Love of the game pulled Cremins back
He was done, living a contented and retired life in Hilton Head.
That's what everyone thought, anyway.
When Bobby Cremins left Georgia Tech in 2000, he already had logged 21 years in college coaching. So the retirement honors came out in bunches -- highlighted in '03 when Tech named the Alexander Memorial Coliseum floor "Cremins Court."
Cremins moved to the relaxed island golfing community in South Carolina. He gave motivational speeches, helped out with Coaches vs. Cancer and did some TV work, taking what looked every bit like a nice leisurely stroll into his glory years.
Except Cremins was only 53. That shock of white hair on top of his head made him look older than he was and tagged him as the perfect candidate for AARP.
But that was never the plan.
"My game plan was to take one or two years off and go back into coaching," Cremins said. "One year led to six and I thought I'd never coach again. People stopped calling."
And then the phone jingled in the summer of 2006.
Three years later, Cremins is knee deep into what he calls his "mulligan."
As the Southern Conference enters its first year AC -- After (Stephen) Curry -- the team that's expected to soar to the top is headed by the man who was supposed to be out of the game. The College of Charleston, off its 27-9 record and ousting of Davidson in the conference tournament semifinals last season, returns two standouts and high expectations.
Like most coaches, Cremins prefaces those expectations with the bad news: Junior forward Antwaine Wiggins is out for the season with a torn ACL, leaving the Cougars without an experienced frontcourt player.
But the fact is, Charleston will be a hot pick to win the league.
The other fact? The one-time retiree got them there.
"Just like he put Georgia Tech on the map in the ACC, he's making it happen again," said former Charleston head coach John Kresse, who is now a special assistant to the athletic director and has known Cremins for years. "He came here with the same mindset and with his charm, his coaching ability, his résumé and his gift with people -- it's all coming to fruition."
Charleston originally approached Cremins in 2002 after Kresse, its own legendary coach, stepped down. But Cremins, who admitted he was burnt-out and exhausted after his 19 years at Georgia Tech, wasn't ready. So the school turned to Tom Herrion, who did a solid job but was fired in 2006 after a 17-11 finish.
Then-Winthrop coach Gregg Marshall accepted the job and turned it down a day later.
At which point, College of Charleston went back to Cremins. This time he was itching to say yes.
"The timing was exactly right," said Kresse, who was on the search committee and suggested Charleston go back at Cremins.
Nowadays, Cremins is hardly in any hurry to get out. The school inked him to a two-year extension recently, tying the coach up through the 2013-14 season.
"When I was out, people always asked me, 'Why don't you get back in?'" Cremins said. "Now that I'm here they want to know why I'm still coaching."
The truth is, despite that hair, Cremins is hardly Methuselah. At 62, he is five years younger than UConn's Jim Calhoun and two years younger than Syracuse's Jim Boeheim.
Heck, he'd be a grad assistant on the Penn State football staff.
Cremins is at Charleston for one simple reason: He believes he has more to offer. A basketball junkie who said he was blessed with the good fortune of growing up across the street from a playground in the Bronx, Cremins said he felt like he had lost his purpose in his six years away from the game.
He knew when he returned there would be "baggage," that the grind and the demands could weigh on him as they did before. But he also believed that the good outweighed the bad.
So far, Cremins said, he's been right. People told him that players had changed and were more desperate for instant gratification than ever. Instead, he's found that his quiet teaching instead of hellacious yelling still works, and that the problems his players bring to him now are no different than the ones his Yellow Jackets brought to his office in the 1980s and '90s.
He may not be able to talk music or movies with his players, but he can talk basketball.
"Coach Cremins is as in love with the game as we are," said CofC junior guard Andrew Goudelock, a Georgia native who said his father was "extra happy" when he heard who was recruiting his son. "His life is as much about basketball as ours. Just because he's older doesn't mean he can't relate. He does."
Part of it is instantaneous respect. Cremins has a Final Four berth (1990), three ACC tournament titles (1985, '90, '93) and six league Coach of the Year honors -- three at Tech and three from his days at Appalachian State (1975-81). He has helped 21 players get to the NBA.
Those are hefty numbers in a league that was stuck in basketball's shadows until Steph Curry came around.
"He's been through everything," said Charleston senior guard Tony White Jr. "His résumé says it all. You'd be foolish not to listen to him."
Next, Cremins would like to add a page to his résumé.
Charleston hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1999, but the Cougars got teasingly close last season. In the league tourney, they eliminated the team that owned the league (Davidson) and the player Cremins called "our rock star" (Curry).
But in the final, Charleston couldn't complete a furious second-half rally on Chattanooga's home court and ended up in the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) instead.
Now with Curry gone and the entire SoCon spying light inside the door frame for the first time in ages, Charleston is trying to elbow its way to the front of the line.
With Goudelock, a preseason conference player of the year candidate and the team's leading scorer last season, and White Jr., a 1,000-point scorer who started all 36 games a year ago, they have a good start. Mix in junior forward Jeremy Simmons and Florida State transfer Casaan Breeden (a one-time South Carolina player of the year), and the Cougars have that heady mix of experience and talent.
"It's crazy, it's been so long since we've been in the tournament," Goudelock said. "We talk about that so much. We had a big opportunity to do it last year and didn't capitalize on it. This year it's all about redeeming ourselves."
Not for the head coach.
For him, it's all about rejuvenating himself.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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