By Carroll Rogers Walton
When Brian Gregory’s job at Georgia Tech hung in the balance in March, he didn’t have a lot to say publicly about it. He just kept working. That was part practicality, part coping-mechanism, and to a large degree, to set an example for his team.
“I’m a positive person,” Gregory said Wednesday at ACC Operation Basketball. “I just make a conscious effort every day to expect great things to happen, stay positive. You can’t always control what happens; you can control your response to it. That’s a lesson I have to drive home to myself every day. It’s also a lesson that’s going to bode well for our team.”
Gregory left on a recruiting trip hours after Tech athletic director Mike Bobinski told him he would be retained for a fifth season. In the two days to follow, Gregory reached out to a handful of fifth-year seniors, including Adam Smith, the former Virginia Tech sharpshooter who gives Tech a badly needed boost in outside shooting.
In the meantime, nobody transferred off a 12-19 Tech team that finished 14th in the ACC with a 3-15 conference record.
“In this day and age, when you’re not exactly where you want to be, guys bolt,” Gregory said. “It’s a lot easier to leave than it is to stay patient, stay true to what you believe in. You usually break through when you get to a point when either you keep fighting or you move on.”
Consider this season that kind of crossroads. And consider that Gregory surrounded himself with players who have his same sense of urgency.
Tech has five seniors, including newcomers Smith and James White, a 6-foot-8 forward from Arkansas-Little Rock, both of Jonesboro and both playing out their final seasons of college eligibility. Same goes for Nick Jacobs, an Alabama transfer, who sat out last season at Tech. The Yellow Jackets return Marcus Georges-Hunt, their most gifted overall player, and former Maryland transfer Charles Mitchell, who has shed 25 pounds for his last season in the ACC.
“When it’s your last go-around, you’ve got to give your all,” Mitchell said. “And you thought you gave it your all the first few years.”
Neither Mitchell nor Georges-Hunt said they wavered in their support of Gregory.
“I always believed in him,” Mitchell said. “He gave me a second opportunity, not just as a basketball player but as a person, to come home and play near my family. People focus on the wins and losses, but he is a great person and a great coach to be around. … We believe in him. We lost a lot of close games last year, but we have a lot of talent this year. We feel like we can win those close games. We’re all behind BG 100 percent.”
Georges-Hunt said he stayed confident that Gregory would — and should — stay.
“He wakes up in the morning wanting to know what can he do to make his guys better as a team,” Georges-Hunt said. “He comes into practice energetic, ready to get after it. He doesn’t let anything bother him or get to him. We have to respect that.”
Gregory wanted to shield his players from the distractions of his job security. So he spoke to them about it once and left it at that. His message?
“It’s just the business that we’re in,” Gregory said. “There’s always going to be a lot of negativity. Players aren’t good enough; coach isn’t good enough; coach doesn’t know what he’s doing; players can’t do this or that. So you’ve got to make a decision: Are you going to listen to that or are you going to do something about it? If our guys learn that lesson, we’ll be pretty good.”
From the fallout came what many, including former Tech coach Bobby Cremins, who said it Wednesday, consider the best group of players Gregory has had at Tech.
Smith led the ACC with a 42.4 3-point field-goal percentage. Jacobs gives Tech a “legitimate low post scorer,” Gregory said, and joins a better conditioned Mitchell. Point guards Travis Jorgenson and Josh Heath are both healthier — Jorgenson another year removed from ACL surgery and Heath having recovered from double-hernia surgery, an ailment he played through last season. Tadric Jackson comes in 10-15 pounds lighter, ready to complement Smith at shooting guard.
Tech also got 10 extra practices on an August trip to the Bahamas, as well as the chemistry-building experience of a workout with Navy SEALs. They have both the security in knowing they were that close to breaking through — losing 11 ACC games last season by five points or fewer or in overtime — and the hunger to do something about it.
“We were great at being resilient after the game,” Gregory said. “We needed to figure out a way to become more resilient within the game. I think that’s something we’ve worked hard on.”
It’s also something they’ve watched their coach do in the meantime.