ATLANTA — Seth Greenberg finally had something to celebrate. After enduring a regular season filled with one close loss after another, his Virginia Tech team hung on for dear life on Thursday night at Philips Arena to beat Clemson, 68-63, and advance to the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament.
When the buzzer finally sounded to end a game that looked as if it might never end, Greenberg threw his arms into the air as if his team had reached the elite eight of the NCAA tournament rather than the round of eight of the conference tournament. He hugged Erick Green and Dorenzo Hudson, his two seniors, and wrapped his arms around Clemson Coach Brad Brownell — seemingly as exhausted as he was joyful.
He talked in his postgame press conference about how proud he was of his team for hanging in through all the tight games (13 of 17 ACC games Tech has played have been decided by five points or less), for not quitting and for coming to practice ready to work every day.
He hugged his middle daughter Ella as he stood in a hallway outside his locker room and talked about what it will take for the Hokies to beat Duke on Friday night. Then he walked into his locker room into a barren office and sat down with a bottle of water in his hands.
A few seconds later he was crying. One question did it: “How’s Brad?”
“Oh please don’t get me started,” he said, tears in his eyes in an instant. “You’re talking about my big brother, my best friend. You’re talking about someone I literally used to talk to 10 times a day.”
As tough as this season has been for Greenberg, no loss has been as difficult as what his brother Brad has been going through. Last month, the NCAA handed down a five-year, ‘show cause’ ruling against Brad Greenberg for violations that took place while he was coaching 15 miles down the road from Virginia Tech at Radford.
Show cause means that if Brad Greenberg is hired by any NCAA school during the next five years, that school must ‘show cause’ as to why it should not face sanctions brought on by the violations Greenberg was charged with. As is often the case, if one believes the NCAA report, the cover-up was worse than the crime. Greenberg allowed an ineligible player to travel on the road with his team during a holiday — a minor, technical violation based on his not wanting to leave the player alone on an empty campus — but when the NCAA came to town instead of simply saying, ‘yes this is what we did,’ Greenberg took on the NCAA.
If you are Kentucky or UCLA or Duke or North Carolina you might have a fighting chance to take on the NCAA. Not if you are Radford. Greenberg was suspended, then fired. He’s coaching now in Venezuela.
“Actually he’s been lucky,” Seth Greenberg said, forcing a laugh. “Seven of the 10 coaches in that league have been fired this season and he’s still hanging in there. He’s been asked to coach the Venezuelan national team in the South American tournament before the Olympics.”
His face clouded. “Basically though he’s living in solitary. It’s not safe for him to go out of his apartment alone. Every time I talk to him or e-mail him I say to him, ‘Please be careful.’ He says, ‘Don’t worry, I’m fine.’ But I know he’s saying that so I won’t worry.” He smiled. “Of course I worry all the time.”
The Greenberg brothers were a feel-good story in college basketball a few years back. Brad, who had been the general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers and the Philadelphia 76ers, reunited with Seth (Brad is 58, Seth is 56) at Virginia Tech and helped him turn the program around. Then he got the job at Radford and reached the NCAA tournament by winning the Big South tournament four years ago.
Maybe, people speculated, the Greenberg brothers might someday meet in an NCAA tournament game since they would never schedule one another in the regular season.
They talked all the time. Seth, who has always been the high-strung one, had to calm Brad down early and often when things began to go south on the court at Radford. But at least he had the chance to talk to him constantly.
Then it all bottomed for Brad a year ago. As he was losing his job, Seth was close to losing his mind when the NCAA tournament committee again left his team out of the field even after the Hokies won two games in the ACC tournament, including a win over third-seeded Florida State. Then came this season — Tech is 16-16 — one that comes down to needing a win over Duke on Friday to have a shot at the NIT.
“I think I made some mistakes with this team,” Seth said. “Because we were young and we played well early I backed off from some things we normally do because I didn’t want to wear the young guys out. Plus, it was tough on Dorenzo and Erick because they went from being the other guys to being the main guys. That’s not easy.
“We stopped working on defensive fundamentals as much in practice as we had in the past. We lost some of our toughness. The last month we’ve gone back to that and we’ve gotten tougher. That’s why we won tonight, we got some defensive stops. The one thing about ‘so close,’ is that it gives you hope even if it’s tough to take some times.”
He paused and shook his head, his mind drifting back to his brother. “My family has gotten me through this,” he said. “What kills me is that I know the person, I know who he is.” He started to choke up again. “Brad’s the best person I know. He’s an unbelievable father. He’s made sacrifices for his kids people will never know about. The whole thing just hurts my heart. I feel emotionally scarred by it.”
For one night at least Greenberg could step back a little from that pain and enjoy what his basketball team accomplished. No doubt it will make sending the next e-mail to Venezuela just a little easier.
For John Feinstein’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/
feinstein. For more, visit his blog at feinsteinonthebrink.com.