Very few people have a single anecdote that neatly describes the pattern of their entire life experience, but that happens to be one other thing that Bobby Cremins possesses. It is instructive, too, that he tells this on himself:
It seems that when Cremins was an assistant to Frank McGuire at the University of South Carolina about a dozen years ago, James Michener was in Columbia researching a book on sport. McGuire called up Cremins and told him to take Michener around the campus.
Cremins said sure. Inasmuch as he had never read anything more searching than Dick Dunkel's weekly basketball ratings, the name Michener meant nothing to him. "I thought he was a rich alumnus or something," Bobby says.
While leading the guest about, Cremins encountered a friend, and began to introduce the visitor. "I'm sorry," Cremins asked. "What's your name?"
February 24, 1986
"James Michener," replied James Michener.
The friend gasped. "You? The James Michener?" The writer nodded. The friend went wide-eyed.
"Uh oh. I knew I'd messed up again," Bobby recalls ruefully.
But the rest of the story is this: By the end of the afternoon. Michener had grown enthralled with the strange young man, and to this day carries on a periodic, avuncular correspondence with Cremins. "I mean, they're very long letters," Bobby says. "They tell me things. They're full of thoughts."
Or, if the metaphors of life are not for you, here are the unadorned linear facts. Ten seasons ago, with a new wife and two new daughters that came in the bargain, Cremins became the head coach at Appalachian State, which had gone 3-23 the season before. Appalachian is way up in the mountains of Boone, N.C. "That's where the bears are," Frank McGuire explains. "Even Bobby couldn't get in trouble up there." Cremins and his bride bought a beautiful house on the side of a mountain, with a bubbling brook and an apple orchard. At the closing, Cremins asked the lawyer: "How much more would it cost if I wanted the stream and the trees thrown in?"
Then, the first day of practice, Cremins sidled over to his new assistant, Kevin Cantwell. Cremins, 28 at the time, was the youngest Division I head coach in America, and Cantwell was his junior. "It was a zoo," Cantwell explains. "We didn't know what we were doing." Of course, the two men do share a certain kinship, inasmuch as each of them was born with only one testicle, for a total of two between them. This has won them a number of wagers in saloons, for they would invariably come in under the spread every time, even when there were sharpies about who would figure something was up and call the line at three. But nobody ever played two, total, in the over-under.
Yet, in all other ways, Cremins certainly possesses a large pair of what he has only one of physically, and so it was that he found himself in Boone with a basketball team, but no idea what to do with it.
"Kevin," he said.
Cantwell nodded. Like Cremins, Cantwell was from New York City, and so he at least could divine what Cremins was saying. When Bobby had first arrived in South Carolina, his dialect was so baffling he was called Cakes, because it sounded as if he must have had a Hostess Twinkie in his mouth.
"Kevin," Bobby said.
"What is it you do best?"
"Well," Cantwell replied, "I think I work good with players individually."
Cremins frowned. That was not the answer he wanted to hear. He tried more directly. "You don't have any offenses, do you, Kevin?"
Yet, with the new coach making up plays in the timeout huddles, Appalachian State was soon 23-6. Bobby then applied to Georgia Tech, which had gone 4-23 in 1980-81. The coach of the Rambling Wreck had resigned and become a caddie on the pro golf circuit. By the end of last season, Cremins's fourth at Tech, the team was in the national Top 10, and at the end of last week it was 19-4 and ranked No. 5. In that large Southern metropolis that is attached to Hartsfield Airport, Bobby Cremins has become the most popular man in sport. Only Dale Murphy, the Braves' bashful slugger, is competition for the hearts of Atlantans.
How is this possible? How can someone who is supposed to be so dumb be so successful? A coach! Not even Bobby's wife will give him the benefit of the doubt. "I know," Carolyn Cremins says. "Bobby knows how to enhance that...uh, mystique, playing dumb." Pause. "But he's also smart enough not to tell those stories on himself that show how dumb he really is."
His best friends all showed up at a charity roast in Raleigh, N.C. last fall for the express purpose of trying to outdo one another in telling Bobby Cremins dumb stories. "The only reason I'm here," declared Corky Carnevale, his roommate at South Carolina, "is to hear Bobby try and pronounce multiple sclerosis." It was kind of a stupid-chic head table.
