Chasing Ghosts: Can Georgia Tech find Bobby Cremins-era magic?


Throughout the offseason, ESPN will take a closer look at the college basketball programs that have faced the challenge of moving on from a single historically revered coach, evaluating the successes and failures they have experienced along the way.

This week, the "Chasing Ghosts" series continues with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, a top-shelf ACC program for much of the Bobby Cremins era that has faded to the second tier.

History | Roundtable: Where Georgia Tech went astray
Previously in Chasing Ghosts: UCLA | UMass | UNLV | Indiana | St. John's | North Carolina | Arkansas | NC State | DePaul | Georgetown

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Icon: Bobby Cremins

Seasons coached: 1981-2000
Key accomplishments: 354-237 (.599) record, 10 NCAA tournaments, one Final Four (1990)

"There were no expectations for this program before Bobby Cremins, but he set a pretty high standard. Now that we've had a couple of years below that, everyone is unhappy. It's pretty ironic." -- Former Georgia Tech star Mark Price, upon Cremins' 2000 resignation

"Bobby is a genuine star. He is truly one of the great coaches in ACC history and certainly one of the most-liked. He put Georgia Tech on the map." -- Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, in 2000

"At the end of the day, we just didn't win enough games. It's part of the business." -- Paul Hewitt, following his 2011 firing as Yellow Jackets coach

"When you're in coaching, you want to have an opportunity to win a national championship. You want to be able to compete at the highest level. You want to have a championship program year in and year out. I truly believe Georgia Tech, the job here, is a true gold mine." -- Josh Pastner, at his 2016 introductory news conference

Ranking the Bobby Cremins chasers

3. Josh Pastner (2016-present), 48-53 (.475) -- Three-plus years after it happened, this hire still seems odd -- coaches on the hot seat in the American Athletic Conference, as was Pastner's situation at Memphis, don't typically graduate to ACC jobs. But Tech fans hoped then-athletic director Mike Bobinski knew something they didn't, and after three seasons without a return to the NCAA tournament, they're still hoping.

Pastner received high marks out of the gate -- he beat three ranked teams in his first month of ACC play and guided the Jackets to the 2017 NIT final -- but it's been tough sledding since. Year 4 will be crucial for Pastner, especially in a state where Tom Crean and a star-studded young Georgia team are threatening to dominate any basketball-related headlines. Transfers Jordan Usher (USC) and Bubba Parham (VMI) will be the most notable new faces for a Tech team that is not obviously earmarked for 2019-20 improvement within an always-rugged ACC.

2. Brian Gregory (2011-16), 76-86 (.469) -- Gregory arrived from Dayton with little fanfare and a decidedly low-market contract for the ACC -- he earned $1 million per year thanks in large part to the $7.2 million buyout the school still owed Paul Hewitt. (Richmond's Chris Mooney and VCU's Shaka Smart were also mentioned as candidates in reports of the time). Gregory was fired five years later without an NCAA tournament appearance -- the school's 21-15 record and NIT bid in his final season of 2015-16 were the high-water mark.

Gregory benefited from the $45 million renovation of the Yellow Jackets' arena, the McCamish Pavilion, but failed to secure any truly transcendent recruits, and that fact helped spell his demise in a league that produced 28 NCAA tournament teams in his five seasons in charge. Gregory just completed his second season at South Florida, where he led the Bulls to a College Basketball Invitational title in 2019.

1. Paul Hewitt (2000-11), 190-162 (.540), five NCAA tournaments, one Final Four (2004) -- Strange though it might seem, Hewitt led the Yellow Jackets to the NCAA tournament five times in 11 years ... and was deemed a failure. Part of the issue was how quickly he started -- Hewitt ended the program's four-year NCAA tournament drought in his first season and had the Jackets within 40 minutes of a national title in his fourth. But the rest of his tenure was a roller coaster, and when attendance-challenged Tech finished with a losing record for the fourth time in six seasons in 2010-11, then-AD Dan Radakovich and president Bud Peterson had seen enough.

Hewitt produced a raft of NBA players -- Chris Bosh, Jarrett Jack, Iman Shumpert, Thaddeus Young and Derrick Favors all played for Hewitt in Atlanta -- but could not translate that recruiting into consistent success. Hewitt, whose much-publicized $7.2 million buyout just recently came off the books at Tech, subsequently coached George Mason for four seasons (2011-15).

Roundtable: Where Georgia Tech went astray

The ACC coaching legends of the 1980s -- K, Dean, Jimmy V, even Lefty Driesell -- are ceaselessly celebrated in a way that Bobby Cremins, who took a program with one NCAA appearance in its history before his arrival to 10 more tourneys and a Final Four, is generally not. Can you make a case for Cremins deserving more respect among their ranks?

Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: He deserves more respect. I think Cremins is a victim of the numbers game, and it's not his fault. Cremins and some of his colleagues weren't routinely playing 35-plus games every year. Jay Wright has averaged nearly 32 wins since the 2013-14 season. At Georgia Tech, Cremins played more than 32 games just six times.

Why does that matter? Because Cremins is currently 43rd on the all-time wins list (586). He didn't crack the 600 club, which features active coaches such as John Calipari, Bill Self, Tubby Smith, Tom Izzo and Lon Kruger. I think it's difficult to remain relevant because so many folks just look at the numbers and a Final Four appearance 30 years ago and it doesn't really register. That's unfair, but it's the reality for some of the great coaches from a past generation who never won a national title and didn't play the supersized schedules today's leaders enjoy.

Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: I think you can certainly make a case that Cremins deserves more respect among the best coaches in the past 30-plus years, even if it's at the tail-end of that discussion. He went to nine consecutive NCAA tournaments -- 10 in total -- as well as a Final Four in 1990. As a program, the Yellow Jackets have been to just one other Final Four and six other NCAA tournaments. And while the ACC is still arguably the best league in the country, it might have been even better back when Cremins was on the sideline.

There are reasons Cremins doesn't always come up in the conversation, though. He never won a national championship like Krzyzewski, Smith or Valvano. Driesell won an NIT championship, had sustained success at four different programs, and came up with Midnight Madness. Cremins didn't have the stories of Valvano -- although he is a colorful character who was beloved by those who knew him during that era. That quartet had more of a lasting impact than Cremins, but in terms of purely on-court success, Cremins belongs in the conversation.

Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist: My sense is that Cremins is extremely well-respected where it counts most -- among his coaching peers. I vividly remember a reception for the late high school coaching legend Jack Curran of Archbishop Molloy (New York) at the 1990 Final Four, with Georgia Tech in the field. When Cremins made a surprise appearance, surrounded by pretty much everyone in the college coaching pantheon, he was greeted like royalty. It's also worth remembering he won 20-plus games four times in his five full seasons at the College of Charleston. Coaches know coaches, and they all knew Cremins.

Georgia Tech has posted a winning ACC record in just one of the 23 seasons that followed Stephon Marbury's defection to the NBA in 1996 -- the 2003-04 squad that reached the national title game went 9-7 in the league. Is there a simple explanation for this program's sustained irrelevance, or is it complicated?

Borzello: That stat about one winning ACC record in 23 seasons is unfathomable, but it's not an easy job. It's hard to get kids into school, and the budget is among the worst in the ACC. The facilities are fine. Georgia Tech opened a new practice facility in 2009, and though the home arena is the oldest and second-smallest in the league even after the recent renovation, it can have a good atmosphere. But the Yellow Jackets should undoubtedly be better than what they have been.

It's complicated, though. There's enough talent in Atlanta to keep Tech afloat, but with big-name programs continuing to come into the city and take the top kids away for school, it has shrunk the talent pool for Tech. Of the six players from Georgia on the Yellow Jackets' current roster, four started their college careers at a different place. Georgia has done a better job locally, both before and after the arrival of Tom Crean. I think another factor was the money the school owed Paul Hewitt after it fired him; it kept the salary pool too low to hire a big-name replacement. And then five more seasons of mediocrity made this a rebuilding job for whomever took over after Brian Gregory.

Medcalf: There's no way to dismiss that subpar record in ACC play, but I also think Georgia Tech is the DePaul of the South in terms of the way it's judged from the outside. Folks say things like, "Just go and get those Atlanta kids and you're good." Yeah, OK. Good luck snagging those Atlanta kids. But that's still the pressure every Georgia Tech coach has encountered. That's the expectation the school's brass has promoted. And it hasn't been a realistic expectation in the one-and-done era.

The 2003 Atlanta Celtics AAU squad featured future pros Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Brandon Rush, Javaris Crittenton and Randolph Morris. Howard and Smith turned pro. Rush went to Kansas. Morris chose Kentucky. Only Crittenton picked Georgia Tech. Nothing has changed -- the top kids in Georgia will have a multitude of options. And the Yellow Jackets, in some cases, won't be on their lists. Georgia Tech fired Hewitt a year after he won 23 games and reached the NCAA tournament, seven years after his Final Four run. Hewitt was doing the job at a difficult place, and the school fired him. It's still looking for someone to exceed what he achieved there.

Lunardi: The law of unintended consequences is still at work in the conference realignment era. Some schools have dramatically benefitted from their new or adjusted partnerships (e.g., Villanova, Notre Dame), while others have all but fallen off the basketball map (e.g., Pitt, Missouri). Clearly Georgia Tech is in the latter group. In Cremins' heyday, a really good Georgia Tech team could see itself landing in the top two to three spots in the ACC. Today? A simple place in the top half of the league seems almost impossible. In addition to all the other factors working against Georgia Tech, the mere fact of ACC expansion has shoved the Yellow Jackets down the totem pole.

