Brian Gregory optimistic about Jackets
NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. -- Job description: Head coach wanted for one-time prominent national program in rebuilding mode. Resourceful candidate will understand the current economic climate and embrace the unique challenge of home games away from home. Ability to exist under the shadow of NCAA sanctions a must.
When Georgia Tech hired Brian Gregory in April, plenty of people scrunched up their noses, wondering whether, with the rise of such young coaches as Shaka Smart and Chris Mooney, the ACC school had made the right decision.
The more accurate question: Did Gregory?
On the heels of what Dayton fans would consider a disappointing season, Gregory may not have offered the sexy splash of Smart and Mooney. But he left a sure thing at Dayton, kissing goodbye a winning tradition and a rabid fan base.
In exchange, he received the basketball equivalent of an abandoned mansion, a once-glittering edifice now sagging and sad after falling on hard times.
With eyes wide open and aware of even more problems -- namely, the NCAA sanctions that weren't revealed until three months after his hire -- Gregory somehow saw beyond the disrepair and the neglect.
Instead of seeing what Georgia Tech is, he saw what it was and what it could be.
"This team was in the national championship game seven years ago," Gregory said. "That's not ancient history. It's not like it was 30 years ago, so there's already something to build on. I think everything already is in place here. We just need to get it going again."
Gregory is perhaps more like Tom Izzo than any of the Michigan State coach's other disciples.
He is blue-collar and blunt, a guy who paid his dues by climbing up the coaching ladder and isn't afraid of a challenge or a little hard work.
"He's not a pushover," said freshman Jason Morris after his new coach was hired, accurately assessing Gregory from the jump. "He's going to get what he wants. Whatever it takes, even if he has to break you down to your lowest point to build you back up."
Without much ego himself, Gregory is not one to tolerate a "me-first" attitude from his players, so, while many might argue that Gregory just completed his most critical month on the job by recruiting future talent, the coach disagrees.
He believes his most crucial task is rebalancing his team's chemistry.
The Yellow Jackets finished just 13-18 last season, a moribund 11th in the ACC.
Certainly Georgia Tech was young, with just two seniors on the roster, but the Yellow Jackets didn't lack talent. Iman Shumpert, who averaged 17.3 points per game, was good enough to become a first-round NBA draft pick, and just two years ago Tech featured the seventh-best recruiting class in the nation.
"Kids today are all about, 'What's in it for me?'" said Gregory, who has to replace both Shumpert and third-leading scorer Brian Oliver, who transferred to Seton Hall. "When you coach, you've got to make them understand it's got to be what's in it for the team. If they take care of that, the 'What's in it for me' will come. But that's hard. You need patience, and you need success to sell that message."
Gregory is long on the former, but the Jackets are short on the latter. Since that national title game in 2004, Georgia Tech has made just three NCAA tournament appearances, failing to survive past the first weekend in each.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a person to say a bad word about former coach Paul Hewitt. Still, there's no denying that the coach's tenuous job security in recent years only added to Tech's problems. Unable to adequately build on that title appearance, Hewitt was forever on the hot seat, his multimillion-dollar buyout viewed as an albatross around the neck of the financially pinched athletic department.
The sporadic successes and chronic instability took a toll on both the team and the turnstiles. Attendance sagged dramatically this year, with Georgia Tech failing to sell out a single home game. The dwindling fan support, as much as the losses, were ultimately Hewitt's undoing.
"We always want our sports to remain important to the people who support them," athletic director Dan Radakovich said. "We don't want people to get in the habit of not being passionate about our programs. When I sat down with our president, that's the one concern that really dominated our conversation."
Frankly, Dean Smith would have a tough time with the restraints that Gregory will operate under. He is charged with igniting the passion of a fan base that, on top of losing, now has the stain of NCAA sanctions. Last month, the NCAA announced that it would restrict the number of in-person recruiting days and official visits Georgia Tech is allowed over the next two years. The university recently said it would appeal.
And to make matters more difficult, Georgia Tech is in the process of building a new on-campus arena. In the interim, the Yellow Jackets will split their home games between the downtown Philips Arena (seating capacity: around 18,000, or 12,000 more than the Jackets averaged last season) and suburban Gwinnett Arena.
Even before news of the NCAA troubles broke, people wondered whether the impossibly tall task, coupled with the financial burdens left by Hewitt's buyout, scared off the hot name candidates, making Gregory more the guy that said yes as opposed to the guy Georgia Tech wanted.
Gregory, himself, could care less whether that's the perception. "I earned my pedigree as an assistant. I value tradition, and I graduate my players," he said. "I think all of that matters in a place like this. Whatever people want to say, that's their business. I know what I've done."
Radakovich said he was up-front with all his candidates about the pending NCAA sanctions. During the interview process, the actual penalties had yet to be announced, and he said that perhaps the fear of the unknown could have given some people cold feet.
But as for the notion that Gregory was his safety net, the athletic director disagrees. "I don't know if [the NCAA investigation] overtly changed people's minds, but we also used a search firm, so I'm not sure we'll ever know who said what about some things," Radakovich said. "It certainly may have been a detractor for some people. But I also know that Brian immediately was the person we wanted to focus on. I didn't meet all of those other candidates that I supposedly fell in love with."
Instead, to the surprise of some, Gregory was his choice.
Maybe even more surprising, Gregory chose Georgia Tech.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.
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