Or, if you wish, Carnevale privately: "What do you mean has he gotten any smarter? He's still a dope."
These are the people who love Cremins most.
If Bobby's so dumb, why do his teams win so much? Why have people followed him all his life? If he's so dumb, why did he marry the wise older woman instead of any of the airhead baby dolls he always went out with? Or, for that matter, if he's so dumb, why did the wise older woman marry him? And why is he so anxious to talk with Dick Vermeil?
Well, vocationally the answer is pretty easy. Cremins is proof once again that primarily—overwhelmingly—coach is something you are, rather than anything you think to do. Offenses are merely items other folks can lend you, like a dollar bill for the coat-check girl. Above all, like so many natural coaches, Cremins possesses the ability to understand other people and to understand himself. What is often taken for denseness is, in fact, simple humility and genuineness. George Felton, Cremins's associate coach at Tech, puts it most succinctly: "Bobby is a firm believer that if you're a nice person and you work hard, then somewhere down the line you'll have some success." All those who work around him marvel at his capacity to admit ignorance and to ask for help. He gives credit easily and confines his efforts to the things he does well. Everyone who knows him marvels at his instinct, second only to his loyalty. Says Carolyn: "He's uncanny. People always say Bobby's street smart. That's because he comes from New York, and it's a very popular term. And I'm sure he is street smart. But that misses the point. That's secondary. What Bobby is, is people smart."
Back at Appalachian State one day, Cantwell happened upon the team's star, smoking, and he rushed to advise Cremins. "It's O.K.," Bobby said. "I told him he could smoke as long as he never did it in public." Cantwell then came to discover that Cremins had what he called "these little freedom deals" with many of the players.
The pure fact of the matter is that everybody who meets Cremins concludes that he must be the nicest person that God ever put on the face of the earth. Is beloved dumb? In fact, Cremins is rather representative, in the athletic theater, of a broad trend in America today. Probably as some reflex against a technocratic, automated society, our heroes tend now to be the more personable and idiosyncratic, the less machinelike of the species. No doubt there is some dynamic at work which encourages us to celebrate instinctive human qualities. The most prized executives today, Iacocca foremost, seem to be the ones who come across nicely in their own companies' commercials. What's the point of hiring some guy who's bloodlessly efficient, like a computer, when you can get yourself a real 100% computer that is a computer?
Cremins is also forever lucky. Or, anyway, things work out for him and then certifiably brainy people call it luck because otherwise it couldn't jibe with their universe. Certainly he is lucky to have a strong woman in his life. "She still lays his clothes out for him," Cantwell says. "I mean, Bobby wants her to." When Cremins first got a TV show in Atlanta, Carolyn, who handles all the money, told him he was making $189 per airing. In fact, the 13-show package was worth $40,000. Carolyn explained to a friend: "If I told Bobby the truth, that he was making $40,000, he'd give it away to every poor kid in Atlanta."
Going into this season, when he suddenly found his team ranked No. 1 in most of the polls, Cremins wasn't the least bit concerned with what is always referred to as "the pressure." On the contrary. "I wanted to find out if I was strong enough to deal with a new type of stress," he says. "I like challenges. Maybe I'm stupid, but I do."
What worried him was his recollection of his senior year at South Carolina. 1969-70, when the Gamecocks, the nation's best team, saw their season turn to ashes in one game. That is what haunted him about being No. 1. Cremins is driven, forever fearing the worst even as he somehow expects the best. His wife calls him Gloom and Doom, and if his prematurely white hair may be in his genes—mother's side—what it represents is for real. The demon that sits on his shoulder is Vermeil, the former coach of UCLA football and the Philadelphia Eagles. Not unlike Cremins, Vermeil was a natural coach who enjoyed extraordinary success at an early age, but who, Cremins read once, would sleep at his office during the season, studying films, until one day he came to practice and found he couldn't get out of his car, and soon he had to quit, at age 46, what he did best in all the world.
