July 4, 2017
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– July 4th is a special day in America, for obvious reasons. It’s America’s birthday.
The day should be extra-special in Atlanta — especially around Georgia Tech — for a reason not as obvious. It’s Bobby Cremins’ birthday.
This July 4th is a big one for the Bronx, N.Y., native who built Georgia Tech’s basketball program into a national power in his 19 seasons on the sidelines. He turns 70 today.
Now, to only convince HIM that’s it’s special….
“I really don’t get into it,” said Cremins, although he IS into the celebration — he’s going with wife, Carolyn, on a cruise to Amsterdam, England, where he’ll catch some of the British Open, and Ireland, his parents’ native country (they’re from County Kerry), where he’ll take part in a family reunion. “I was actually there for my 50th birthday. I took my two brothers, my sister and their spouses and we had a big party in Ireland. I wish I had time to have another big party, but I don’t. I have a lot of first cousins in Ireland.
“I’m doing well,” he added. “I’ve had my problems. I had some knee issues at College of Charleston and then I kind of hit the wall but I bounced back. I hit the wall at Georgia Tech once. I call them crises, but I bounce back, and I do have my energy back.”
That energy still amazes current Yellow Jackets basketball coach Josh Pastner.
“He doesn’t look 70. He looks about 35, he has the energy of a 25-year-old,” said Pastner, who’s never short on enthusiasm and is especially electric when it comes to Cremins. “I wish him a very, very happy birthday and many, many more. We’re all wishing him a great birthday and many more for many years to come.”
Of course, Pastner is impressed by Cremins’ body of work. Cremins, three-time ACC Coach of the Year (1983, 1985 and 1996), and a 2006 inductee into the Georgia Tech Athletics Hall of Fame, won 354 games at a .599 winning percentage. The nearest Yellow Jackets coach is John “Whack” Hyder, who recorded 292 wins in three more years than Cremins and would have required at least three more years to even get close to him. Cremins took home three ACC titles, led the Jackets to 10 NCAA Tournament appearances, including the program’s first Final Four appearance, had 13 straight winning seasons and seven 20-win seasons — four more than the program had when he arrived.
Cremins coached 23 players that were drafted into the NBA, 12 of them first-rounders, eight more in the second round. He oversaw 12 All-Americans, who earned 27 berths, and 18 All-ACC honorees getting 35. Together, Cremins and his players introduced the words “Thrillerdome” into basketball vernacular.
That’s how dominant the Cremins years were, and it came after two sub-.500 seasons on the rebuild, then an 18-11 season. In 1984-85, the Jackets broke through, going 27-8, winning the ACC Tournament then leading the Jackets to the NCAA Elite Eight and the first of a school-record nine straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
His teams also beat the best. Under Cremins, Tech recorded 63 wins vs. top-25 competition, 31 against top-10 teams, including a school-single-season record 12 vs. the top 25 and seven vs. the top 10 in 1984-85. He coached four straight wins against national No. 1’s — the Yellow Jackets program has a total of eight wins against No. 1’s. Cremins also is the only Tech coach to lead the Jackets to back-to-back wins over Duke (he did it five times) and was the first Tech coach to record a winning streak against North Carolina, including a pair of three-game winning streaks. It was the longest until Paul Hewitt won four straight over the Heels.
It’s no wonder Cremins is still considered the Gold standard for the Gold and White. He was one of the first people Pastner called when he got the Georgia Tech job.
“Josh, he was kind enough to call me the day he was being hired, and I did go over some things about Georgia Tech,” Cremins recalled. “But he deserves all the credit. I could have given him all the advice in the world, and if you told me he was going to win 21 games I would have told you (that) you were crazy. I trust Lute Olson. I was Lute Olson’s assistant coach at the (1986 Goodwill Games), and Lute thinks the world of him and gives him incredibly high praise. I was really happy when Lute told me all about him.”
Pastner, who played then coached under Olson at Arizona, similarly thinks the world of Cremins.
