ATHENS —He spoke for 27 minutes before he took a question — or, seemingly, a breath.He spoke in capital letters. With exclamation points. Fists pounding. Fingers pointing. Sparks flying off the top of his well-tanned head.
It would’ve ranked as one of the greatest pre-game speeches of all times if it wasn’t just an introductory news conference. Part Zig Ziglar. Part Herb Brooks. Part Knute Rockne.
Maybe just a dash of John Belushi’s, “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor” speech. A heaping of President Whitmore in Independence Day: “We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”
Really. Just beating Kentucky once in a while would suffice.
Welcome to the new era of Georgia basketball. Meet Tom Crean, blow torch.
He won the news conference. I was ready to run through a wall for him (or, as a 5-10, 58-year-old, into the wall).
“Did I really go that long? Did I lose you?” Crean joked later after being told the length of his opening statement.
And then: “I’ll never go 27 minutes again. Maybe once.”
It’s OK. Georgia basketball needs a wakeup call. It needs somebody in the operating room to slap paddles on it and yell, “Clear!” before throwing the switch.
I’ve never understood why a large SEC school with significant revenue and resources couldn’t compete at a high level in hoops, just as it does in football. It shouldn’t matter that this campus has a tradition in one sport but not the other. What matters most is that it cares to be better.
This is what Crean told athletic director Greg McGarity over takeout sandwiches during his six-hour interview at the coach’s home in Sarasota, Fla., on Thursday: “This should be viewed as a gold-mine destination.”
Crean had a long list of accomplishments at Marquette and Indiana, traditional “basketball schools.” But it doesn’t mean he can’t accomplish the same at Georgia, as long as the support from the administration is there. Fox felt that was lacking at times.
McGarity said that won’t be the case now. He addressed all of Crean’s concerns during the interview. He likened this situation to when Georgia transitioned from Mark Richt to Kirby Smart in football.
“We had to learn how Kirby operated, and we’ll have to do the same with Tom,” McGarity said.
“I’m big on visualization, and people who can tell these young men what it’s like, what you have to do to be a conference champion or to get to the tournament or get to the Final Four. If you’ve experienced that as a coach, kids tend to believe it more.”
Credit to McGarity for recovering quickly after Thad Matta turned him down after dragging out the process to a third day. McGarity went to sleep Tuesday night believing Matta was in the field.
“All of the indicators from Thad and his family were positive,” he said.
And then: “At 10:30 Wednesday morning, Thad called and said, ‘Greg, I just can’t do it. I’m not ready to get back in it.’”
“I just about fainted.”
Two and a half hours later, he contacted his Plan B candidate, Crean. It was like being plugged into a wall socket.
“Six hours of non-stop conversation, vision and excitement.” McGarity said. “You could feel it.”
Sit up. Pay attention. The coach is talking.
“We will never have or accept people who will not give their very best, not only on the court but in the classroom. It all matters!”
“Versatility! Competitiveness! Players that will absolutely be committed to making each other better has been the recipe for success!”
“I want a team that talks on offense! Talks on defense! Talks through success! Talks through adversity! Because they have a belief in one another! There can be no weak points in your career or in your life!”
“People throughout the school! People throughout the community! People throughout the Atlanta area! People throughout the state of Georgia! People throughout the country. People throughout the Southeast region. People throughout the world!”
I’m not even sure what the subject was. But I was moved.
He comes from a competitive family. His kids play sports. His brothers-in-law and football coaches of some note: Jim Harbaugh (Michigan) and John Harbaugh (Baltimore Ravens). His father-in-law: Jack Harbaugh, a former long-time college coach.
“When you’re in a sports family like I am you pay attention to a lot more than just basketball,” he said.
The firing from Indiana last year stung Crean. But he took the time to delve into some self-analysis and wound up taking a “Seeking Trip,” during which he visited several coaches and teams, college and pro, to learn more about the keys to success. He spent time with Tony LaRussa, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Dwyane Wade (who played for Crean at Marquette), LeBron James.
“Excellence is something that has to be there from top to bottom,” he said. “Being in a coaches’ meeting or being in a draft meeting, there were no weak links. It didn’t matter if you were the assistant quality-control coach or the assistant strength coach, if you were in that meeting you were listened to, you were respected.”
He said he learned a lot. He said he’ll be a better coach. He said he’s ready for this. He wants to eat Athens alive.
Kentucky coach John Calipari phoned Crean on Thursday night to congratulate him.
“I hear you’re coming to the SEC,” Calipari said.
“I’m coming to Rupp,” Crean responded.
He talks a good game. He has coached a good game. Now we learn if it’s really a new day at Georgia.