Bobby Cremins on Tech basketball: ‘We are back; we are relevant again’

Georgia Tech players hold the trophy as they celebrate their 80-75 win over Florida State in the ACC championship game Saturday, March 13, 2021, in Greensboro, N.C. (Gerry Broome/AP)

Credit: Gerry Broome

Credit: Gerry Broome

Georgia Tech players hold the trophy as they celebrate their 80-75 win over Florida State in the ACC championship game Saturday, March 13, 2021, in Greensboro, N.C. (Gerry Broome/AP)

Oh, the audacity of the question. Even for a point guard from New York, where they are born with an extra confidence chromosome, this one had real brass.

“Am I as good as those other guards you had?” Jose Alvarado, then a much-to-prove Georgia Tech freshman, asked former Tech coach Bobby Cremins back in 2018. The question covered an awful lot of ground, between the likes of Mark Price, Craig Neal, Travis Best, Kenny Anderson, Stephon Marbury.

Cremins chuckled at the memory Sunday, one day after Alvarado provided the fuel for Tech’s first ACC Tournament title in 28 years.

“I laughed and said no, not yet,” Cremins recalled. “I wanted to be truthful with him. But you know what? I thought about it this season and he definitely is now. He’s earned his way into that category.”

Besides winning a COVID-warped conference tournament, what Alvarado and his teammates have done here in March is to reanimate fond old visions of Yellow Jacket basketball. The ones that –—with the exception of a Paul Hewitt-led trip to the NCAA championship game — had largely gone dormant since Cremins departed at the dawn of the 2000s.

As recently as just a season ago, with Tech facing NCAA punishment for the dubious company (Ron Bell) that coach Josh Pastner had kept, Cremins found himself sometimes ducking the subject of Tech basketball. That’s an uncomfortable place to be for the man who took the Yellow Jackets to 10 NCAA tournaments and won three ACC tournaments in the 1980s and ’90s and whose name is scrawled on the home court.

The floor at McCamish Pavilion - Cremins Court - bears the name of former Georgia Tech basketball coach Bobby Cremins. (Johnny Crawford/AJC)

Credit: Johnny Crawford

icon to expand image

Credit: Johnny Crawford

“I didn’t like it last year; it was a mess on and off the court,” he said. “I got tired of it, I tried to get away from everybody because I didn’t want to hear about it.

“This (the ACC tournament title) means a lot. For me, it brings back a lot of fond memories. I know how Tech is, and they’ve been a little frustrated. Sometimes I would try to avoid them because I didn’t want to hear any negative stuff. And now Tech people are extremely proud.”

It is chest-beating time again for the Yellow Jacket basketball fan base. Cremins is only too happy to join that percussion section (March is doubly good to him, his first head-coaching alma mater, Appalachian State, is in, too, surprisingly). In church Sunday, when he intersected with a huge Tech donor, the two sung a few hosannas to Team Pastner.

Living the retirement life in Hilton Head, S.C., Cremins tensely watched the Yellow Jackets tournament final victory over FSU Saturday night. As Alvarado rolled around on the court amidst the post-game balloon-drop, radiating pure joy, a far tamer celebration awaited this program’s 73-year-old signature coach.

“I couldn’t go to bed. I stayed up and watched the ACC channel and had a cup of hot tea,” he said.

With its 80-75 win over second-seeded and 15th-ranked Florida State, the fourth-seeded Yellow Jackets won the team’s fourth ACC title and its first since 1993.

What Pastner has done is far from the reclamation that faced Cremins on his arrival before the start of the 1981-82 season. At that point, the Yellow Jackets had won but one conference game the prior two seasons. Within four seasons there, Cremins won his and the program’s first ACC title. Pastner worked a five-year plan.

In ’85, Tech won behind a wonderful point guard in Price and a transformative big man in John Salley. In 2021, it won with a relentless guard (Alvarado) and a tireless big man (Moses Wright). Some truths are timeless.

In ’85, Cremins said that winning the ACC Tournament confirmed that Tech had arrived. That, too, is no different here 36 years later.

Said Cremins: “It’s wonderful when you’re a champion. When you win championships, it puts you in a different level. I used to get tired of people saying Tech will never win another championship. I said that’s a bunch of crap.

“I think this says Georgia Tech is back. A lot of people have felt that Georgia Tech wasn’t the same. I hated it, thought at times it was unfair to Paul and Brian (Pastner’s predecessor, Brian Gregory). Sometimes the expectations were too high. The last several years it was like, well, we’re alright. The signal out there now is we’re back. Now the challenge is to stay back, which is not easy.

“We are back; we are relevant again.”

Sunday, Cremins had working an inexhaustible font of praise for everything around his favorite program. For the job Pastner has done putting air back in the lungs of Tech basketball. For a guard-driven team — don’t forget tournament MVP Michael Devoe — and the wealth of experience that is its foundational strength. And for Tech Athletic Director Todd Stansbury for staying with Pastner through some bad and embarrassing times.

And if you ask Cremins if he dares to believe now that Georgia Tech is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011 it can actually be a factor in those blessed brackets, you get no equivocation in return. This is no time for tepid support — heaven knows, there’s been enough of that.

“You better believe they’re going to make some noise,” he said. “Right now, whoever’s playing Georgia Tech, they’ve got their hands full.”