WASHINGTON, D.C. — After just one winning season and 19 total ACC wins across four years, Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory needed a good 2015-16 to extend his stay as the Yellow Jackets coach. Athletic director Mike Bobinski reportedly had not made a decision on Gregory’s future coming into the ACC tournament and would not assess the state of the program until the end of the season.
Gregory brought in a few more transfers and invested heavily in his senior class. The Yellow Jackets have won more games in 2016 than any other season under Gregory and turned a troubling trend of losing close games into winning close games and closing well, winning six of their final eight games in the regular season and knocking off Clemson on Wednesday night in the ACC tournament.
Though Georgia Tech battled, led for moments and only trailed by two at halftime, Virginia outplayed the Yellow Jackets in the second half and rolled to a 72-52 win. The Yellow Jackets will likely have opportunities to participate in the postseason, but where they end up and whether Gregory is back for 2017 are the biggest questions in the immediate future for the program now that their stay in Washington D.C. is over.
The numbers behind Gregory’s tenure won’t blow anyone away, but the impact he’s had on his players, particularly this senior class, make it sound like the Georgia Tech coach has represented a lot of what many hope to find in a leader of college athletes.
“So many people get caught up in the numbers and the rankings and wins and loss column, but it’s the things he’s done for this team,” senior forward Charles Mitchelltold CBS Sports this week. “That’s not even basketball, it’s just who he is is believing in us on and off the court and that environment over time … he’s just one of those people that never gives up.”
Mitchell was granted an NCAA waiver that granted him immediate eligibility when he transferred from Maryland to Georgia Tech in 2014. The Atlanta native wanted to be closer to his family, specifically his grandmother who helped raise him. The Yellow Jackets were able to welcome in the former Terp immediately with Maryland’s move to the Big Ten and the hardship waiver, but it was Brian Gregory who put Mitchell in a position to get the fresh start he was looking for at a tough time.
“This is the thing. BG gave me a second chance to make a first impression. I think man-to-man he knows that, he’s one of the guys that believed in me more than anybody he changed my whole entire life off the basketball court and on the basketball court. He made me a better person, a better man and a better player.”
Mitchell started his second chance by working on his body. According to Georgia Tech, the 6-foot-8 big man lost 20 pounds of fat mass and only 2.67 pounds of lean body mass to get down to a trim 255. He’s been one of the best rebounders in the ACC over the last two years and flirted with becoming the first Georgia Tech player in 15 years to average a double-double.
He also went total Hulk on this towel during Georgia Tech’s comeback win against Clemson in the ACC tournament.
The hot seat conversation has been ongoing since the end of last year, but according to Mitchell it never impacted the way Gregory acted around his players.
“He never worried about his job, he always worried about how you’re doing today and what’s best for the team. He didn’t focus on who he is or what’s going on with him. He’s one of those coaches I’ll always believe in him and always have his back.”
It’s impossible to know what lies ahead for Gregory and Georgia Tech. There are financial concerns — the department is on the hook to pay Paul Hewitt for three more years and would owe Gregory for the last two years of his deal — and the predicament of having to find another coach in an uncertain hiring cycle across the coaching landscape. But what if this success in 2016, built mostly on the back of a tight senior class, can’t be sustained? Does Georgia Tech make a move now to avoid having to face the same questions for another year?
ACC basketball demands success at the highest level, and Virginia Tech just this year showed how the right hire can quickly change a program’s outlook with Buzz Williams. It’s tempting for Georgia Tech fans to look to Blacksburg and wonder if they can have the same luck.
But making a change also means getting ride of a coach that has improved the team’s academic record, win total and established life-long bonds with his players. For Charles Mitchell, Gregory’s presence has been essential to life on and off the court.
“Man to man, there’s been some tough times off the court that I can’t even explain right now but he’s always there for me, he always had my back. I’m not going to lie, he’s seen me cry a couple times as a 22-year old when I felt like there was no one there for me and he looked me dead in the eye, man-to-man, and told me he would always have my back throughout everything, just trust and believe me, and he has.
“I can’t even explain it, having a person that is a leader a role model and a father figure and also your basketball coach at the same time, it’s just a different feeling.”
Brian Gregory told his team after the loss that there would likely be opportunities to continue this season. Marcus Georges-Hunt, for one, said he hopes they can continue to play together, whether it’s the NIT or another invitational tournament. The mood in the Georgia Tech locker room after the game was expectedly somber, but there was not a player in there that wanted to discuss the idea that the future of Georgia Tech basketball does not involve their current head coach.