ONE-ON-ONE WITH BOBBY CREMINS

The College of Charleston basketball season is six months away, but you’d never know it. Not here, anyway. Not if you’re walking the halls of 284 King Street, the side street office of Cougars head coach Bobby Cremins.

In this modest office space along the historic downtown Charleston district, the 2007-2008 College of Charleston basketball season is underway. Preparations for the season ahead are being fleshed out in a steady stream of organizational and strategic meetings.

It’s just after 9 a.m. on sunny Spring Wednesday morning and Cremins bounces into the office with a burst of energy and a cell phone attached to his left ear. With a wave, point or snap of his fingers he begins directing his staff in between answering questions from the anonymous phone caller.

Within minutes, Cremins hangs up and begins scribbling numbers and vertical lines on a legal pad. The coach is smiling as the namesake of the Cremins Tennis Challenge takes an intimate moment to select the brackets for the weekend charity tournament.

And, why not? Who better to pull it together than Cremins himself.

When he left the game in March 2000, Cremins said his biggest challenge would be to fill the void that basketball would inevitably leave. “Basketball has been a passion for so long … can I replace it with something else? That’s what I’ve got to find out.”

So, for the next five years Cremins filled his newfound free time with golf. In between rounds of golf, he golfed some more. He played the role of motivational speaker, fundraiser for Coaches vs. Cancer and the Jimmy V. Foundation and led a six-week summer basketball program on Hilton Head Island for disadvantaged kids; so organizing his own fundraiser was no problem.

In those few minutes, it’s not about basketball, but only for those precious few minutes.

One year ago, Cremins was on the beach – literally. He was quietly retired and relaxing in a condo on Hilton Head Island. He had a wonderful career, a great legacy. The veteran coach walked away from Georgia Tech after a storied 19-year run. Cremins had a career record of 452-303 (.599%), 352-233 (.602%) over 19 seasons at Georgia Tech.

That’s when he started getting “the itch.” He wanted back in.

“I really did miss coaching,” admitted Cremins. “I thought being out six years, it was June, July, it was going to be seven (years). The more you’re out the less likely it is you’ll get back in. So, it looked like I was never going to coach again and that left a void in my body.”

“Damned if it wasn’t true!”

The Phone Call

Cremins picked up the phone one morning last summer. On the other end was the familiar voice of his college roommate and teammate at South Carolina Corky Carnevale.

“He called me when the job opened (at the College of Charleston),” remembers Cremins. “I told him, ‘Corky, you’re not gonna believe this but I’m thinking of getting back in’ … Then he called me back and said, they got their guy Gregg Marshall.”

Cremins thought maybe he waited too long, maybe it was too late to go back and Cremins thought to himself: “If I never coached another day, it was a great run. It was a great run.”

The next day Carnevale called Cremins again.

Carnevale: “You’re not going to believe this but Gregg pulled a Bobby Cremins.”

Cremins: “Corky, I’m not in the mood for this bullsh–!”

Cremins hung up on him. Carnevale called back and Cremins hung up on him a second time.

“Damned if it wasn’t true,” said Cremins, one year later. “Getting back in the business, Gregg Marshall pulling a Bobby Cremins? Imagine the irony in that.”

Within days of what was the lowest point in recent history for the College of Charleston basketball program, Cremins interviewed and accepted the job. His six-year hiatus was over in the blink of an eye and the College was able to put a positive spin on what was otherwise a public relations nightmare.

“The first couple months were a blur because I’d been out six years,” said Cremins. “I was hired July 3 rd which is highly unusual and I had to start recruiting for the following year, July 6th. When I first got here it was overwhelming at times.

“I had to put together a staff, I was averaging 50-75 calls a day, people looking for jobs, people recommending people for jobs, congratulations getting back in the game, the mail was stacked up in two boxes, the kids in summer school, academics, recruiting … it was wild. I had moments in the first few months where I was saying, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’” said Cremins.

Was he having second thoughts? Could Cremins pull another Cremins?

“I had been there before,” Cremins reminded himself. “I had been to South Carolina and back. There was no turning back this time but I knew deep down inside I was blessed to have this opportunity. This whole thing was God sent.

“So, the first couple of months I was struggling, being overwhelmed with everything, I kept saying to myself how lucky I was to be back in coaching and that’s what got me through the first couple of months.”

Cremins literally walked away from the stress. “My wife and I bought a condo downtown and what I do is take walks,” said Cremins. “I just get out and walk off the stress. I knew the business, coming back after six years, I knew it was going to be tough.”

Haunted by Wolves

But adversity is no stranger to Cremins.

At age 27, Cremins became the youngest NCAA Division I coach in history when he accepted his first coaching job at Appalachian State. Cremins posted a 100-70 record in six years at App State including an NCAA tournament bid in 1979.

That’s when Georgia Tech called. ESPN analyst Dick Vitale remembers telling Cremins “I told him he was out of his mind, because he couldn’t win there. They had no basketball tradition, and he wouldn’t be able to get players there because of the school’s curriculum. Shows you what I know.”

