Pete Herrmann reunites with Tech’s Gregory

Young Harris head coach Pete Herrmann watches from the sideline during the first half of an exhibition NCAA college basketball game against Georgia Tech, Friday, Nov. 1, 2013, in Atlanta.

Credit: David Goldman

Credit: David Goldman

Young Harris head coach Pete Herrmann watches from the sideline during the first half of an exhibition NCAA college basketball game against Georgia Tech, Friday, Nov. 1, 2013, in Atlanta.

In his 10-by-10 office in the Young Harris Recreation and Fitness Center — a few paces down the hall from the summit of the rock-climbing wall, perched above a 1,200-seat gym — there is room just for the essentials of Pete Herrmann’s past.

Smiling down on him from directly behind his uncluttered desk is a giant poster of Hall of Fame center David Robinson, personalized with the message: “To Coach Herrmann: Thanks for a wonderful final season and a great career.”

On the walls are collegiate team photos spanning nearly four decades and six states. The players never get older from one to the other, just the coach.

This is not a museum, but a working office in the North Georgia mountains. It is where Hermann, once the head coach at Navy and the emergency coach at Georgia after his boss Dennis Felton was fired, grows a little Division II program from seed.

He is 65 years old, slight of frame, bald of pate and remarkably rosy for someone who has spent all these decades indoors. His round specs lend a sort of Harry Truman-esque air of pragmatic wisdom. Very much the committed urbanite, he is now perched in the high woods. Yet for as seemingly out of place as he is, Hermann is completely immersed in the day-to-day doings of a team that in basketball high society gets all the notice of an elderberry festival.

“This is re-energizing for me,” he said. “In my 44th year (coaching), I can’t wait to get to the gym every day. The players have no agenda. They have no drama. They have no incidents. No nothing. They just want to play. And they play well together.”

Herrmann and the Young Harris Mountain Lions came down from the hills Friday to play Georgia Tech in a warm-up exhibition. The Division II visitor was, as expected, physically mismatched, losing 90-53. And Herrmann, grateful for the opportunity to play a bigger stage, sang the praises of the Yellow Jackets and their potential.

More than the innocuous stirrings of another season, that evening also was a reunion of sorts. It also was a case study in the curious twists of basketball lives.

Among those photos on Herrmann’s office wall is one from the 1985-86 Navy team. That was Herrmann’s last season as an assistant at the academy, before he ascended to the head coaching job. Standing next to him in the picture is a freshman guard, an undersized kid from Mount Prospect, Ill., who would barely see the floor during a season in which Robinson would deliver the Midshipmen to the Elite Eight.

Of that kid next to him in the photo, Herrmann recalled, “Not a highly recruited player out of high school. He was small, and we had seniors and juniors on that team who were way ahead of him in terms of playing time. Yet he was there digging every day and as much a team member as anyone on that team.

“He could shoot, could really score. A worker. Never gave in. Was there every day.”

Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory had other memories of that player.

“I was dumb. I really was. As a young guy if my players did some of the dumb stuff I did, I’d be killing them,” Gregory said.

That old team photo was the big topic of discussion when the two coaches met on the court Friday night for an extended, friendly pregame conversation. “I had to remind him, ‘I’m bigger than you in that picture,’” laughed Herrmann. In truth, both men are noted for having a low angle view of the giants they coach.

Gregory and two other freshmen from his class made it one year at the Naval Academy before opting out (Gregory transferring to Oakland University in Michigan, where he is enshrined in the athletic hall of fame).

Trying to play high-level athletics while attending a service academy is a heavy pack to carry. The attrition rate is high. By the time Gregory was facing his doubts, Herrmann was then the head coach at Navy, where he served until 1992.

“I met with Pete. He wanted me to stay,” Gregory recalled. “There was a good part of me that wanted to because I loved everything about it. Not many days go by that I don’t wish I had stayed another year to really give it a good shot. But things after that worked out pretty good.”

That wasn’t the end of their relationship, though. Strong bonds tend to form among those who share a gym, if even for only a season.

As Gregory went off to climb the rungs of coaching, he inevitably would run into Herrmann on the recruiting/coaching convention trail. They would take the occasional run together. Maybe share a meal. And always talk about the vagaries of coaching, with Herrmann in the role of instructor.

Along the way there was no foreseeing a meeting like Friday.

The one-time “dumb kid,” now 46, in charge of an elite program in an ACC that is gaining even more teeth and renown with expansion.

Versus his former coach, leading the sacrificial exhibition opponent, a small school from a lower division that had been on a long sleep before being restarted just three years ago.

Not that Gregory was totally surprised to see his old coach working the outskirts of the college game. Because a team is a team and a coach is a coach, and the basic need of one for the other is the same no matter what it says across the front of the jersey.

“(Herrmann’s) a lifer. He’s a coach, that’s what he does. He impacts people’s lives. He’s a guy that it doesn’t matter what level he’s doing it at, he’s going to change guys lives for the better,” Gregory said.

“This business can be tough,” the Tech coach continued, “and he’s seen some tough sides of it. But he’s in it for the reasons that coaches are supposed to be in it for. He doesn’t let that stuff get him down, he doesn’t let that stuff stop him from knowing he wants to coach, knowing he wants to teach guys how to compete.”

Herrmann had quite the scenic overlook when he took over the Midshipmen during Robinson’s senior season of ’86-87 — “We had the No. 5 team in the nation; I’m on top of the world. Everybody wants you to do clinics. You’re the greatest coach. But you’re not. You’re yourself. You have to be yourself and enjoy what you’re doing,” he said. Six years later, he was fired.

Herrmann was the right hand of head coaches at Kansas State, Virginia, Western Kentucky and Georgia. With the Bulldogs, he was the good soldier who took over the last 12 games of 2009 when Felton was fired.

When that duty was done, he was a soon-to-be 61-year-old coach who could not conceive of retirement. A chance to work in the NBA Development League was dangled then pulled away. Then he got the call from Young Harris, with proof that the profession still held some unknowns for a seasoned campaigner.

“When the athletic director called me that was my first question: Well, where is it?” Herrmann said.

He got directions, visited and discovered a nice new facility, an institutional commitment to athletics and a place only a couple of hours away from his daughter and grandson in Alpharetta. The program had been dropped in 1969, so they all would start over together. It would not be eligible to play in the Peach Belt Conference tournament — and for a place in the NCAA tournament — until the 2014-15 season. Herrmann took the job anyway.

“You come in thinking you’re going to win every game because you’re coming from D-I,” he said. “I found out three things my first year: Everybody can play; everybody can coach and everybody’s proud of their program. I found out right away you better get some guys who can play.”

He won five games his first season. But the graph of victories showed upward movement the next two seasons (22 and 17).

Herrmann will keep coaching, he said, so long as his health and his attitude are right. The setting may not be grand, but he still believes the job is. And on occasion like Friday’s exhibition, he may be reminded why he doesn’t want to retire.

“It comes full circle,” said Gregory. “I can remember I Day (Introduction Day), the first day you show up at Navy, getting from the airport to Halsey Field House and seeing him there. Me and the other freshmen, all of us together with the coaching staff. I’m at this point now because of men like that back then.”