Bobby Cremins is a former college basketball head coach at Georgia Tech, Appalachian State and College of Charleston. Cremins was the Naismith College Coach of Year in 1990 and won the ACC tournament in 1985, 1990 and 1993. Bobby is currently a member of the NCAA infractions committee.
In this interview Bobby and I discuss playing against Shaquille O’Neal during his 1990 Final Four run, recruiting wars and the era when the NCAA tournament became more popular than the NIT.
SHAFIN KHAN: Who were your idols growing up?
BOBBY CREMINS: Bob Cousy. I grew up in New York and we would go to the Garden and watch double headers. I started really watching the Celtics. I was a point guard so I loved the way he played and the way he passed the ball.
KHAN: Who were some of your basketball mentors?
CREMINS: I wanted to be a player. I wanted to play in the NBA, that was my number one goal. My mentor was my grammar school coach. His name was Jack Lyons. He taught me how to play but he was definitely one of my mentors. I never thought about coaching when I was younger, all I wanted to do was play. I wanted to play in college. I wanted to win a scholarship to college which I did and I wanted to play in the pros which I did not.
KHAN: When do you feel the NCAA tournament started to become the more popular tournament over the NIT?
CREMINS: That’s a good question. I can’t think of the year. It just got big all of a sudden. The Final Four was just so big. We had a coaching convention at the Final Four. Once we started to have those Final Fours and the crowds and the enthusiasm it just overtook the NIT. I know at one time the NIT was equal to the NCAA [tournament]. When I played, the NCAA [tournament] was the most important. The NIT was prestigious. I played from 1965-1970. So, somewhere in there 1964, 1965, 1966 was when it became more popular. We started realizing the NIT was for people who couldn’t play in the NCAA [tournament] and they started calling it the “None Invitational Tournament” and the NCAA [tournament] just blew up. They went to domes and it became so big. That’s a good question for an older coach. You know who can answer that question for you? Lou Carnesecca.
KHAN: Do you have any good Frank McGuire stories from when you played under him at South Carolina?
CREMINS: He’s like the godfather. He was a handsome Irishman who dressed to the 10’s. He did everything first class. He was a great game coach. He had a lot of charisma. He was a New York legend then he became a North Carolina legend then he went to the NBA for one year then he went back to college at the University of South Carolina. He was a tough guy and we didn’t mess around with him. We drove him crazy at times but we didn’t mess with him. He knew how to handle officials. One time the other team was double teaming John Roche, the superstar on the team, and I went over to him and said “Coach, I’m wide open, should I shoot the ball?” and he fixed his cuff links and said “I’ll tell you what, if you get a layup go ahead and take it.” He didn’t let me shoot too much.
KHAN: Which coaches did you form special relationships with?
CREMINS: I came [to the ACC] one year after Mike Krzyzewski and Jimmy Valvano. We were known as the young guns. I had a relationship with Dean Smith because I played against him and I also played against Lefty Driesell. Frank McGuire hired Dean Smith at North Carolina before he left to go to the NBA so we had a common denominator in Frank McGuire but mostly in the meetings I hung out with Mike [Krzyzewski] and Jimmy[Valvano]. We had annual spring meetings.
KHAN: What was your relationship with Dean Smith like?
CREMINS: He was a fascinating figure. He was the guy on top, a lot of people did not like him and wanted to get him. Mike, Jimmy and myself respected him but we had to beat him. We knew for us to be successful that we had to beat him. Of course Mike and Jimmy were right there in the Triangle so they had a bigger challenge than I did because of the Duke-North Carolina rivalry and North Carolina-N.C. State rivalry. He was a great coach and the big thing was that he made us all better. He made the three of us a lot better. We knew we had to coach better and recruit better because of him and also Lefty Driesell and Terry Holland. Dean Smith was the king of the hill and for us to compete with him we knew we had to raise our game. We had some tough rivalries, we knew we couldn’t kiss his ass but at the same time we respected him. We had to beat him in order to survive and eventually all three of us did. He was very organized. Dean Smith set the bar for excellence in the ACC and Mike Krzyzewski broke the bar. There were a lot of other great coaches among those guys but to me that’s a real quick synopsis of the ACC.
KHAN: What coaches do you still keep in touch with?
CREMINS: One of my best friends is Les Robinson who succeeded Jimmy Valvano. I stay in touch with him. Mike [Krzyzewski] and I are good friends but I don’t bother him, he’s busy as hell but I feel a good friendship with him.
KHAN: Talk to me about that 1990 Final Four run, who was your toughest opponent during that run?
