Feb. 10, 2017
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
– Matt Harpring never saw his Bobblehead coming because one of Georgia Tech’s greatest basketball players sometimes still can’t believe he was a Yellow Jacket.
The first 1,000 fans at McCamish Pavilion before Tech’s 5:30 p.m. Saturday game against Boston College will receive Harpring Bobbleheads commemorating a player who, from 1994-98, became the second-leading scorer and rebounder in program history. He’ll sign autographs beforehand.
These are busy times. On Feb. 25, he and former Tech linebacker Keith Brooking will be inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, and next month he’ll be honored as an ACC Legend and the conference tournament.
“It kind of comes in threes,” he said. “I got a call about the bobblehead, and then a week later then Georgia Hall of Fame, and then a week after that get a call from the ACC tournament wondering if I could be an ACC Legend. Amazing.”
Not bad for a guy who grew up believing, “Baseball was the sport I thought I’d make it in; I loved baseball,” and played on a state championship team at Marist. The former War Eagle then was heavily recruited to play Division I football only to decide late in his senior year that he preferred basketball.
And he chose the University of Georgia.
Former Tech head coach Bobby Cremins didn’t recruit Harpring so much as he accepted him. In fact, Harpring recruited Cremins.
Few knew much about the basketball player. With so much recruiting/scouting done during summers on the AAU circuit, his hoops skills were something of a mystery because he spent his summers playing travel baseball.
“He was a three-sport athlete, and we were not able to see him play in the summer,” Cremins recalled.
The Tech coach was aware of Harpring as a junior; his son, Bobby Cremins Jr., was a teammate at Marist. That, though, was a much different player than the 6-foot-7 forward Tech fans remember.
“I grew,” Matt said. “I was a point guard my junior year, probably 6-1, 6-2.”
Mostly, he was noted as an option quarterback for one of the state’s top high school football programs.
Visiting Wisconsin and Northwestern on official recruiting trips, a funny thing happened. “It was January, I think, and they took me to a Big Ten [basketball] game,” he said. “I said, `I know I can play this game.’ “
Upon returning to Marist, Harpring said to head coach Ron Bell, “We’ve got to get some coaches in here, because I think I’m going to change my mind and play basketball.
“I still have my rejection letters from Coach K [at Duke] and coach [Dean] Smith [at North Carolina],” he said. “Cremins said. `I don’t think you’re an ACC player, and I’ll reach out and try to help you.’ I remember I was devastated.”
As the War Eagles were on their way to winning a state title in a 32-0 season with Harpring marching toward Georgia’s Mr. Basketball award, Georgia head coach Hugh Durham visited, and offered a scholarship.
“I was elated,” Matt said. “Quite honestly, I thought I was going to play at Georgia.”
His coach was persistent.
“Ron Bell called and said, `You better get your [rear end] over here,'” Cremins remembered.
Finally, former Tech assistant Kevin Cantwell saw Harpring, and, “He said, `Bobby, you’re not going to believe it,'” Cremins said. “I asked my son, and he said he was pretty good.”
When Matt visited Tech, the Jackets’ coach was softening toward him, a little, as Cantwell pushed and pushed.
“I went downtown, and he hears that I had committed to Georgia,” Harpring said. “I said, `Listen, coach; I think I can start.’ He wasn’t so sure, and he’d recruited [forward] Mike Maddox; he was a McDonald’s All-American, and he could’ve gone anywhere. I said, `I just want a fair shot.’
“He shook my hand, and I promised that I wouldn’t be a problem if I didn’t start.”
That was never a problem.
“Coach Cantwell was a big part of this, and I don’t think Bobby bought in,” Harpring said. “He didn’t say much, but after two days [of practice], he said [to the team], `This guy is killing all of you.'”
With a solid jumper, a bevy of post moves and indomitable work rate, Harpring started 24 games as a freshman, averaging 12.1 points and 6.2 rebounds.
His numbers grew over the next three seasons, when he joined former Jacket Mark Price as the only Tech players ever named first-team All-ACC three times. In his senior season, he averaged 21.6 points and 9.4 rebounds.
“Along with Tommy Hammonds, he was the toughest player I ever coached,” Cremins said. “He was just so tough, big and strong and mean, could shoot from the outside. He was a winner. Thank God, we didn’t miss on him.”
Harpring remains the second-leading scorer in program history with 2,225 points (trailing Rich Yunkus’ 2,232), and third-leading rebounder with 997 (behind Malcolm Mackey’s 1,205 and Alvin Jones’ 1,075).
He’s No. 1 in free throws made (508), No. 7 in steals (176), No. 7 in 3-pointers (211) and tied for 15th in assists (289).
His No. 15 jersey was retired by Tech before his final home game, and when he checked out of his final ACC Tournament game late in a loss to Maryland, the entire Greensboro Coliseum stood and cheered. He entered the Georgia Tech Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008.
“I remember after my junior year I was having the debate whether to come out, and sticking around,” Harpring said. “I’m so glad I stuck around. The standing ovation at the ACC tournament still gives me chills. I was very blessed.”
Following an 11-year NBA career averaging 11.5 points and 5.1 rebounds with Orlando, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Utah, Harpring took over as color commentator on the Jazz’ television network. Remarkably, he lives in Atlanta with wife Amanda, a dermatologist, and five children ages 11, 9, 7, 5 and 18 months.
“We have a good understanding that I would miss 21 games a year; I would pick and choose,” he explained. “They understand, but they don’t want me to miss the Cavs and Warriors. I fly a lot of Delta, take a lot of flights …
“I might have to fly out and take the red-eye back on Saturday to make sure I coach their Saturday morning basketball games … I made my money. This is not about money. It’s about home. I don’t want to give up my family.”
Cremins is glad he didn’t give up on Harpring.
“Very bright kid. The kid’s the total package,” the coach said. “I’m glad to see him get this recognition. Great story, great story … He was a leader by example. If you don’t put up, he’d get upset. He was a great student, and a workaholic.”
Harpring’s thankful Cremins gave him a shot, if barely.
“I’m a big believer in working your butt off,” he said. “I had luck. I had Bobby Cremins, a guy who didn’t believe in me at the beginning. He didn’t recruit a lot of players … The one thing is I compete to a fault.
“He made me so motivated, not that I needed more gasoline on the fire, but it almost made me go harder. I just wanted to start at Georgia Tech. His skepticism made me want to improve. He keeps up. I’ve met so many people who’ve never had a bad word to say about Bobby Cremins. Bobby never faked it.”
Neither did Harpring.