Great Expectations

Oct. 11, 2011

Media Day Photo Gallery

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

In a crowd more like those you want to see around Georgia Tech’s basketball coach, Brian Gregory was asked Tuesday about perceptions suggesting that the Yellow Jackets have little to be optimistic about as the start of practice is two days away.

“Perceptions” and “predictions” in this case were mostly code words for media predictions or appraisals, although it’s not impossible to find fans who think in similar fashion.

Some perceptions about Tech’s hire of Gregory are already in the book, before the Jackets play a game with him on the sideline. Softly spoken and gently written in the wake of his April hiring were suggestions that Tech “settled” for a mid-major coach (Gregory came from Dayton), and that the Institute had little choice as it was financially handcuffed to the buyout of former coach Paul Hewitt.

There’s bunk in that, and the explanations are lengthy and complicated.

In that vein, so was Gregory’s answer to the ticklish Tuesday question.

There must’ve been 15-18 media members outside Tech’s locker room, including three or four TV cameras, as Gregory was queried by a group three or four times larger than recent preseason gatherings. Take a deep breath, and prepare for a compound/complex sentence in his response.

“If our guys can get comfortable with who we are and what we need to do, and if they can not worry about any outside distractions or what other people’s expectations are, and if we have a single goal and a single mind that every day we’re going to work our tails off to get a little better, and get a little bit closer as a team . . . if they live up to my expectations in those areas, those are the only expectations they probably need to worry about right now,” the new coach said without coming up for air.

The new coach talks fast, and with tremendous energy, but there’s really only so much a coach can say when he’s in a situation like Gregory.

While it’s the way of our world – and especially that of mainstream media — to predict success or failure, valid measure will only be known through the merger of performance and time. Add a sprinkle of academic achievement here or there to flavor the perception cauldron, and then we can really evaluate.

What’s he supposed to say? “That’s B.S.; I’m top shelf, and they’re paying me to prove it.”

Gregory inherited a once-proud program that has sagged. Its fan base had grown dispirited. The Jackets’ academics slipped, and cost the program scholarships on a couple of occasions, making Tech the only school in the ACC to be hit with APR-related penalties in the past six years.

When I asked him six or seven weeks ago about the notion out there in the ether than Tech settled on him, or stepped down in some way to hire him, his answer was better than what he said Tuesday.

In so many words he said that he wasn’t about to waste energy fretting about the perceptions of others in part because if he did, then he would be sending a message to his players contrary to one he preaches in several forms: worry about what you can control, not what you can’t.

When Mfon Udofia was asked Tuesday asked about the scuttlebutt surrounding Gregory when he was hired, you know, the “settled” stuff, and the mid-major mumbo-jumbo, the junior guard looked absolutely stumped.

“I wasn’t informed of any of that news,” he said haltingly moments after answering friendlier questions in machine-gun fashion. “I just knew we got a new coach, and he was from Dayton and Dayton had a good program. It doesn’t matter if he came from a high-major, a mid-major, a low-major . . . a good coach is a good coach.”

Udofia, for the record, offered favorable early returns on the new boss: “He’s a really high-energy guy, big on details.”

Udofia’s absolution notwithstanding, Tech and Gregory are fighting bias in the court of perception. This is not imaginary.

When ESPN.com’s Dana O’Neill wrote about him Aug. 1, nearly four months after he’d been hired after the most successful coaching run in Dayton history, the reporter wrote this:

Even before news of the NCAA troubles broke, people wondered whether the impossibly tall task, coupled with the financial burdens left by Hewitt’s buyout, scared off the hot name candidates, making Gregory more the guy that said yes as opposed to the guy Georgia Tech wanted.

Some opinion apparently is driven by people who didn’t do much research.

Here are some points to be pondered:

• Gregory’s compensation package of about $1.1 million per year, while less than Hewitt’s $1.3 million or so, is six figures higher per year than the package Clemson gave new coach Brad Brownell a year earlier. It compares favorably to the new contract of Miami basketball coach Jim Larranaga, who took a mid-major to the Final four a few years ago.

If pitted against coaches whose squads made the NCAA tournament last March, Gregory’s compensation would rank roughly in the middle. Five minutes of internet work will show that.

• Under-reported was the fact that Gregory was attractive to Tech officials not only because of his teams’ records on the court, but also for his squads’ sterling academic achievement and graduation rates.

• Plus, Gregory had previously taken over a program freshly placed on NCAA probation. The Jackets were not at the time of his hiring on probation, but during the interview process he was informed of an NCAA investigation of Tech’s program, and knew it was likely the Jackets would be penalized. He had moved into a similar situation at Dayton, and pointed the Flyers upward.

• He had several lucrative head coaching opportunities elsewhere in recent years, and if you dig around with your internet search engine you can find references to Oregon (Nike money galore), Iowa, DePaul, NC State, Missouri and others. Gregory stayed put each time, in part because he had a good thing going at Dayton.

But Gregory chose Tech after Tech chose him. He had a choice.

The former Michigan State assistant, who rode the assistant’s trail all the way to Final Fours and a national championship, probably maxed out at Dayton. He had a good thing, but perhaps he sensed it would be far more difficult to turn it into a great thing there than it may be at Tech.

At Dayton, he built a program to the point where its anxious fan base came to consider 20-win seasons substandard.

After a grace period of indeterminate length, Tech fans will come to expect 20-win seasons and more. The bet here is Gregory likes his chances of pulling that better in Atlanta than he did in Dayton, and that’s why he’s here, not that he’s wasting energy on the perceptions or expectations of others.

It’s human nature to be annoyed when people say or write things about you that are not flattering, but this is a tiny blip by way of relevance. Who should really care what media members or fans in Clemson, S.C., or Boston, or Winston-Salem think in this case? What difference would it make? Will fretting sink a game-winning jumper? Swing a recruit? Push a player to graduate?

Hey, Gregory has expectations, and if they’re met, he has a prediction.

“If [players] can live up to my expectations . . . ” Gregory said, “I’m just a firm believer that if you take care of the process, then the performance takes care of itself.”

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