Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Bobby Cremins lives in Hilton Head, S.C., but he happened to be in Atlanta on business the last few days. Talk about timing. “The campus is going crazy,” he said.

They’re going crazy because Georgia Tech beat Kansas on Sunday to earn a trip to the Final Four. The last time Tech did that was in 1990, when the white-haired, New York-bred Cremins was the coach. Four years ago, after 19 seasons and 354 victories (third among ACC coaches behind Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski), he abruptly retired.

“It’s no secret the program was going down,” Cremins said. “We were really struggling. It was time for me to leave.”

Now the program is up again, thanks mainly to his successor, Paul Hewitt. “They hired the right guy,” said Cremins, who always attends the Final Four but now has even more reason to be there. “This guy is something else.”

Hewitt’s first Georgia Tech team went to the NCAA tournament, losing its only game. After missing out the last two years, the Yellow Jackets not only returned to the tournament, they won the St. Louis regional. Tech will play Oklahoma State in San Antonio in the first national semifinal game on Saturday, followed by Connecticut-Duke.

Hewitt worked at several schools as an assistant before he became the coach at Siena in Albany, N.Y., where he made a strong impression and his teams went 66-27. Even though he had no connection to the Georgia Tech program, Hewitt immediately embraced the tradition when he got there, and he still has his arms wrapped around it.

No sooner had sophomore point guard Jarrett Jack played an extraordinary all-around game against Kansas, Hewitt summoned the names of past Tech point guards Mark Price, Kenny Anderson, Stephon Marbury and Travis Best, and said Jack belonged in their company.

This week, amid the madcap preparations for the Final Four and its accompanying distractions, Hewitt has found time to make sure former players like Price, Dennis Scott, and John Salley are able to attend.

“I felt like I owe those guys something,” Hewitt said yesterday. “I’ve talked about the tradition Bobby established and we tried to build on that tradition, and here we are in the Final Four. The history and tradition made it a little easier than for most coaches.”

It also helped Hewitt that the time was right. Tech was coming off successive losing seasons. There were injuries, and recruiting had fallen off. Cremins admits to making mistakes, such as failing to anticipate that Marbury would turn pro after his freshman year. Cremins had no replacement. “I fell asleep on that one,” he said.

“At the end of my career, we were not happy here,” said Cremins, who came to Georgia Tech in 1981 and immediately established credibility after the program went 1-29 (12-41 overall) in its first two ACC seasons. “We had kind of a dark cloud over us. Things were headed in the wrong direction. I should have left a year earlier.”

Yet the glib, street-wise Cremins remained popular, and left a large legacy. It might have been difficult for Hewitt.

But it wasn’t. Cremins said he had met Hewitt only once before, when Hewitt was an assistant at Villanova, but the two started out close and remained that way. Hewitt said they speak about once a week, usually on Mondays.

“It has been very, very easy,” Hewitt said of the transition. “[Cremins] has been outstanding. From the first day he was calling me, asking me if there was anything I need. He was never quick to tell me what to do. He was quick to offer encouragement, or if I needed to pick his brain about Georgia Tech or the ACC or now, the Final Four.”

When Hewitt got the job, “I felt the best thing for me to do was get the heck out of his way,” Cremins said. “I wanted to get out of town for at least a year. I said, ‘Paul, I’m checking out.’ He wanted me to come by. I said no.”

The floor at Tech’s arena, Alexander Memorial Coliseum, is named Bobby Cremins Court. Hewitt helped make it happen last year. “He drove me crazy with that,” Cremins said.

Two players recruited by Cremins, forward Clarence Moore and guard Marvin Lewis, remain with the Yellow Jackets. Both played big roles in St. Louis, especially with guard B.J. Elder out with a sprained ankle. Lewis had 23 points in the semifinal win over Nevada. Moore, who quit the team last season before deciding to return, scored 14 points coming off the bench against Kansas.

Hewitt called Jack, who is from Fort Washington, his “signature recruit” when he signed him two years ago, beating out Michigan State among others. “It was apropos he played the big game,” Hewitt said.

Despite their depth, the improvement of 7-foot-1 center Luke Schenscher and a pronounced emphasis on chemistry and teamwork, this has become Jarrett Jack’s team. But it is Hewitt’s program, and it apparently will remain that way for a long time. He got a five-year contract extension last June and reportedly is in line for another, through 2009.

“This guy is a special coach,” Cremins said. “He has put together an incredible team. To see them in the Final Four is absolutely amazing. This is one very dangerous team.”

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