Bobby Cremins Serves as a Roadmap For Where Brad Brownell and Clemson Want To Go

Posted by rtmsf on November 25th, 2011

Will Rothschild is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic Sun and Southern Conference, and an occasional contributor.

Early in his second season at Georgia Tech, following a 24-point loss to Iona, Bobby Cremins didn’t look like much of a threat to the status quo in the ACC, a league that was in the full bloom of one of its most glorious eras.

Dean Smith was only a few months removed from his first national championship and had a starting five that included the names Jordan, Perkins and Daugherty. Ralph Sampson was in the middle of a third consecutive consensus national Player of the Year season for a powerful Virginia team, and a young thoroughbred named Len Bias had just arrived in College Park to play for a Maryland program that just three years prior had been the class of the league. Meanwhile, some coach with a funny name was just starting to tutor what was regarded as the nation’s best freshman class at Duke, and Jim Valvano was mere weeks away from authoring a story that was as responsible as any for turning the NCAA Tournament into the national obsession that came to be called March Madness.

Cremins, Still Teaching Lessons After All These Years...

Down in Atlanta in January of ’83, it would have been a reach to think Cremins was building something that soon would go toe-to-toe with programs that were the legacy of some of the most legendary names in the history of the sport – Case and Bubas, McGuire and Smith, Bones and Lefty. Within two years, that’s exactly what Cremins had done. After inheriting a program that had won just one of its first 18 games in the ACC, the former team captain for Frank McGuire at South Carolina steered the Yellow Jackets to the 1985 ACC tournament championship – completing a 3-0 season sweep of Smith and the Heels in the title game – and a few weeks later all the way to the Elite Eight, where they fell to Ewing’s Hoyas by six.

Cremins and Georgia Tech had arrived.

Fast forward nearly 27 years, and there was Cremins Saturday night, in the bowels of an ACC arena he had visited nearly two dozen times before as an opposing coach, celebrating his 570th career victory. For the first 30 minutes of the game at Littlejohn Coliseum, his College of Charleston Cougars had thoroughly outplayed Clemson before hanging on for a 72-69 win. In the end, it was another power conference scalp (joining North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee) that Cremins has taken since coming out of retirement in 2006 to start one of college basketball’s more interesting second coaching acts. Just moments after Cremins finished telling the media how his team had just played “as good a basketball as any team I’ve ever coached” in the first half, in came second-year Clemson coach Brad Brownell.

It seemed fitting that it was Cremins who put Brownell in such a position – trying to explain how, in his second year on the job, his team could get played off its feet by a mid-major. Brownell had even more explaining to do three nights later when Coastal Carolina – with former Clemson head coach Cliff Ellis – beat the Tigers on a last-second tip-in.

To be sure, the two situations are not exact parallels. Cremins took over a program in the spring of 1981 that had just finished its second season in the ACC, whereas Clemson is a founding member of the league. And while the Yellow Jackets had not been to the NCAA Tournament in 22 years prior to Cremins’ arrival, Brownell took over a program fresh off its third straight NCAA tourney trip under previous coach Oliver Purnell.

But in a larger sense, the job is similar: Brownell today, much like Cremins in the early ‘80s, is trying to catch up to some of the biggest names in the sport. And he’s trying to do so at a program that doesn’t have championship banners hanging from the rafters and all the clout and associated benefits that comes with them.

Brownell Has Visions of Becoming a Third Elite ACC Program

Consider:

  • Last season’s NCAA Tournament win was Clemson’s first since 1997 and just its ninth overall.
  • Clemson has never won the ACC Tournament in 57 years of league membership and has won just 35 percent of its ACC games all-time.
  • And of the nine men who have coached Clemson since the ACC’s inception, only one has fashioned a career record above .500 in conference play: that man is Brownell, who enters his second season at 10-8.

That said, there is significant evidence that Clemson is far from a hopeless situation. Ellis had a number of good seasons there, even winning a regular-season championship and getting the Tigers within a Tate George prayer of the Elite Eight in 1990. Rick Barnes took Clemson to the Sweet Sixteen in ’97, and Purnell had Clemson in the upper half of the league in each of his final three seasons. Finally, a recent renovation of Littlejohn Coliseum and the addition of a new practice facility has put the program on even footing with league rivals – not to mention offered clear proof of the school’s commitment to basketball. Indeed, the only obstacles today to big-time basketball success at Clemson reside four hours up I-85, says one longtime observer.

“I think what has held basketball back at Clemson has been Duke and North Carolina,” said Mike DeCourcy, who has covered college basketball for three decades for the Sporting News. “When you’re in their league, the amount of conference championships you’re going to be able to win, the number of tournament championships, they’re all minimized. Duke and North Carolina – they are titans. Over the last 30 years, there have been maybe two small windows when they were not both elite.

“It’s a little bit of a Catch-22. They make it harder for you as a program to win championships and do the kinds of things that attracts recruits. But if you get that done, if you compete at their level, then you’re among the best in the country.”

Only time will tell if Brownell can change all that, but if anything should buoy Clemson fans, it’s the knowledge that Brownell has done something similar before. At Wright State, Brownell took over a program that had never won a Horizon League title. Brownell accomplished that in his first season on the job, beating out nationally ranked Butler for both the regular season and tournament championships. Brownell won at least 20 games all four seasons there while finishing 1st, 3rd, 3rd, and 2nd in a league Butler had long had its way with.

“He was in a similar situation there,” DeCourcy said. “Butler wasn’t coming off two national championship games in a row when he got to Wright State, but Butler was still clear and distant ahead of everyone in the Horizon. But Brad came in and he won the league early.”

