We’re human. We all do it. We watch the NCAA tournament and we’re smitten by the Hot Young Coach of Cinderella U. And — let’s be honest — it would have been more fun if the man behind the microphone Monday had been Shaka Smart, tapped to bring his VCU brand of giant-felling “havoc” to downtrodden Georgia Tech.
But the glow of March eventually fades, and even the hottest hottie has to go back to work. And sometimes hotness isn’t transferable. In 2007 Todd Lickliter left Butler after two Sweet 16 runs for the lure of Iowa’s bigger money and wider stage. He lasted three seasons. In 1999 Dan Monson exited Gonzaga after an appearance in the Elite Eight. He resigned from Minnesota in 2007, having never lifted the Gophers to the Big Dance.
Brian Gregory is neither hot nor all that young. (He’s 44.) He arrives at Tech having done good work at Dayton. Had he done great work there, he’d have been at a bigger job and therefore beyond the Jackets’ reach. Bear that in mind. Having to pay its former coach $7 million to leave, Tech couldn’t throw bags of money at his successor. It wasn’t shopping along Rodeo Drive. That said …
Tech didn’t need a hot coach. It needed a competent one. It found him.
Gregory wore the requisite pinstriped suit and gold tie at his introductory briefing, but at heart he’s no fashion plate. He’s a Chicago guy — “I eat Chicago hot dogs and Chicago pizza,” he said — who apprenticed in the toughest-minded program there is. At Michigan State he worked first for Jud Heathcote, who won an NCAA title with an oversize point guard from Lansing bearing the nickname Magic, and then for Tom Izzo, who took his championship with a bunch of guys from Flint.
Who’s hot? Who’s not? These aren’t questions the new Tech man ponders. He gets up and goes to work. He’ll hold individual instruction sessions Tuesday with players whose names he doesn’t yet know. “And they really will be individual instruction,” he said. “It’ll be me and whoever’s in the gym with me.”
For reasons unknown and perhaps unknowable, Tech basketball had lost its way. In this smallish man from Chicago, it has a guide. In his interview Thursday, Gregory sounded every note this search committee wanted to hear. Said Dan Radakovich, the athletic director: “He hit on all those things, and it wasn’t pre-scripted — the [need to embrace] former players, the academics, the responsibilities of our current players.”
Someone asked Gregory if Georgia Tech can make the Final Four. “They already have,” he said, not batting an eye. “That’s the first thing you have to ask: ‘Has it been done before? ‘ ”
Gregory sees Tech basketball not as some niche sport in the busy big city but in holistic terms — it’s a program with a past and a future, and it’s a vital part of the Institute and Atlanta. Even his critics in Dayton concede he was a pillar of both university and community, and that’s something this program had lost. People here stopped talking about Tech hoops, and not only because Tech stopped winning.
About winning: Is it fair to think Gregory will fare better in the ACC than he did in the Atlantic 10, where he didn’t win as big as Dayton fans thought he should? Certainly he’ll have access to better players here — even in its weakened state, Tech doesn’t carry the tag of “mid-major” — and if he fails it won’t be for lack of effort. “Nobody’s going to work harder than I will,” he said.
Work: It’s not a concept that connotes hotness. Heck, it sounds downright old-fashioned. But a program of such inherent resources doesn’t require a savior as much as a steward.
What’s the stock in trade of an Izzo team? The Princeton offense? Full-court pressure? No and no. Year upon year, the best thing Michigan State does is rebound, and rebounding is nine-tenths effort. Sometimes Izzo would break out shoulder pads and helmets to teach them ferocity. “Those days are long gone,” said Gregory, meaning the need for football gear. “But we emphasize rebounding. We get after it good.”
There are Tech fans who are disappointed by this hire. They shouldn’t be. After they watch this coach and his team play a couple of times, they won’t be. Gregory’s guys are going to get after it good.
By Mark Bradley