Josh Pastner enters the fourth year of a deal that runs through the 2022-23 season. He hasn't reached the NCAA tournament, is working for an AD who didn't hire him (Todd Stansbury, who was a student at Tech during the launch of the Cremins era) and has largely been routed by in-state foe Tom Crean on the recruiting trail. Can you give Georgia Tech fans reason for optimism? Is this program making progress?

Borzello: Georgia Tech should be better this season after showing flashes of improvement down the stretch last season. Jose Alvarado and James Banks looked like a very solid inside-outside duo during ACC play, and Michael Devoe is a former top-100 recruit who can really shoot it. But the level of optimism for the Yellow Jackets seems lower than it was after Pastner's first season, when he was ACC Coach of the Year and led the team to the NIT championship game. Georgia has done a better job than Tech recruiting within the state, including landing top-five prospect Anthony Edwards in the 2019 class.

There were 11 ESPN 100 prospects from Georgia in the 2017 class, including Collin Sexton and Wendell Carter. Ten left the state, and one went to Georgia. There were six ESPN 100 prospects in the 2018 class. All six left the state, including two to Kentucky. Only two Georgia natives were in the 2019 ESPN 100, including Edwards. Overall, there have been 19 ESPN 100 prospects from Georgia in the past three recruiting classes; Georgia Tech has landed zero. That needs to change for the Yellow Jackets to take the next step under Pastner.

Medcalf: When you're at a school that's trying to build a talent pool, one unexpected move can change everything for a coach. I don't think anyone expected Josh Okogie to blossom into a first-round pick in the 2018 NBA draft. After that move, Pastner told me he wasn't sure where the shooting would come from after losing a guy who had made 38% of his 3-pointers that season. Without Okogie, he hasn't had that seasoned star. But Alvarado had 10 games with 17 points or more last season. Pastner's current group has to take the next step because Crean is a relentless recruiter who has already made his mark within the region. This feels like a crucial season at Georgia Tech for everyone involved.

Lunardi: Fair or not, I would bet against Pastner being the coach who leads Georgia Tech back to sustained NCAA tournament success. It might simply be a matter of poor timing for him. Odds are his time runs out before the Yellow Jackets are truly ready -- as a program -- to win again.

Georgia Tech has some of the tougher academics in the ACC. From a standpoint of athletics resources (budget, facilities), things are improving, but it's still in the bottom half of the league. With all that in mind, what can Georgia Tech realistically expect to be in college basketball? Which schools with similar profiles have figured out how to win?

Lunardi: I see the most reasonable comparables outside the ACC. Vanderbilt and, to a lesser extent, Northwestern come to mind. If Vandy can find a way to more than occasionally step up amid the Kentuckys and Floridas of the world, Georgia Tech could build a model that sometimes threatens the entrenched ACC powers. One difference, of course, is that more ACC schools really care about basketball, which can be both a blessing and a curse.

Medcalf: Per Department of Education data, both West Virginia and Georgia Tech spend about $30 million combined on football and men's basketball. Few teams face the logistical challenges that WVU endures every year given its geographical realities in the Big 12 -- call that a wash with whatever academic hurdles Georgia Tech encounters.

Bob Huggins doesn't get five-star kids. But he has finished with a sub-.500 record in the Big 12 -- arguably the nation's best over the past decade -- just twice since the school joined the conference in the 2012-13 season. West Virginia has been a player on the national scene. If the Mountaineers can do it in a tough Big 12, why can't Georgia Tech, a school with a more fruitful talent pool within the region, not manage to compete at a higher level in the ACC?

Borzello: There are certainly worse jobs in the ACC, and some of those lesser schools have achieved far more recent success than Tech. For example, look at Florida State. The Seminoles have more of a national brand when it comes to athletics, but they recruit Atlanta (and Florida), they have mediocre facilities, it's hard to get there and it's a football school. Yet they've achieved far more success, both on the court and on the recruiting trail, than Georgia Tech. Why can't the Yellow Jackets be like Florida State? Or Miami? Both schools have severe drawbacks and negatives when it comes to their basketball programs, whether it's facilities or recruiting base or tradition, but they're consistently in the middle of the pack in the ACC and fighting for NCAA tournament appearances. That's about what Tech should aim for.

Heading into just about every season, Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and Louisville are going to be expected to finish ahead of Georgia Tech. Syracuse will be always be in the mix. But Tech should strive to finish in that next tier, alongside the Florida States, the Miamis and the NC States of the league.

Next week in Chasing Ghosts: UConn