Looking Back... The Building of Georgia Tech in the ACC
Jan. 18, 2007
Georgia Tech joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in time for the 1979-80 academic year. The Yellow Jackets went 1-13 in their inaugural ACC men's basketball season. Then they got worse. The 1981 Georgia Tech team went 0-14 in the ACC, 4-23 overall. It's not easy for an ACC team to go 4-23. In fact, only two teams in ACC history have ever won fewer than four games overall.
It wasn't like Georgia Tech didn't have some basketball tradition. In 1955 Tech upset Kentucky in Lexington, ending Kentucky's 129-game home winning streak. All-American Roger Kaiser led Tech to the 1960 NCAA Tournament, while Rich Yunkus took Tech to the finals of the 1971 NIT, where they lost to North Carolina. Dwayne Morrison coached Tech to a 17-8 finish in 1978, their last year in the Metro Conference. Morrison had coached at South Carolina the second half of the 1964 season after Chuck Noe retired but the second time around, he was unable to recruit at an ACC level and the program plummeted. Georgia Tech went looking for a new coach.
They didn't have to look far. Thirty-four-year-old Bobby Cremins had turned around the program at Appalachian State University and taken the Mountaineers to the 1979 NCAA Tournament. Cremins had played for Frank McGuire's loaded South Carolina team. Cremins ended his college career in the 1970 ACC Tournament, when heavily favored South Carolina lost to NC State in the title game. Cremins, now the head coach at the College of Charleston, says, "I took it hard. I felt like I had some unfinished business. I always wanted to coach in the ACC, to get it back. Tech being in the ACC was all I needed to know."
Cremins was part of a breed of young lions that moved into the ACC in the early 1980s. He came to Tech the season after Mike Krzyzewski arrived at Duke and Jim Valvano began his tenure at NC State. Cliff Ellis came to Clemson in 1985. Virginia's Terry Holland was still in his 30s when Cremins started at Tech. "It was a heady time," says Cremins. "We were all shooting for Dean (Smith)."
It was a tough neighborhood. Cremins started his first recruiting class late and was unable to bring in anyone who was able to help Tech close the talent gap. The Yellow Jackets went 10-16 in 1982.
But Cremins hit the jackpot in his second year, with a six-player class that would transform Georgia Tech basketball. Center Tim Harvey (two years) and forward Danny Pearson (one year), left early and forward Jack Mansell was a career reserve. But the other three players became top-tier ACC players. Yvon Joseph a big, strong center from Jamaica arrived by way of Miami-Dade Junior College. John Salley, a lean, mobile seven-footer from Brooklyn, was a significant catch.
The pivotal recruit was Mark Price, a skilled 6-0 guard, whose choir-boy demeanor hid a fierce competitive drive. Cremins recalls, "We absolutely had to get a point guard. I sent [assistant coach] George Felton across the country to find one. He calls me from Jacksonville, Florida and tells me he's found our guy. (Then Felton threw in the kicker) `I'm watching an AAU Tournament and the kid we want is from Enid, Oklahoma.'"
Cremins couldn't believe that Enid, Oklahoma had anything that would help his struggling program but Felton stayed after him. Cremins decided to take a look and fell in love with Price. "I wasn't sure we could get him but he was a big ACC fan. He wanted to go to UNC but Smith signed another Oklahoma kid, Steve Hale. We wanted Price real bad. He was the key."
Cremins threw the youngsters into the deep end of the pool. Price, Salley, and Pearson started as freshmen in 1983. Tech went 13-15, 4-10 in the ACC. Taking advantage of the ACC's experimental 17' 9" 3-point shot, Price led the ACC with 20.3 points per game, the only freshman to ever lead the league in scoring.
Cremins added muscular guard Bruce Dalrymple, a fierce rebounder and defender, in 1984. Unlike Price and Salley, Dalrymple was a highly-recruited prepster, a "tough, hard-nosed kid who played the game the right way." Joseph red-shirted in 1983 but took over the center spot in 1984. Tech reached the AP poll that year for the first time since 1963 and appeared poised to advance to the NCAAs when it started 14-2. But the Jackets struggled down the stretch. A gut-wrenching 67-63 overtime loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament sent Tech to the NIT where they lost their first game to Virginia Tech 77-74 to finish 18-11. Still, "You could tell something was in the works," says Cremins.