At Clemson, Brownell has shown an ability to develop players – rival coaches marveled at the improvement last season of forward Jerai Grant, who went from three-year bit player to one of the league’s better posts, averaging 12.4 PPG and 6.7 RPG in his one season under Brownell. Likewise, inherited projects Andre Young and Tanner Smith are now bona fide ACC players, and 2009 McDonald’s All-American Milton Jennings quieted some of the “he’s a bust” whispers following his freshman season and showed flashes of brilliance late last year, including double-double outings against both Duke and North Carolina.

Strategically, Brownell “knows what he’s doing,” says Cremins. While his predecessor Purnell preferred the high-risk, high-reward nature of full-court, trapping defensive schemes, Brownell has the Tigers playing a pressure man-to-man that, while perhaps less exciting, is also less prone to the kind of breakdowns that the ACC’s elite feast upon. Brownell’s teams also are disciplined on the offensive end – they play inside-out and his guards and wings consistently either look inside or try to attack the rim instead of just floating around grazing for jump shots.

So what’s it going to take for this program to earn a seat at the big boy table and stay there?

“Recruit, recruit, recruit,” Cremins said. “He has to recruit. He can sell the school and he can sell the chance to play in the ACC. But he needs to recruit like crazy. He needs,” Cremins continued, “to get his Mark Price.”

Mark Price Made Georgia Tech Relevant in the ACC and Nationally

Ahhh, Mark Price. John Wooden had Walt Hazzard. John Thompson had Patrick Ewing. Coach K had Johnny Dawkins. And Cremins had Price, Georgia Tech’s version of The Recruit Who Changes Everything, a player so special the program’s records could be separated into BP (Before Price) and AP (After Price).

The 6’9” Jennings – a face-up four with three-point range who can defend three positions – was the highest-rated recruit to commit to Clemson in 15 years. But while he continues to improve, he is not a game-changer on the level of a Price. Besides that, it wasn’t just Price. Cremins didn’t earn a reputation as one of the game’s best talent evaluators and recruiters on the strength of one sleeper from Oklahoma. The flow of talent to Atlanta in the 1980s also included John Salley and Bruce Dalrymple, who were followed by Duane Ferrell, followed by Tom Hammonds, Brian Oliver and Dennis Scott. And then?

“And then of course there was Kenny,” Cremins said, referring to the 1990 signing of Kenny Anderson, the No. 1-rated point guard in the land and the object of what ultimately came down to a fierce recruiting battle between Cremins, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and Carolina’s Dean Smith.

Smith made Anderson his top priority, personally handling the recruitment himself, and Anderson was thought to be all but certain to join Larry Brown, Jimmy Black and Kenny Smith in a line of celebrated New York City point guards to head to Chapel Hill. If not, surely he would jump on the chance to follow in the footsteps of Pearl Washington and play in front of 30,000 at the ‘Cuse. When he instead announced for Georgia Tech – telling reporters “I didn’t want to be just another horse in Dean Smith’s stable” – it was the culmination of years of tireless work designed to transform Georgia Tech into a program that could go anywhere and beat anyone for a player.

(Note to Brownell: Cremins estimated he must have hand-written at least 200 letters to Anderson during the course of his recruitment. And when he made his pick public, Anderson told the New York Times he was moved by the fact “I got letters every day, left and right. Last week there were at least 20 letters just from Tech. From everybody. The whole Georgia Tech was sending letters, the assistant coach, the president, vice president, everybody. That showed me some kind of character.”) The southpaw point guard would lead the Yellow Jackets to an ACC Tourney title and the Final Four as a freshman.

So far, Brownell has inked solid recruiting classes filled with consensus Top 100 and Top 150 prospects. Just this month, he beat out the likes of Baylor and Tennessee for 6’2” guard Adonis Filer from Massachusetts and dipped down into Florida to nab 6’10” center Landry Nnoko, who held offers from Billy Donovan and Rick Pitino.

However, he lost out to Roy Williams and North Carolina for 6’9” forward Brice Johnson, a consensus Top 50 prospect. To be sure, Brownell isn’t the first coach to lose a recruiting battle with Roy Williams. But Johnson was a South Carolina kid who Williams only started aggressively pursuing relatively late in the process. Combined with the fact Johnson didn’t even bother to visit despite labeling Clemson one of his four finalists, shows how far Brownell has to go.

And make no mistake: Brownell needs Brice Johnsons. Carolina’s last four recruiting classes have been ranked 6th, 9th, 4th and 3rd nationally by Scout.com. Duke’s check in at #25 (with some very big fish still in the pond), #2, #8 and #8. Over that same period, Florida State and N.C. State have put together three top-25 classes, while Wake Forest and Virginia have two apiece. Clemson, meanwhile, has but one over that same time frame – Purnell’s final class, which was rated 11th-best in 2009. And of that four-player haul, only Jennings and 6’8” forward Devin Booker remain on the roster.

So that’s what Brownell is up against – the “Catch-22” DeCourcy talks about. Brownell needs players like Brice Johnson in order to challenge Duke and Carolina, but before that ever happens he needs to convince recruits like Brice Johnson that Clemson can do it to even get them on campus in the first place. Just like Cremins did with Mark Price. And yet, Brownell is still way ahead of where Cremins was at the same point in his ACC career – even if that may be hard to tell in the wake of back-to-back home losses to teams from the SoCon and Big South.

“We only won seven ACC games our first two seasons combined,” Cremins said. “They won a lot of games last year. Brad does a great job and he knows where he wants to go with this program.”

He just might need to get the school’s president to start writing some letters to get there.

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