
He recalled the 2013 semis against Guertin in which Spaulding led by 12 at the half, but lost in the final minutes. In 2015, the Red Raiders, sparked by Berry, took No. 1 and undefeated Londonderry to the wire, leading by as many as 12 in the second half before losing, 58-51.
“We couldn’t get over the hump,” Cronin said. “But the experience over there (at UNH) was great for our kids and the fans, also.”
Spaulding, which also lost in the semis in 2012, fell for the final time in the final four under Cronin in 2017, paced by Connelly, now starring at Assumption College.
Their last playoff win came over Merrimack in the first round of the 2019 tournament, which was followed by a painful loss in the closing seconds to Portsmouth in the quarters.
It was a long, but satisfying journey to respectability.
“In the ’90s, (opponents) saw Spaulding on the schedule, they’re kind of chalking that up as a win,” Cronin said. “We established that respectability throughout the state that teams were in for a tough game when they played us.”
Over time the Spaulding players developed a winning mindset.
“The early years for me, I don’t think they felt they had a chance in games,” Cronin said. “We were just trying to stay close. That whole attitude changed. We started to win. We felt we could win every game we played, which was not the case in the early years.”
It was a bittersweet final year for Cronin. Spaulding went 4-14, lost its final 11 games and missed the tournament for the first time since 2006. “It was very frustrating,” he said.
In late February there came a silver lining. The coach was honored by the community when the center court at the Rochester Community Center was named Coach Tim Cronin Court — a deserving legacy for a man who selflessly devoted nearly 40 years to Rochester basketball.
“I’m going to miss the Tuesday and Friday nights,” he said. “I loved the competition of the game.”
He’ll miss the interactions, too — with other coaches and referees — as well as the Spaulding fan base, that grew from virtually nothing to a lively sea of red.
“Game night was fun,” he said. “That’s what I’m going to miss a lot.”
Cronin feels good about where the program is at, and believes it will continue to be good for whoever takes over as head coach.
As usual, he makes a recurring point about Spaulding basketball, one he drives home with a little extra edge to his voice — always sharing the credit. “I want to stress this is a team effort by a lot of volunteers out there,” he said. “I was fortunate to have a lot of good coaches. That’s a big, big part of it.”
No one knows better than Tim Cronin that in a sport like basketball there is no I in team.