"I just want to meet Dick Vermeil and ask him: Why?" Cremins says. "Why?" More and more, Bobby sleeps in his office, watching films.
It came so easily. "Don't be fooled," Carolyn says. "Bobby has prepared for this all along. All that's surprised him is how quickly it's come." Cremins didn't even mean to be a coach. All he ever set his cap to was to play. When he finished his college career as a 6'2" point guard and no pro team saw fit to hire him, he was so at sea he became a hotel bellboy. When he finally stumbled into an appropriate job, in real estate, he chucked it in one hour when Corky Carnevale told a Spanish-speaking guy over the phone that Cremins was 6'7" and could play for the man's team in Ecuador. And here he is today, well before he's 40, in the top rank of the coaching profession, this generation's Al McGuire. It's downright scary how many twists and coincidences it took.
"No," Bobby says, "what's scary is whatever's going to happen tome."
Margaret Brosnan and Bobby Cremins Sr. came from County Kerry, Ireland to the United States as teenagers in the late 1920s. More than 50 years later, Carolyn bought airplane tickets for them to go back to the old sod with Bobby Jr., but Margaret couldn't bring herself to return. She couldn't bear the thought of seeing sisters and brothers and cousins for the first time in half a century, knowing it would be saying hello and goodby at the same time to all the old people. She preferred to remember them as they were when they were all pretty colleens and handsome lads and the world was green. And Margaret was probably right. She died a couple years later, in 1983.
Bobby and Carolyn took the trip instead, bringing with them Father George Kloster. He's the priest who married them, but he's also a hang-out guy. "It was incredible meeting the two families over there," Father Kloster says. "Bobby's mother's side was more ambitious, more successful; most of them had moved to Cork city. Bobby's father's side was still out in the sticks, all charm and blarney. It's eerie: You can see those two distinct strains deposited almost equally in the one man, in Bobby."
As Bobby grew up in the tough South Bronx, it was Margaret who was the disciplinarian, although as Bobby's older brother, Danny, a butcher, explains it, "She'd bring in Pop to put on the finishing touches." Mostly, though, Bobby Sr., who was first a longshoreman and then a doorman on Park Avenue, enjoyed the conviviality of life, a potation or two to cut the city dust, winking at the world through the baby blues he gave Bobby, laughing at its lies with the flop ears he also passed on to his biggest boy. There were four Cremins children crammed into a one-bedroom walk-up, but they were an exceptionally happy family. Bobby's emotions seemed to fluctuate depending largely on how he was getting along with his basketball coach of the moment.
"I still believe in the old-fashioned definition of a coach—that he's also a surrogate parent," Bobby says. "I love so much of that old stuff. I really do. I really believe that every team of mine is an extension of my own family."
John Salley, Georgia Tech's senior center, a delightful New York kid perhaps most like his coach, recalls with bemusement that when Cremins first made $100,000 in a year, he felt obliged to share this good news with the Tech players. They understood, Salley says, and were just as amazed and pleased as the coach-father himself.
In the Bronx, at St. Athanasius Parish, a kind, ruddy-faced man named Jack Lyons used his spare time to coach the neighborhood urchins. Cremins, Lyons says, was "all eyeballs then," but he was already fiercely competitive. But even then, in the late '50s, blacks were beginning to dominate basketball in the cities. Most of the Puerto Rican kids gravitated toward baseball, the Irish and Italians to football. So Cremins was, early on, a minority, the Paddy Boy, and he felt it necessary to join a street gang, the Gladiators, to protect himself, and he did not always put in with the best company. He got booted out of All Hallows, his high school, and even when his father begged the Irish Christian Brothers to take Bobby back, the coach was reluctant to play him. "He thought I was a hood," he says. "And he was right."
But in those more laissez-faire days, there were scouts around who would dish off some kids to schools outside the city. One such character was Hook Hillman, who helped get Bobby into Frederick Military Academy in Portsmouth, Va. for his senior year, and it was there that Frank McGuire discovered young Cremins. Bobby needed 800 on his SATs but barely made 700, and McGuire wrote him off. Cremins paid a smart kid 50 bucks to take the SATs the next time, but someone talked him out of the scam, and Cremins took them himself. Somehow he made 801. Nobody believed it, but it was so. In a way, too, that presaged all that was to follow for him: scraping by to the next level, then leapfrogging to the top.
