By On Basketball John Feinstein
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Bobby Cremins was living the life most of us aspire to. He had a house on the beach at Hilton Head and woke up many mornings facing one major decision: "Golf or tennis?"
His golf handicap, once the subject of a lot of kidding among his fellow basketball coaches, dropped from the mid-20s to a legitimate 9. He was keeping his hand in the game by doing ACC games on television -- a little travel, the chance to see old friends and have some fun. He did a lot of charity work, which was occasionally frustrating but for the most part rewarding. He took long walks on the beach.
The perfect life.
There was just one problem.
"I was dying a slow death," he said earlier this week. "I had lost my heart. I thought I'd be out of coaching for one year. I looked up one day and it had been six."
Cremins wasn't a coach who had had some success, lost a job and then had trouble getting back in. He was a historically successful coach at Georgia Tech, taking a program that was buried at the bottom of the ACC when he took over in 1981 and winning the ACC title four seasons later in 1985.
He recruited players such as Mark Price, John Salley, Tommy Hammonds and Kenny Anderson. In 1990, the Yellow Jackets went to the Final Four and scared the daylights out of a Nevada-Las Vegas team that would go on to bury Duke in the championship game.
"Bobby did as good a job as anyone in the country building the program at Tech," said Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, his friend and longtime rival. "No one ever had a tougher job than what he had when he got there, and no one could have done a better job."
Cremins was 34 when he got to Georgia Tech, 38 when he won the ACC title and 43 when he reached the Final Four. With his easy smile and outgoing personality, along with his distinctive Bronx accent, he was one of the game's hot coaches for a long while. But the escalator stopped going up after the 1993 season. That was the year Cremins was romanced all winter by South Carolina, his alma mater. Amid rumors he was leaving, Georgia Tech won the ACC tournament as the sixth seed, winning in the final over a North Carolina team that would win the national championship three weeks later.
Cremins did take the job at South Carolina soon after that, then changed his mind after three days and went back to Georgia Tech.
"Midlife crisis," he told people back then. "I didn't know what I wanted. But when I got to South Carolina, I knew I had made a mistake. I belonged at Georgia Tech."
Coincidence or not, things were never the same after that. There was a round-of-16 blip in 1996 when Stephon Marbury made a one-season cameo in Atlanta, but after that it was a struggle. At the end of the 2000 season, Cremins resigned.
"It was definitely time for me to go," he said. "I was burnt out. It was best for me and best for the school. I thought I'd sit out a year, re-energize myself and come back. It didn't work out that way."
There were queries when jobs opened but nothing that got Cremins's juices flowing again. So he kept working on his golf and his tennis and his charities and kept walking on the beach.
Until the summer of 2006. That was when the College of Charleston suddenly and surprisingly fired Tom Herrion, even though he had a solid record (80-38) after succeeding the legendary John Kresse, for whom the school's gym is named. Charleston quickly hired Winthrop Coach Gregg Marshall to succeed Herrion. But Marshall had Cremins-like remorse and went back to Winthrop two days after taking the job.
The phone rang in Hilton Head. It was Cremins's former college buddy Corky Carnevale, who is now a successful businessman in Charleston. "Hey Bobby, did you hear?" Carnevale said. "Gregg Marshall just pulled a Bobby Cremins and went back to Winthrop. Maybe you should think about the job."
Cremins yelled a couple of profanities into the phone at Carnevale and hung up. Carnevale called back; Cremins hung up again.
"The second time I just looked up at the sky and said, 'What's going on here,' " he said. "When Corky called back a third time, I just said, 'Okay, if they're interested, I'm in.' "
They were interested. On July 2, four days before coaches were allowed on the road to recruit, Cremins became Charleston's coach. There was one immediate problem: "I had to pass the compliance [rules] test before I could go out recruiting," he said. "No one thought I could do it in time."
He did it. Of course, the first two people he ran into on the road were Krzyzewski and Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim. Both asked him the same question: "Who took the test for you?"
Cremins felt he was back where he belonged. His first season was a success: 22 victories and a trip to the Southern Conference championship game, where the Cougars lost to a very good Davidson team. This season, with three starters gone, it hasn't been as easy. Charleston was 9-10 entering last night's game with Davidson.
"I'm a lot more stressed now than I was two years ago," Cremins said. "I don't sleep as well, and I'm under a lot more pressure. This is a lot like when I got my first job at Appalachian State, the difference being back then I was 27 and now I'm 60."
He laughed. "Not long after I started, one of my assistants and I drove to Charlottesville to see a high school game and drove back that night. When I got out of the car I was so stiff I almost couldn't walk. I said, 'Okay, I'm not trying that again.' But I'm learning and I'm enjoying it. I honestly believe I've added 10 years to my life by coming back. Like it or not, I need to be a coach."
He's asked often if he misses those glamorous days in the ACC, coaching against Krzyzewski and Dean Smith and Gary Williams and Terry Holland.
"No, because in a different way, this is just as challenging," he said. "Bob McKillop at Davidson is kind of the Mike Krzyzewski of our league. His team is good every year. There are other good teams, too. Plus, the expectations here are high because John [Kresse] built a monster with all those NCAA teams. It's not any harder, it's not any easier, it's just different."
His golf game has suffered. He misses the leisurely walks on the beach, and there are no mornings where he wakes up wondering whether to play golf or tennis.
"I'd like to do this five, six, seven years," he said. "Last year was a lot of fun because we had a good team. Playing in that conference final was a big thrill. But obviously I'd like to go the next step, I'd like to coach in the [NCAA] tournament again."
It has been 12 years since Cremins coached in an NCAA tournament game. It might not happen this year or even next. But Cremins can wait. For the moment, he's happy to have found his heart.