“I love Coach Cremins. He’s one of the nicest human beings alive,” he said. “Everywhere I go around the city here, as I’m trying to continue to rebuild the program back, the people that you run into and speak to love Coach Cremins and remember how Georgia Tech at that time was the hottest ticket in town. He was the bigger-than-life celebrity in a sense. He’s just a great man, and it’s an honor sitting in the chair that he once sat in.”
Pastner cuts off comparisons with Cremins based on his successful first season.
“I’m not even in his league. I get his dust, and I recognize that,” Pastner he said. “When you look at his body of work, for me to be compared with him is not fair to HIM. I’ve said, if we can have 1/10th of the success that Coach Cremins had, we’ll have had a good run.”
Assistant Coach Darryl LaBarrie fondly recalls playing for Cremins, even though his two seasons with him — Cremins’ final two seasons on the Flats — weren’t among his best. “Besides the white hair you think of the big personality, the infectious personality,” said LaBarrie. “He gets along great with everyone, always has a smile on his face, always trying to help people. He had a great relationship with the guys. Even though it didn’t go as well as he would have liked towards the end, he still never took it out on us. He was always positive, always upbeat. He stayed consistent.”
LaBarrie isn’t surprised at the continued love for Cremins in the metro Atlanta area.
“It says that his impact was bigger than just basketball,” he said. “There were his relationships in the community, that infectious personality. Obviously, you’d have to win a lot to have longevity, but you can still win a lot and not be liked and not be well-received. He was well-liked and well-received everywhere he went. His name’s on the court. He’ll forever be remembered and forever be respected in the Georgia Tech basketball community.” Cremins doesn’t plan on slowing down in 2017. He plans to be around Georgia Tech basketball and around the game, including past coaching stops Appalachian State and College of Charleston and his alma mater, South Carolina, as much as ever. “I’m on the NCAA Committee (on Infractions), I do a lot of charity golf outings, I’m on the council of Coaches vs. Cancer, and then I start going the games,” he said, especially pointing to the Big Ten/ACC Challenge game against Northwestern — Carolyn is an NU alum. “I go to Georgia Tech basketball games, I’ll go to Appalachian (State) games, I’ll go to (College of) Charleston games, I even go back to my alma mater. My alma mater has let me come back and watch a couple of games, but mostly Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech’s my baby. That’s the school that I love the most. It’s fun to me. I call myself, ‘America’s Guest.’” Pastner has told Cremins he can be his guest coach should he ever get the urge to coach again. “I’ve always said he has an open invitation to take over the team any time he wants to,” he said. “I said, ‘Any time you want to be the head coach, it’s your team. Your name is on the court.’ He has carte blanche. If he says, ‘Coach, I want to coach this game today,’ I’ll slide on down and he can take the team and I’m all for that.’” While flattered, Cremins is comfortable enjoying the view as a spectator. “He’s been incredibly nice to me. It’s his job. It’s his world now,” he said. “It’s exciting to see. Now nobody knows what to expect next year but they have their nucleus back and I’m looking forward to seeing the new players. These kids have confidence, and I know they’re not thinking NIT any more. I just hope it continues. It’s really fun to watch.” While he may have hung up his clipboard and whistle, he’s not done getting involved with youngsters. Two especially have his eye, grandsons Risen (3 ½) and Xander (1 ½). “They’re the big joy in my life right now,” he said. While based in Hilton Head, S.C., the joy of Atlanta is never too far away. “I just got back from Atlanta. I was at the Bobby Dodd Memorial Golf Tournament,” he said. “It was great to see Homer Rice there. He is 90. It was great seeing him. Whenever he talks about me. He always says, ‘Bobby is the only coach I know who could break an unlimited budget.’ Then he says, ‘Of course everybody knows I had to hire Bobby twice.’ Everybody gets a big kick out of that. So I enjoy getting to Atlanta. I have a brother in Atlanta and I enjoy coming to Georgia Tech for games, whether it be a football game but mostly basketball.”