Aug. 24, 2012
By Matt Winkeljohn
Before it began and even briefly after the Bobby Cremins “press conference” began Wednesday at Georgia Tech, it was easy to wonder if the thing could be pulled off without being awkward.
He didn’t part with the Yellow Jackets on perfect terms back in 2000, but then the older gentleman with really white hair began speaking, and the answer was … absolutely.
There is no known protocol for re-integrating a once-beloved basketball coach back into a program that he left with the feeling of everyone involved having brushed cacti. That said, once Cremins opened a vein Wednesday, which is to say his mouth, it felt like a lock that he will be a snug fit in his new role as volunteer ambassador for the program.
“It’s great to be here. Dan Radakovich had me speak to the athletic department this morning, and that was a lot of fun,” he said before sprinkling these comments in over the next half hour. “I would love to give something back to the school that I coached 19 years at and I loved …
“This is my baby, this is my life … Georgia Tech will always, always be a special part of my life until the day that I die.”
Beyond his official part-time job as assistant the president of the College of Charleston, where he coached most of the past six seasons, it is Cremins’ job to track down his former Tech players, assistants and support staff members.
Then, he’s to invite them not only back to campus for the Nov. 9 grand opening of McCamish Pavilion, but convince them to re-invest their energy and emotion in the program they all worked together to put on college basketball’s map in the mid-1980s and into the ’90s.
There are others involved in bringing back Yellow Jackets of yore. Roger Kaiser, who was as fine a player as Tech ever had, is for example tracking down the folks who played, coached, and worked with long-ago coach Whack Hyder.
This is not to say that isn’t also a fantastic choice, but that Cremins’ effect will reach furthest. He will provide an exponential benefit.
Cremins coached the Jackets for 19 years and took them to three ACC titles and the first Final Four in the program’s history in ’90. Those are the foundational numbers beneath his sizzle. No less important is the way he went about his work.
The Bronxite with the white mop top once flapped around the sidelines, spoke like a foreigner, laughed and generally acted like he was just hours removed from having won the lottery. At Tech’s helm, he became an unmistakable brand at just the right time to make him the right person at this time to help the Jackets breath life back into their basketball program.
Cremins came into the collective consciousness at the same time that college basketball began growing with supersonic speed into the monster money maker that just two years ago netted the NCAA a 14-year, $11 billion television contract for its grand March tournament.
He was so visible, and so distinct in what he said and did – he had such unmistakable personality – that it feels OK to suggest that the most indelible of all touchstones from the Jackets’ glory days is back on The Flats and pushing the Tech agenda.
Brian Gregory, the second coach to succeed Cremins at Tech, called Bobby before he was hired last year and spoke with him again the day he got the job. The decision to ask Bobby for anything more than advice did not come until last spring.
First, Cremins had to retire at the College of Charleston. He stepped down as coach before last season ended because of stress and health concerns, or, he said, when, “I was worrying about too many things that I shouldn’t have been worrying about.”
Then, after a shared dinner in New Orleans while the Final Four was there last spring, the new coach felt it was obvious that he should ask the old coach back in the fold. Problem was, Cremins was talking a lot that night, as is his wont.
“I decided on that night. Bobby was Bobby that night. A lot of stories. I couldn’t get a word in,” Gregory said. “As we were leaving that restaurant, he said, ‘Brian, I want you to remember … if there’s ever anything I can do to help you or our program, let me know.’ “
After conferring with his athletics director, Gregory issued the invitation without even yet knowing exactly what role Cremins might to fill. Soon, a plan took shape.
“The project is to get as many former players and coaches back … to help the program they care so much about,” said Gregory, who fully expects Cremins to hold up his end of the bargain with the, “Fire and passion that he was so well known for during his coaching career. It’s going to be a very, very special night.”
It was no understatement when Cremins said Wednesday that for him at Tech, “The ending was a little tough, but it was always handled with the utmost class.” He alluded to the great home-court advantage his program built and lost. He called that, “the buzz.”
That cycle has gone around again.
“Paul Hewitt brought it back. Then, things got a little tough for Paul and now we need somebody else to bring back the buzz,” Cremins said. “I feel something going on at Georgia Tech … I can remember when we had lines two or three blocks long of people waiting to go to games … We’ve got to get the Thrillerdome going again.”
The term “once-beloved” was used early in this story, but that might not be accurate. I get the sense that Bobby Cremins has remained widely beloved by Tech fans, although I would not suggest that there weren’t folks unhappy with the way the program was rolling in his later years on The Flats.
Coach Cremins’ personality remains distinct as ever, perhaps with the voltage turned down a bit. With a finite number of people you encounter in life can you apply the very rare term, “ingenuous,” as in the opposite of disingenuous. It fits Bobby not once but always.
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