Brian Gregory couldn’t be certain when he drove to meet his boss Monday if he still had a job.
The man goes through every day seemingly walking on sunshine amid torrential downpours, but even he understands 51 conference losses in four seasons usually leads to cold stares and opening remarks from an athletic director along the lines, “Have a seat. On second thought, stand, This won’t take long.”
“I’m realistic — I’m not delusional,” Gregory said Tuesday.
There’s a significant segment of the worn and jaded Georgia Tech fan base that believes athletic director Mike Bobinski is delusional if he truly believes Gregory can turn the Yellow Jackets into a winning product next season, something he hasn’t accomplished in his first four years.
Gregory gets that. Let’s put aside for now that he inherited the inbox from hell for a college basketball coach: an athletic department struggling financially and committed to paying an ex-coach $7.2 million (there goes the budget); a program punch-drunk from NCAA sanctions and slapped for academic deficiencies; a roster most definitely in the shallow end of the talent pool.
Because aside from all of that, a lot of folks just don’t believe Gregory is that good of a coach and/or that he’s out of his league in the ACC.
In the world of statistical probabilities, converting believers after records of 4-12, 6-12, 6-12 and 3-15 in a conference that includes Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, Virginia, Notre Dame, Syracuse and others seems akin to a roulette player pulling his last $1 chip out of his pocket and asking a stranger, “Pick a number between double-0 and 36.”
But Gregory believes. Of course he believes.
After meeting for a second time with Bobinski, who assured him he would be brought back for a fifth season, the coach didn’t concern himself with the likely peripheral reasons for that: That Tech simply can’t afford to make another coaching change now. He instead jumped on a flight Monday for a planned recruiting trip, which he “never had a thought of putting on hold.”
What does he tell recruits after a season of so many defeats?
“I tell them, ‘We were 10 possessions away from an unbelievable season, and you can be the guy who makes the difference,’” Gregory said.
And then: “I have a great belief that we’re going to take a big jump forward next year. I believe in our players, I believe in our ability to bring in a couple of guys (in recruiting) and I believe we’re going to take a step forward. And, yes, I’m a positive guy. But I know we’re at the point now where we need to prove it on the court, and I have no problem with that at all.”
Gregory met with Bobinski for the first time last Friday, three days after the team’s ACC tournament loss to Boston College. He said “95 percent” of the meeting was the coach telling the athletic director the plan for getting better. The other 5 percent about the uncertainty of the coach’s future.
The fact the program is now on a sound foundation academically and the team is competitive, but losing close games obviously isn’t good enough. Gregory told the players as much after the season: “I told them that you get to a point where you don’t get credit for that any more. You can’t accept being close. Losing has to hurt a little more. There has to be more of an edge now, and sometimes an edge comes from the disappointment you’ve been through.”
His bullet points to Gregory: improvement of the current players; adding one to two impact players, whether through a freshman recruit, a junior college transfer or a fifth-year senior; working on players’ mental approach and confidence in critical moments of games; improved strength and conditioning; shoot better.
Shoot better. That’s always a good one.
Tech shot 40.8 percent, which ranked 287th in the nation, and 26.7 percent from 3-point range, which ranked 343rd (of 345). Amazing how dumb a coach can look when players are missing open jumpers.
The Jackets played hard. Too often, they just didn’t play well, especially in the late moments of games.
“There’s no question there were times it wears on a guy’s mind,” Gregory said. They start thinking, ‘Where’s the next sucker punch coming from?’”
With a healthy core of his team returning, it follows that one of his biggest coaching challenges is having players rid themselves of those doubts.
As for convincing skeptics that he can succeed, there’s only one cure for that. Tech has been losing for too long, and Gregory doesn’t have a local winning resume. So neither get the benefit of the doubt.
Gregory realized he might get fired after the season, even with Tech’s financial issues. But, “I didn’t let it consume me. If you’re worried about things other than what’s in front of you, your mind kind of divides. You’re doing a disservice to your guys.”
Tech has extended him a lifeline. Some disagreed with the decision. Gregory has one year to prove them wrong.