When Cremins showed up at South Carolina as a freshman in '66, carrying his earthly possessions in paper bags, he appeared to be some form of alien. "I mean he literally scared people," Carnevale says. By now Bobby had traded his eyeballs for ears, he had developed a terrible complexion, and his long arms hung down to his knees. For attire he favored red Elvis Presley zippered shirts, stovepipe pants and what were known then as Puerto Rican fence-climbers—pointy shoes. And, of course, nobody could understand him. "Plus he was illiterate," Carnevale says. "I would read what he tried to write, and he didn't know things like capital letters or periods." For that matter, since he hadn't bothered to ask, he didn't know what college meant. If he had an English class at 10 a.m., for example, he would just wander into any English class. Poetry one day, Shakespeare the next. The same with all his courses.
He was somewhat better versed in basketball: tough, a good defender and catalyst. "Bobby was the kind of player," McGuire says, "that although he wasn't a very good free-throw shooter, he always made free throws when it was close." Eight-oh-one on the college boards. Largely because of Cremins's rudimentary—but natural—recruiting skills, McGuire also brought in a pair of Bobby's old Bronx playground cronies, John Roche and Tommy Owens, and by Bobby's senior year the Gamecocks were the best in all the land.
If he had the chance, McGuire preferred to focus his offense on one man. That was Roche. It all fell on his shoulders, and it was excruciating for the kid. Cremins watched his old asphalt pal grow snappish and rude. "I liked John before and I love him now, but that year I started to hate him," Cremins says. At Georgia Tech, when Mark Price, who is now a senior, was a freshman, he was Cremins's Roche. But year by year, as Tech improved, the coach lessened the emphasis, until now Price blends into a whole, integrated offense. That is because of what happened to John Roche and what happened to the team when Roche got hurt.
Cremins was explaining all this late at night on the road, his Windsor knot undone, just as when he's on the bench, with a peppermint schnapps before him. During the season he gives up drinking, sacrificing vice along with his players, but he makes little freedom deals with himself, too, so this night he allowed himself a couple of shots. A guy said, "Bobby, sometimes it seems like you're not so much worried about the Mark Price of 1986 becoming the John Roche of 1970 as you are about the Bobby Cremins of 1986 becoming the John Roche of 1970."
His head was down. He paused and peered up under the white mane and smiled. "Yeah, maybe," he said. This sudden-fame stuff is almost as crazy as the first time he found out he had six figures written down on his 1040. On the one hand, Cremins still tells everybody he meets how, just a couple of weeks ago, Jerry West—Jerry West!—actually said hello to him; on the other, he had to explain to Carolyn one night last summer at a Braves game that he couldn't get up and walk through the crowd without everybody bothering him.
But back to 1970. Roche got hurt in the semifinals of the ACC tournament. In those days it was winner-take-all; only the tournament champion could go to the NCAAs. Never mind that the Gamecocks were 25-2. In the final, against North Carolina State, Roche, all shot up, playing on one good leg, made a bad pass to Cremins in the last seconds. A State player took the ball off Bobby's fingertips and went down and scored. South Carolina was finished for the year.
Bobby was too embarrassed to go back to Columbia. He found a cute little waitress with a cabin up in the mountains, and he talked Carnevale into coming along. They were driving, guzzling beer, when they passed through a town called Golden Valley and saw some kids playing basketball. Cremins made Carnevale stop and dragged him out of the car, and they staggered over to the playground and played against the boys two-on-five, until their bare feet began to bleed. Then they went on to the mountains and hid out in shame for a week.
"You see," says Perry Clark, Tech's assistant in charge of defense, "Bobby relates everything to personal experience, and he doesn't ever want these kids to feel as bad as he did that time."
Cremins says it wasn't until he got to Appalachian State that he learned how to coach. But he's best at the other stuff, the people stuff, so he's still picking that up and sorting it out. "Bobby learned a lot from us that year," Roche says.