CREMINS: Probably LSU in the second round with Shaquille O’Neal. Man, Shaquille O’Neal. They beat us up pretty good and we made a great comeback in the second round in Knoxville. They intimidated us, they had Shaquille O’Neal, Stanley Roberts, they had the great guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. He was a quick guard, they came out and they intimidated us. I had a substitute from England by the name of Karl Brown and I brought him off the bench and he guarded Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. We moved Kenny Anderson over and moved Dennis Scott inside, we went to a small lineup and it worked. It got us back in the game and Dennis got hot.
KHAN: Run me through the next game, when you guys knocked off No. 1 Michigan State. What were some of the emotions in the final few minutes?
CREMINS: The thing was they had us beat and they had the great Steve Smith. He was a great kid but we were fortunate and he missed the one-and-one I think. We were down two and he missed and Kenny Anderson got the ball and started dribbling. I was begging him to shoot the ball and finally he shot it and it went in and everyone went crazy. I was looking at the officials and I knew something was wrong. They came over to me and said “Bobby, we have a problem. The basket is good but we think Kenny’s foot was on the line” so I said “Fine, let’s go to overtime.”
KHAN: What would you say was the most intense NCAA tournament game you coached in?
CREMINS: Those games were intense. The LSU game was very intense, the Michigan State game and then the Minnesota game was very intense. Then in the Final Four we were up seven at halftime but Jerry Tarkanian came after us and Kenny Anderson picked up his fourth foul. Tark came after us and got us in the second half. He made a mistake in the first half, he played us zone. When we came out in the second half we didn’t adjust the way we should have. We kind of panicked a little bit. Kenny was only a freshman and he drove baseline and got a charge. It was a special year for us. We had lethal weapons with Kenny Anderson, Dennis Scott and Brian Oliver.
KHAN: Were you ever aware of other programs paying recruits or hear rumors about it?
CREMINS: There were always rumors. My philosophy was that I didn’t care what other programs did and if they are going to blatantly cheat they are going to get caught. When a kids got it down to two or three schools it gets really hairy.
KHAN: Were there any recruits or parents of recruits that ever asked you for monetary value or any benefits?
CREMINS: Oh yeah. There were people always going to try to hustle you. They’d say other schools were doing this or that. We were very selective with who we recruited. I always did my thing and never worried about other schools.
KHAN: How did the process of getting the Georgia Tech job go?
CREMINS: No one wanted the job, I backed into the job. I wanted to coach in the league that I played in. I wanted to get redemption. I wanted to win an ACC championship as a coach that I had lost as a player. I didn’t care. I knew Georgia Tech was in the ACC. Ironically, they replaced my alma mater, South Carolina. My goal was to coach in the league I played in and get redemption for that loss.
KHAN: Was there a style of basketball that you tried to preach?
CREMINS: I love fast break basketball and just solid man-to-man defense. My college coach, Frank McGuire was a great zone coach and I would play some zone but I have always liked basic man-to-man.
KHAN: Who was the toughest coach to game plan against?
CREMINS: No question, Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski. Once Mike became good they were a nightmare. Their aggressiveness, their pressure man-to-man defense was really something. Gary Williams was another one but Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski without a doubt.
KHAN: Do you have any regrets from your coaching career?
CREMINS: Yeah. Oh yeah. My last stop at the College of Charleston. We came so close to getting into the NCAA tournament. We had a tough injury, I had a really good team there. We had a tough injury to our center and we lost in the Southern Conference final three times. I would have loved to have gotten the College of Charleston to the NCAA tournament but Earl Grant has done that now so that chip is off my shoulder thanks to Earl Grant. He’s the coach there now. I had a shot at a national championship. We probably should have been in the Final Four two or three times. Had we done that, we would have definitely won it once.
KHAN: I like to ask former coaches this so I want your opinion. Eddie Sutton has been denied from the Hall of Fame six times and is the only coach with over 800 wins that is not in the Naismith Hall of Fame. Do you think he deserves to be in?
CREMINS: I coached against him. I think he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. I stay away from that stuff though. It’s really nice and prestigious but its not the most important thing to me. My answer to your question though is yes I think he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Knowing his background the way I do I would say yes he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.
KHAN: What life advice would you give to a young man?
CREMINS: I would say you have to study your craft. Really study your craft. You have to be honest and you have to be fair. To me, that’s very important. You have to really study the game and study what its all about.
KHAN: What are you up to these days?
CREMINS: I’m on an NCAA committee. I’m a volunteer on the NCAA infractions committee. They are trying to get some coaches on it and it has to be retired coaches. Lloyd Carr came on with me and we were volunteers. There are 25 members and when they assign a case they assign it to five or seven members. If you have an affiliation or know anybody you can not have anything to do with the case.