There was room to joke, and Bobby Cremins never turned down a chance to gig himself.
After former South Carolina coach George Felton spoke and former USC coach Eddie Fogler was identified in the crowd, the mop of white hair that always has identified the former Georgia Tech and College of Charleston coach bobbed to the podium and cracked wise one more time.
“Both of those guys are fine coaches,” Cremins said, “but they’ll never match my record of being the only undefeated coach to coach here.”
The Tipoff Club meeting chuckled, stocked with former players in town to celebrate Frank McGuire’s legacy at USC. As much as it stung the Gamecocks when Cremins was hired to coach them after the 1992-93 season, only to abruptly return to Georgia Tech, Cremins was still a son of USC.
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And he was the son of the man so many had come to Columbia to celebrate this weekend.
USC’s McGuire celebration continued with a star-studded Tipoff Club meeting on Saturday, a few hours before the Gamecocks tipped off against Ole Miss. Many former players gathered in the Frank McGuire Club at Colonial Life Arena to continue sharing memories of the man who built USC basketball.
Cremins moderated while Brian Winters, Mike Dunleavy, Gary Gregor, Kevin Joyce, Casey Manning and current coach Frank Martin spoke. Each shared memories of being at USC and of McGuire, and Martin spoke of how honored he was to have the same job title as McGuire and the vision he had for Gamecock basketball.
It was the same vision McGuire had when he arrived in 1964, the reputation of a miracle-worker in tow. Gregor, who was already on the team when the nattily attired new coach strolled into town, remembered that first meeting.
“Coach McGuire never would have recruited me in a million years,” Gregor said. “But the great teams that followed what we started Coach always taught us one thing: ‘If you’re going to do it, do it well, and succeed. And never give up.’ ”
Gregor saw comparisons between what McGuire did and what Martin is trying to do. Each came in after years of so-so basketball, trying to create a powerful program at USC. Lost in McGuire’s school-record 283 wins was that he won six in his first year, 11 in the second.
Martin, about to conduct a morning shootaround, concurred. He spoke of building a house, starting with the foundation. If one brick is out of place, the second floor is unstable and can be wiped out in a storm.
“What we’re trying to do is build a strong foundation right now before we add that second floor,” Martin said. “We all didn’t sign up to be here for a 50-yard dash. We signed up for a long race. My optimism for our team and out program has not wavered.”
Cremins remembered McGuire’s toughness and ability to inspire his troops to the top of the ACC. Cremins, a senior in 1970 when the Gamecocks went 14-0 in the ACC but lost the ACC tournament championship game, never felt as awful as he did after that game.
“John (Roche) went down, and all our hopes went down,” Cremins said. But Cremins, like everyone else, saw it rectified the very next year, when Joyce out-jumped Lee Dedmon for a jumpball, tipping it to Tom Owens for the championship-winning bucket.
“I could not believe that God would let something like this happen,” Cremins said. “We needed a miracle, and guess what? A miracle happened.”
Many of McGuire’s greats attended and were recognized before the game. Roche, the greatest of greats, could not attend due to a bulging disc in his back. Tom Riker was closing on a house in New York, and NBA heavyweight Donnie Walsh had a family situation.
But many others were there, paying tribute to the man who had brought them to Columbia and made them superstars.
“He gave us, as young men, the will to win,” Gregor said. “And that’s what he needs to be remembered for.”