Tech returned everyone of consequence for 1985 and added highly-touted forward Duane Ferrell, an athletic wing from Baltimore. Ferrell turned down local favorite Maryland because, "You could tell that Tech was going in a positive direction. I wanted to help build a tradition that would last. We all did."
Tech started the season ranked 18th but lost early to Georgia 60-59. They recovered to upset NC State 66-64 in Raleigh right before Christmas when Price hit a 20-foot jumper with one second left. Tech then went to Hawaii and defeated Arkansas, Washington, and Maryland to capture the Rainbow Classic. Another Price buzzer-beater gave Tech the 70-69 win over the Terps in the title game.
Ferrell remembers, "The feeling of excitement and the energy we got from the fans. We had great chemistry, we came together early and we knew it could be a special season." The Tech players loved playing for Cremins. "He was a player's coach," says Ferrell. "He had good relationships with his players on and off the court. He let us play as long as we played together. Our plays weren't too complex but they worked. He allowed his players the leeway to play in that gray area between calling a play and executing a play. He kept us confident and relaxed."
The Yellow Jackets jumped to the top 10 in the AP poll. Cremins got his biggest win yet in late January, when Tech visited UNC's Carmichael Auditorium for the last time. The visitors jumped to a 44-34 lead early in second half then fell behind after a furious Tar Heel rally. With the teams trading leads down the stretch, Cremins called time and asked his club "Are we gonna fold? Are we gonna give it to them? The players didn't say anything to me. They just looked me right in the eye. I knew we were alright." Salley converted a three-point play inside for a 62-56 lead with 56 seconds left and Tech closed the deal from the foul line for a 66-62 win.
This was the first time Tech had ever won in Chapel Hill. After the game Price, who scored 17 points, exulted, "It's got to be a 10. It's probably the biggest win we've had in three years. Beating them is one thing, beating them here is another thing."
Ferrell says, "This is why we came to Tech. UNC was where we wanted to be. We knew to be the best, we had to beat the best."
1985 was one of the most competitive ACC regular seasons ever. Tech, North Carolina, NC State, Duke, and Maryland were all in the hunt for the title down to the final week. NC State avenged its home loss by winning in Alexander (Memorial Coliseum). Tech swept Maryland and split regular-season contests with Duke, Wake Forest, Clemson, and Virginia. The Yellow Jackets finished their ACC schedule by defeating North Carolina at home 67-62 to finish 9-5 in the ACC. They then beat Temple and lost to Oklahoma in non-conference action during the last week of regular season, while the rest of the league played out the conference schedule. When the dust had settled, Tech, North Carolina, and NC State were 9-5, Duke and Maryland 8-6.
A co-championship was nice but Tech wanted more. The 1985 ACC Tournament was held at Atlanta's Omni, the first time ever that far south. Tech won the coin toss to gain the top seed. They drew Virginia, a tough, physical team that had defeated Tech at home earlier in the season in a game that left some grudges. Price said at the time, "We were looking forward to this game. We wanted to play this game. Virginia goes too far. They're too physical. They try to intimidate you."
Tech led much of the game, never by very much, winning 55-48. Dalrymple led Tech with 15 points.
It was a costly victory. Ferrell hurt a medial collateral ligament in a knee early in the game. Surgery wasn't required but he was out indefinitely. Tech wasn't a deep team. Senior Scott Petway moved into the starting lineup. Cremins recalls, "Scott wasn't real happy about (having lost) his starting job to Duane but he hung in there. He was a steady, complementary player. When we needed him, he didn't let us down."
Second-round opponent Duke also suffered a key injury in its first-round win, a hip pointer to Mark Alarie, which kept him out of all but the opening seconds of the Tech game. The Yellow Jackets jumped to 30-20 lead and led 32-26 at half. Duke's Jay Bilas scored 19 of his 21 points after intermission but Tech pulled away for a 75-64 win. Price led everybody with 24 points, including a 14-14 gem from the foul line. Dalrymple added 16 points.
