There was in ancient times a basketball coach who arrived at Georgia Tech with reclamation on his mind.
Bobby Cremins showed up at the flattened Flats with a you-ain’t-from-around-these-parts way of talking and an energy both radiant and magnetic. A little quirky. A lot effective.
By the time he led his team into the Miss Congeniality of postseason tournaments — the NIT — there was this gut feeling that the guy might actually be onto something.
So, you see, there is an existing script to the work that Josh Pastner is performing these days at Tech.
Whatever the era, these transformations are uplifting.
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“I have a lot of Georgia Tech friends, a lot. And this is the most excited I’ve seen them in a long time,” Cremins said last week from back home in South Carolina.
“I love everything I’m seeing,” he added. There scarcely can be a better endorsement than that.
Now, there are some notable differences between the setting he entered in 1981-82 and the one in which Pastner has found himself several decades later. For one, Cremins’ starting point was far more rubble-strewn: the team he inherited had beaten not a single Division I opponent the preceding season. Pastner’s predecessor, Brian Gregory, hardly left the program so barren.
Cremins doesn’t remember buying tickets or donuts for the students as Pastner has done this season. Like Pastner, he did campaign hard for support around both the campus and the community. Only, such was the state of the program at the time, one of Cremins’ messages to the frat boys was don’t bother coming to games if you’re going to wear bags over your heads.
Given such circumstances, it wasn’t until Cremins’ third season that Tech was qualified even for the NIT, while here in his first year Pastner has built these Jackets into a NIT semifinalist at least.
The small details aside, the tracks are parallel enough to keep this theme rolling.
“I had energy. He’s got a lot of energy,” Cremins said.
“Everybody questioned my hiring (when he came here from Appalachian State). Nobody knew what they were getting in me,” Cremins said.
And, as he knows, when Pastner was brought in from Memphis, fans on both sides of the hiring were uneasy over the Tigers missing the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons, and losing to the likes of East Carolina, Tulane and South Florida at the close of 2015-16.
“A lot of people were skeptical because what we were hearing about Memphis,” Cremins said. “Coaches make moves all the time and you never know what’s going on behind the scenes. Josh wanted to make a move and he saw something at Georgia Tech and it turned out to be an absolutely brilliant move.”
The other party in this comparison isn’t quite ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder — even if that was physically possible — with the example of Tech’s winningest coach, the one who at his peak took the Yellow Jackets to nine straight NCAA tournaments, including the 1990 Final Four. The guy whose name is written large on the court you now occupy.
“First of all, I’m not even in Coach Cremins’ dust,” Pastner said. “I’m not in his league. However, I think we have similarities in terms of that infectious enthusiasm, getting out and being positive.”
Who better, then, to talk about what this season’s surprising run in a nice, little tournament might mean for the future than someone who actually parlayed the NIT into substantial returns?
“It’s a step,” Cremins said. “It’s a step that you can build off of. We all know in our business what the main tournament is. I get mad that the NIT doesn’t get more respect. To me it’s a major step toward building a program. It’s everything positive.”
Turning 70 this summer, still on the periphery of the game as a Sirius radio analyst, Cremins didn’t exactly buy all the dire preseason predictions that Tech would be lucky to win a single ACC game. (In fact, it won eight, including seismic upsets over North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame.)
When he visited a Tech practice in the fall, Cremins said he was struck by the system Pastner was installing as well as the potential in big man Ben Lammers. The talent of freshman Josh Okogie soon would reveal itself. He thought junior guard Tadric Jackson was ripe for improvement. “I told my friends, you know, they might be a little better than you think,” Cremins said.
Still, Cremins said, “Everybody convinced me they were going to be terrible. People had convinced me they were in for a long season.”
This is the part where the Cremins’ model gets really demanding. By the next season after his first NIT appearance at Tech, Cremins’ bunch won the ACC Tournament and went to the Elite Eight in the NCAAs. His far-flung recruiting had brought in Mark Price from Oklahoma and John Salley out of New York, and the most entertaining era in Tech basketball had begun.
Thus it is in three words that Cremins sums up what is necessary to build out on the footing poured by Pastner this season: “Recruiting. Recruiting. Recruiting.”
“Fill the pieces,” he said. “That’s what Mark Price and John Salley did for us. You got to fill the pieces.”
“We’re going to have to get lucky here on some guys like he did,” Pastner said, showing a fine grasp of events that occurred before he turned teenaged. “We’re going to have to get some guys who are underneath the radar (as were Price and Salley at the time). That helped get the ball rolling.”
For, you see, pleasant surprise is replaced by unblinking expectation in the turn of a calendar page.
“You don’t want to stay in the NIT for the next few years. You want to make that next step. But it’s an important step,” Cremins said.
“The heart of the team is all coming back and these kids are not going to be thinking NIT next year. They’re going to be thinking NCAA and beyond.”