From 4-23 in 1981 (the year before Cremins arrival) to 27-8 in 1985 – and an ACC championship. Then in 1990, Georgia Tech went to the Final Four, with a 28-7 record and Cremins was named the Naismith College Coach of the Year.

But what did Cremins know that Vitale didn’t?

“A-C-C,” said Cremins emphatically. “Not too many people wanted the job at the time. To me it was an opportunity to coach in the greatest conference in America.”

On the surface it all sounds good, but truth be told, his motive to get back to the ACC ran much deeper.

It was a moment Bobby Cremins would rather forget. The oft-affable College of Charleston head coach squirms uncomfortably in his chair, his body language shifts and stiffens, and his eyes become glazed and shift to the floor. He looks haunted.

“We lost an ACC championship game in 1970 when our best player John Roche got injured in the semi-finals,” said Cremins, recalling the bitter 42-39 double overtime loss to North Carolina State. “That moment, that loss has been a heavy chain for me, it’s always bothered me. To this day it bothers me that we lost that game. It was one of the worst moments of my life. So when I got back in coaching one of my goals was to get back in the ACC and get to that ACC championship game and win it.

“We went undefeated in the ACC regular season,” Cremins continued. “We win the (ACC) tournament and first two games of the (NCAA) region are in Columbia – our home court – if we win those we go to the Final Four and we have a chance at a national championship.

“Once we lost that game, no region, only one team went then. It destroyed me it absolutely destroyed me. This was everything we worked for; it was set up to make a run at a national championship. We had a special team. This was a dream come true to be able to have a team like this and win a national championship and win an ACC championship for South Carolina. It was one of the worst moments in South Carolina athletic history. It about killed me, it about did me in.”

Unlike the who’s who of framed photos (Stephon Marbury, Larry Bird, John Salley) or the1970 black-and-white South Carolina Gamecocks team photo over his left shoulder or faded newspaper clippings that hang over, above, behind and in front of Cremins in his windowless office, this single game remains in H-D (high definition) in Cremins memory.

A season to … build on

Cremins made his return in, of all places, Georgia. The College of Charleston opened the season with a win on November 11, 2006 against Georgia State. But, soon after, the team hit the skids.

“When we were 3-6, I was not happy, I was very concerned,” remembers Cremins. “We had to dig in. I was supposed to go recruiting over Christmas and I cancelled all my recruiting to stay here and figure out what to do with this team.”

“Some people were saying maybe the game’s passed him by,” said Cremins. “And we had a defining moment. We were down to Chattanooga by 13 with eight minutes to go and we came back to win that game. That was a defining moment for this basketball team. Then we went on a great run after that.”

One win changed everything. Players started believing and the mood surrounding the program changed direction.

The Cougars roared through the New Year, going 12-1 from December 14-January 29, setting up an exciting post-season which ended in the Southern Conference championship against Davidson. “My goal was to try and have a good year, this year,” said Cremins. “We accomplished that goal. We won 22 games and got to the finals of the SOCON tournament, where we lost to Davidson for a NCAA bid. I thought we had a great year.”

The Cougars finished the season 22-11 (13-5 in SOCON conference play) but, more importantly, set the stage for Cremins to return to what he does best: recruiting.

Recruiting and Rebuilding

Cremins first true recruiting class was – and still is – a daunting challenge. Gone are seniors Dontaye Draper, Philip McCandies, Renardo Dickerson and David Lawrence. It’s a huge void in experience and leadership for the program.

“This is a very important recruiting class because we lose a lot,” said Cremins. “This recruiting class was as important as any recruiting class I ever had in all my years of coaching.”

The College of Charleston coach is also quick to point out, despite his reputation for being a great recruiter, this is a much bigger challenge.

“At Georgia Tech it’s more specialized,” he said. “You’re going after superstars, McDonalds All-Americans. Here you’re recruiting numbers. Recruiting is hard. It’s a lot harder than people realize. You have to sell yourself, sell your school, communicate well with people … I’ve recruited some great players but I lost some great players.”

Cremins also puts a heavy emphasis on academics and recruiting. “There are a lot of kids out there that academics are not important to them,” he said. “They skate by … and we gotta be careful about that. I have a rule, if a kid gets here and he’s in over his head or he’s not going to do the work, I will transfer him out. You have to take some risks, but you can’t take many. It’s a lot healthier to recruit a player who is sound academically.”

Yes, it’s not the famed ACC and academics are a priority but, still, this is Bobby Cremins. This is the same coach who wooed Stephon Marbury to Georgia Tech when all the heavies were taking their best shots. This is the same coach who hitchhiked, yes hitchhiked, to watch a recruit play.

“I was in Florida and there were no rental cars, they were all gone,” said Cremins. “So, I got on the road and hitchhiked. It was like 30 or 40 miles.”

What he doesn’t have in scholarship money, he makes us for in hustle. What he offers that Duke, North Carolina or any other major Division I program is heart, honesty and his word.

“I didn’t come back to win games,” Cremins said. “I felt I had something left to give. I wanted to build a program, teach kids and compete for a championship.”

And that is one thing a Cremins recruit can be guaranteed.

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