Few gave Tech a chance to pull off the sweep over North Carolina in the title game. Visibly tight for one of the few times all season, Tech fell behind 14-3, a big deficit against a talented team in an era before shot clocks or three-point field goals. Tech doggedly cut the lead to 32-27 at the half, tied the game in the second half, then fell back. Trailing 50-48 with a minute and half left, Price missed from downtown. Salley grabbed the rebound and scored for the tie. Joseph then stole an entry pass to Brad Daugherty and was fouled by Joe Wolf. He made his first free throw and missed his second. Once more Salley fought through the huge UNC front-line for the offensive rebound.
Tech burned 30 seconds until Price was fouled with 22 seconds left. He made both free shots for a 53-50 lead. Kenny Smith scored for UNC with 14 seconds left. Again Price was fouled, again he came through in the clutch. A UNC turnover, two Dalrymple free throws, and a Daugherty lay-up at buzzer made the final 57-54. Price finished with 16 points and won the Case award as the tournament's outstanding player. Salley had four steals as the Tech defense forced 21 UNC turnovers. Cremins says, "At last I had my ACC Tournament ring. It laid some ghosts to rest."
Georgia Tech jumped to sixth in the AP poll and was seeded second in the East Regional. They stayed in Atlanta for the first weekend. Tech defeated in-state opponent Mercer 65-58 but it was neither pretty nor easy as Tech blew almost all of an 18-point second half lead before stabilizing. Cremins complained that the team was "out of synch on offense," an assertion demonstrated by Price missing half of his eight free throws. Still, this was the only the second NCAA Tournament win in Tech history.
Whatever ailed Tech players, they got it out of their system in time to dominate Syracuse 70-53 in the second round, led by Price's 18 points and a 38-24 advantage on the boards. Ferrell returned for seven minutes, with his knee in a brace and his lateral mobility almost gone.
Tech advanced to Providence, where they were matched against Illinois. Tech led by 52-37 with seven minutes left but Illini guard Doug Altenberger scored 13 points in a five-minute explosion that shrank the lead to four. He fouled out with 24 points and Tech won 61-53. Price broke out of a mild shooting slump by making 9 of 12 field goals and 2 of 3 free throws for 20 points.
Unfortunately, the opponent for the first regional final in Georgia Tech history was the Georgetown Hoyas, the defending national champions and the top-ranked team in the nation.
Tech had their chances. Ferrell wasn't 100 percent but he was better. Georgetown star center Patrick Ewing picked up his fourth foul shortly after intermission and sat out a sizeable chunk of the second half. Dalrymple converted a three-point play to give Tech a 40-36 lead with 11:16 left. But Tech couldn't close the deal. Reggie Williams led a comeback, Ewing returned, and Tech fell 60-54. Cremins says, "We could have won that game. It was a great basketball game. We made a championship team play at a high level to beat us. No complaints."
Salley led Tech with 15 points. Dalrymple and Price scored 13, the latter making only 3 of 16 from the field. Ferrell says, "Mark was our leader and Georgetown did everything they could to neutralize him. They pressed him, bumped him, ran him through picks, they just wore him out."
Tech finished at 27-8, at the time the most wins in school history. Ferrell, who played in the NBA through 1999 and now lives in Atlanta, frequently is reminded of those days. "People remember the buzz in the city, the feeling that we were building something. This is why we came to Tech, to build a program that would compete for titles every year not just once in awhile. I think we put the program on the map."
Cremins agrees. "We became a hot team. We could talk to any recruit in the country. The success of these guys made it possible for us to get the Dennis Scotts and the Kenny Andersons and all the rest. We were young and really didn't know what we were doing. We were maybe too naïve to realize that we weren't supposed to win so we just went out and did it. It was one of my favorite teams and a very special time."
Jim Sumner's articles on southern sports history have appeared in the ACC Handbook, the ACC Area Sports Journal, Blue Devil Weekly, Inside Carolina, the Wolfpacker, Baseball America, Basketball America, and other publications. His latest book, Tales From the Duke Blue Devils Hardwood, was published in 2005. In his bimonthly column "Looking Back... by Jim Sumner", he will examine the rich history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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