Walking away not easy for coaches

They try to get out of basketball, but keep getting pulled back in

August 31, 2006|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,sun reporter

The 2005-06 Florida State basketball media guide includes a photo of two coaches who have taken time off from the game.

Leonard Hamilton, who squirmed through an idle year after losing the Washington Wizards' job in 2001, is in command as he dissects a Seminoles win.

The man holding the microphone looks forlorn, seeming to yearn for a team of his own to talk about. Bobby Cremins, who left Georgia Tech with a textbook case of burnout and spent six seasons doing television commentary, finally got his wish last month, when he was hired by the College of Charleston.

"Television and charity golf filled a big void, but I missed the highs and lows of coaching," Cremins said. "I was busy, but the bottom line is, this thing is in my blood."

That also apparently goes for Don Nelson, who spent last season on the Dallas Mavericks' payroll as a consultant, but just took the Golden State Warriors' job for a second time. Nelson, 66, and his wife are both cancer survivors, but after a year of travel with her, he again has decided to visit airports with oversized men.

From the brevity of Nelson's respite to Rollie Massimino's being unable to stay away a second time and Wizards assistant Tom Young's taking off 12 seasons -- twice as long as Cremins -- some basketball coaches prefer the aroma of dried sweat over stopping to smell the roses.

Though early retirement is the goal for many baby boomers, competitive men who often have spent nearly 50 years in the sport find that being a spectator or commentator brings them nowhere near the satisfaction of directing the game from the bench.

Cremins was in his mid-30s when he revived a moribund Georgia Tech program and took the Yellow Jackets to their first Final Four appearance in 1990. The program lost its momentum, however, and after Georgia Tech missed a fourth straight NCAA tournament in 2000, he resigned at age 52.

He wasn't as visible as ESPN's Steve Lavin and Rick Majerus, who seem to be mentioned for any opening, but Cremins kept his foot in the door as an analyst on Atlantic Coast Conference games. A planned year off turned into three and then six, as Cremins never formally interviewed for a college coaching job but received several offers over the phone.

"The first couple of years, I didn't miss it, but then three, four months ago, something told me I had to get back in," Cremins said. "You don't get calls in late June or early July, but then Gregg Marshall pulled a Bobby Cremins."

In 1993, Cremins planned to leave Georgia Tech for South Carolina, then changed his mind. In late June, Marshall was introduced as the new College of Charleston coach, then reneged and decided to stay at Winthrop. The day before Cremins turned 59, the College of Charleston held another news conference to announce his hiring.

Instead of playing golf near his Hilton Head, S.C., home on a late July day, Cremins was in Orlando, Fla., attending an Amateur Athletic Union tournament, watching Baltimore's Team Melo and raving via his cell phone about Syracuse-bound Donte Green.

Forced out after one dismal season in charge of the Wizards in 2001, Hamilton took his payoff, turned down several offers to coach and returned to Miami, where he had spent the 1990s coaching the Hurricanes. He rode his bicycle, jogged and exercised religiously, but the first extended vacation of his life was a drag. After a single season off, he took the Florida State job.

"I was looking forward to doing nothing, but that didn't last long," Hamilton said. "I felt more stress not coaching than I did coaching. I thought I could go to Miami, sit in the stands and enjoy games, but that didn't work. I had recruited some of those kids, and it was like I was still their coach. When I watched at home on television, I found myself screaming at the refs and players.

"We all found out that life without basketball was something that Leonard Hamilton was not going to enjoy. I'm not alone. I think most basketball coaches find it hard to get away from the game."

Though Hamilton doesn't "golf, hunt or fish," Cremins lowered his handicap to single digits, and there was a three-month stretch a few years ago when Young was a scratch golfer.

Young recalled a Florida tournament when he was paired with Chuck Daly, who had coached the Detroit Pistons to two NBA titles, when an errant tee shot put them in Massimino's backyard.

"Rollie wasn't home; he was making a go of it at Cleveland State," Young said. "I remember thinking, `We're here enjoying the sun, and he's up north in the cold.' Now that Rollie's back in it again, that blows my mind."

Best known as the architect of Villanova's upset of defending champion Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA final, Massimino left Philadelphia, had two nondescript seasons at UNLV, two years out of the game and then a sorry seven-year stretch at Cleveland State. After a 20-loss season, the first of his career, he retired in 2003.

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