"When Bobby gets a few more shocks himself, then he'll finally get over that year," says Frank McGuire.
As for Bobby, well, one time in Boone he was looking out the window. "See that tree over there, Kevin?" he said. Cantwell came over. It was just a big tree. "Kevin, I used to think I could take a tree and make a person out of it. But now I understand that some trees just don't want to be persons."
After college, Cremins tried to make it in the ABA. When the Carolina Cougars cut him, he had no money, no car, nothing, and he literally found himself at a crossroads, sitting on his luggage, pondering whether to hitchhike north or south. But then, what did it matter, direction? All he had ever wanted in his life was to play basketball, and he remained utterly convinced that somebody would discover him again, just as McGuire had.
So then he barnstormed in Italy, bell-hopped and messed around in real estate until he could chuck that and head off on the Ecuador adventure. When he came back to the States, it was to try out for the '72 Olympic team, but this time he told himself that if he got cut, he would "hang up my jock," and he did. At last his mother's side began to kick in. Cremins could have gone back to selling, but he decided to try coaching instead.
"I know this sounds corny," Carolyn says, "but Bobby is a true idealist. If he hadn't gone into coaching he'd have missed that one idealistic thing that coaching allows him, which is having an effect on people's lives."
Hook Hillman, who helped get Bobby out of the Bronx, died a couple years after he shipped the boy to Virginia. Near the end, Cremins heard about Hook's plight, and he called him up and asked if there was anything he could do to help. Hook said, "No, Bobby, it's too late for me, but what you can do for me is, someday, Bobby, I want you to help a kid, like I helped you."
So then, after coaching came into his life, came Carolyn. Or, as Carolyn knows now, after coaching comes Carolyn—or Carowin, as her husband usually pronounces her name. Carolyn has no rational business being Mrs. Bobby Cremins. She grew up in style in Grosse Pointe, Mich., the privileged daughter of a Chrysler vice-president. Then, after Northwestern, she married a professor of political science, who eventually joined the faculty at South Carolina. "You should read this guy's books," Bobby says. "I can't understand a word. Carowin—she really went from one extreme to another."
Newly divorced in '73, she was living with her two daughters in the same apartment complex as Cremins, then a McGuire assistant. Their first date was watching Monday night football. She found him "most peculiar," but figured he could serve as a diversion until she got her life back on track.
They fell in love very quickly.
The problems were threefold. Not only was Carolyn a divorcee and a Baptist, but she was also older than Bobby. This was before his hair turned old, too. Bobby's mother was distraught. Bad enough her boy was contemplating marriage with a Protestant, but Carolyn was possibly an empty vessel, as well. The Cremins clan prizes fecundity. Even now, back in County Kerry, an uncle who sired a child in his 70th summer is a celebrated hero. So although Father Kloster tried to intercede on Carolyn's behalf, Mrs. Cremins would not talk to her daughter-in-law-to-be and fought the marriage bitterly.
Bobby had just won the job at Appalachian State and was recruiting a fine prospect in New York. The marriage was set for July 4, 1975. A week before, he called up his affianced and advised her, "I'm not coming back till I get the kid."
So, the bride knew the priorities going in. But Bobby got the recruit, they married on schedule and, soon enough, Margaret Cremins called up Carolyn Cremins and welcomed her into the family. Bobby and Carolyn had Bobby III a year later, and she converted to Catholicism.
"This is a perfect life I have," Cremins says. "I know, a lot of people say I'm a burnout candidate. Carowin told me the other day, 'Someday you're going to regret not spending more time at home with your son, with me.' And I told her, 'Carowin, if you're saying that, then you still don't understand me. Because I love what I'm doing, and I don't think I'll ever regret one minute of this.'
"I do still want to talk to Dick Vermeil. But already I think I can understand now why Dean Smith is so guarded and John Thompson is the way he is. I mean, who's going to pry into his life? What I'd like is to be a little less famous and make a little less money, and not have to worry about some of that other stuff, too. That's all. I don't want to lose the closeness."
Bobby probably doesn't have to worry about it. No matter what, some persons just can't be turned into a tree.