Bobby Cremins and Les Robinson no longer command a spot on a college basketball bench or regular mention on the sports pages.
For the most part, they’re familiar only to the parents of the young players they instruct at clinics from Puerto Rico to Alaska, Texas to Nova Scotia, Baton Rouge to Harlem. Recognition is not a particular motivation for them or for Dave Odom, who sometimes joins their forays on behalf of the U.S. Basketball Association, which conducts high school tournaments and clinics.
The former coaches simply relish the opportunity to travel, spend time together and immerse themselves for a few hours or a few days in the game to which they’ve devoted their adult lives.
“For guys who are retired from coaching, it’s really a fun thing to do,” says Cremins, 67, once coach at Appalachian State (1976-81), Georgia Tech (1982-2000) and College of Charleston (2007-12). “I love teaching, I love teaching basketball.”
They are joined at times by an array of others with ACC ties: Jay Williams (Duke), Jason Capel (North Carolina), Debbie Antonelli (N.C. State) and Cremins’ pals Skip Harlicka and Corky Carnevale (South Carolina pre-ACC withdrawal).
Odom, 72, an occasional clinic instructor and a former head coach at East Carolina (1980-82), Wake Forest (1990-2001) and South Carolina (2002-08), extols the virtues of working camps with the third- to 12th-graders.
“None of these kids are trying to show college coaches how good they are,” he says. “They’re working hard to improve their game, but they don’t have any visions of grandeur, if you will. They just want to be good high school players. And, if it develops beyond that, that’s good.”
Mark Thompson, 49, president and founder of USBA, fairly gushes over the honor of working with the former ACC coaches. He insists their presence is more than window-dressing.
“A lot of people think, we say these guys are coming to town, and coming to town in name only,” says Thompson, an ex-college assistant. “These guys are out there on the floor sweating. They’re out there with the kids – from 9 to 3 they’re there on the floor.”
And usually they’re awake: Robinson prizes a cell-phone photo of Cremins snoozing on court in a chair at one clinic.
Robinson, 72, is more moderator than instructor, opening and closing the sessions. With his experience as a coach and athletics director at The Citadel, East Tennessee State and N.C. State, his alma mater, he also discusses life skills and meets with parents to field their questions.
Yet the clinics aren’t as sober-minded as they sound, not with Robinson and Cremins, friends for more than 40 years, goading and taunting each other.
“We try to keep the kids laughing, keep them smiling,” says Odom, sporadically a volunteer coach at Forsyth Country Day School near Winston-Salem. “That’s easy to do with Bobby and Les.”
When the genial pair first met, Robinson was an assistant coach at The Citadel, Cremins a player at South Carolina under Frank McGuire. Later they faced off as Southern Conference and ACC head coaches, and Robinson assisted Cremins directing the U.S. team in the 1989 Tournament of the Americas at Mexico City.
Both now live in the Charleston, S.C., area. Despite their disparate backgrounds – Cremins from The Bronx, N.Y., Robinson from West Virginia – “we’ve become like brothers,” Robinson says. “We talk every week, we’re always doing things together.”
Familiarity has bred respect and the easy needling familiar to many siblings, married couples and longtime teammates.
“The clinics are fun because I get to hang out with Les, one of my best friends,” Cremins says. “The problem is, I’ve got to listen to Les. He never stops talking. I know every story he’s ever told.”
Particularly irksome, according to Cremins, are Robinson’s tales of West Virginia basketball and its stars of yesteryear: Jerry West, “Hot Rod” Hundley, Rod Thorn.
“I’m tired of listening to his West Virginia bull,” Cremins admits. “We get on each other’s nerves, but we’ve been friends for a long time.”
Meanwhile, Cremins is known as a genial basketball version of Yogi Berra. It’s not always clear if he’s joking, as when he persists in calling Robinson “Lez” or writing the name as “Less.” A laughing Odom says, “Traveling with Bobby Cremins is like traveling with your grandson, it’s always entertaining.”
Robinson teases his pal about the University of South Carolina’s academic stature, Cremins’ defensive coaching skills, and anything else that comes to mind.
Thompson recalls a barb immediately launched after a clinic held with Cremins home because of illness.
“Sure enough, as soon as we got back on Monday, Les calls Bobby and says, ‘I wasn’t supposed to tell you, but Mark said this was by far the best camp we ever had.’ ”
Cremins – who once arrived at an ACC coaches’ meeting and guilelessly announced that he’d just been watching a top prospect, unaware it was not a live recruiting period – remains active in college sports as a member of the NCAA Committee on Infractions.
“I’m a little bit over my head, but I try to tell these people what it’s like to be a coach,” he says. (He says he would recuse himself from any case involving coaches he knows personally.) “They want the truth, but sometimes they get the truth and they still throw the coach under the bus.”
Cremins also has a basketball talk show on satellite radio and provides commentary on a smattering of TV games. Robinson is on the selection committee for the National Invitation Tournament, monitoring teams in four leagues, and assists The Citadel by schmoozing several of its big-bucks donors.
The ever-competitive basketball ambassadors work together on USBA events; they are scheduled to appear at camps the week before Christmas in Mooresville and Locust.
When not verbally dueling, they swap tales of some of the ACC’s greatest personages. For Robinson that means sharing stories about Wolfpack coaches Everett Case and Press Maravich, as well as Raleigh protege “Pistol Pete” Maravich.
Cremins is the expert on Case’s primary ACC rival, McGuire, whose North Carolina squad went undefeated and won the 1957 NCAA championship.
Both speak admiringly of UNC’s Dean Smith, a common opponent and dominant presence during their ACC tenures.
“They talk about him the way I talk about them,” Thompson says. “I just sit there, I drive and listen.”
The conversations extend to concern over Smith’s deteriorated health, along with the struggles of ex-Smith lieutenant Bill Guthridge and of Bill Foster, a 532-game winner at UNC Charlotte, Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech.
“It’s a bummer,” Cremins says of the trio’s plight.
Nearly three years removed from the blessings and burdens of directing a team, Cremins laments that his professional predecessors cannot enjoy with him, on golf course or basketball court, the fruits of hard-earned retirement.