He was trouble from the very beginning, growing up a bully and a renegade before he turned 16. Stealing cars, muggings and robberies were the specialties of his New York City gang; they called themselves “The Gladiators.” “One night I got lowered down from the roof inside a grocery store and I was going to rob the cash register. They were lowering me down, and one of those big guard dogs, you know, like Rin Tin Tin, came running out barking at me. I started screaming, and they pulled me up in the nick of time, and we ran for our lives,” he exclaimed. Bobby Cremins’ teammates called him “Cakes” because of his thick Bronx accent. When he spoke it sounded like he had a mouth full of cake.
Cremins was born on Independence Day 1947, into a poor Irish immigrant family, the third of four children, in the South Bronx of New York. His father was a longshoreman and his mother a housewife. Luckily he enjoyed playing sports, especially basketball, as much as he did theft. Full of energy and drive, he owned guts, determination, and arms so long he could touch his kneecaps with his fingertips, without bending over. He played well enough to receive a basketball scholarship to All Hallows High School. Never a great scorer, at six-feet tall, he played center and once played against a kid named Lew Alcindor from Power Memorial High School, now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Cremins was injured his junior year and transferred to Fredrick Military Academy for his senior year. It was here that South Carolina Head Coach, Frank McGuire, spotted him. Cremins was headed to Columbia, SC, provided he could score 800 on the college entrance exam. Like he had most of his life, Bobby breezed by with an 801. While in Columbia, Cremins did not go unnoticed. In 1966, he was arrested for hitching a ride on the back of a city bus. He borrowed a teammate’s car and while not owning a driver license, Bobby accidently drove it through the front of a house. He was arrested again, as the car was damaged and the house demolished. When his first-year mid-semester grades were published, Bobby had earned four F’s and a D. It was discovered by the coaching staff that Cremins had not purchased any books for his classes.
More than anything, Cremins was a competitor. “He was all heart,” said McGuire. It was 1970 and with players like John Roche, Tom Owens and John Ribock, senior point guard Bobby Cremins and the USC Gamecocks went through the regular season undefeated, 14-0, but lost to NC State in the ACC Tournament Championship Game, 42-39. At the end of the game, Cremins had brought the ball across half court only to have it stolen by Ed Leftwich of the Wolfpack. Bobby had chased Ed down the court as Ed made an uncontested layup to seal the win. A dejected Bobby Cremins left USC without a degree or an ACC Championship. While Cremins was there, the Gamecocks won 61 games and lost 17.
After being cut by the Pittsburgh Condors and the Carolina Cougars of the ABA, Cremins headed to Italy for a year of hoops. He returned to New York City, where he worked as a bell-hop and earned enough money to return to USC to get his degree in marketing. His love of basketball never left and he took his first coaching job in 1972, at Point Park College in Pittsburgh. PA. Afterwards, he became the assistant coach under McGuire at USC, for two years. In 1975, Bobby began coaching the Appalachian State University Mountaineers. They would win three Southern Conference Championships in the next five years. Bobby won the Southern Conference Coach of the Year Award four times, (1976, 1978, 1981, and 2011).
Cremins was hired by Georgia Tech at the end of the 1981 basketball season. Before he left in 2000, he had been chosen ACC Coach of the Year three times (1983, 1985, and 1996) and the Naismith College Coach of the Year in 1990. On March 10, 1985, Bobby Cremins stood outside the Georgia Tech locker room at The Omni Center, in Atlanta. Wet with sweat, his blond hair disheveled, he looked like he had seen someone with two heads. His Yellow Jackets had just won the elusive ACC Championship Game that he had so dearly wanted. They had swept Kenny Smith, Brad Daughtery, Joe Wolf and the Tar Heels, during the regular season, and had beaten Dean Smith and Carolina, 57-54 that night. It had taken him 15 years to make things right.
His teams won the ACC Tournament Championship three times (1985, 1990, and 1993) and they also won the Regular Season ACC Championship, in 1985 and 1996. Although Cremins was a terrible free-throw shooter as a player, the guy sure could recruit. Players like Mark Price, John Salley, Dennis Scott, Tom Hammonds and Kenny Anderson, all made their way to Atlanta. Jon Barry, Travis Best, Stephon Marbury, Jason Collier and Matt Harpring all followed. In 2000, after 25 years, Bobby stepped away from coaching; he was exhausted.
In 2006, a refurbished Cremins returned to coaching at the College of Charleston. There he would not only restore their program but as mentioned earlier, he won another Southern Conference Coach of the Year Award, in 2011.
I met Bobby Cremins at the 2011 NCAA Final Four in Houston, Texas. I was introduced by my pal, Ronnie Arrow, who was coaching at South Alabama at the time. I could feel the intensity in Cremins’ handshake. Bobby Cremins retired from coaching March 19, 2012.