Officially, College of Charleston head basketball coach Bobby Cremins is taking a medical leave of absence to address a non-life threatening problem. But misty eyes and body language Friday at TD Arena hinted that a news conference minus a certain famously personable 64-year-old might have been the beginning of the end.
Suddenly it seems so short, Cremins' six-season tenure on the historic campus with a great basketball tradition built by former coach John Kresse.
Cremins entered athletic director Joe Hull's office early Friday morning and all but offered to resign. Not because the injury-riddled Cougars have lost three games in a row entering today's Southern Conference home game against Wofford, or because a 12-8 record is disappointing to some fans after a fabulous start that included wins over Clemson, Massachusetts and Tennessee.
Because of exhaustion and three weeks of sleepless nights.
"He was saying, 'I just can't do this anymore,' " Hull said.
Hull and others asked Cremins to tread carefully.
After all, coaches with 579 career wins and a 1990 Final Four appearance shouldn't make rash decisions.
"I think I was the first person to use the term 'leave of absence,' " Hull said.
So assistant coach Mark Byington, groomed by Cremins to eventually take over, is thrust into the spotlight as interim head coach.
"Coach (Cremins) was joking with me a while back," Byington said. "He said his dream was to sit up in the stands next to John Kresse, drink a vodka tonic and watch me coach."
Byington is quick to point out he wants Cremins back ASAP and didn't expect to get the gig with his boss releasing a statement like this:
"I have decided to step aside to take a medical leave of absence. I have asked our athletic director, Joe Hull, to turn the team over to our associate head coach, Mark Byington. Mark is an outstanding young man and basketball coach. I have complete faith in him, as do our players. Being able to come back and coach at the College of Charleston has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I hope everybody will continue to support our team and Mark."
That was the only comment from Cremins on Friday, but others had plenty to say.
"Charleston gets so much attention as the friendliest city," Hull said. "Is there a more friendly basketball coach than Bobby? He is the perfect fit."
Cremins fell into the College of Charleston's lap after Gregg Marshall "pulled a Cremins" and returned to Winthrop one day after agreeing to become head coach in the summer of 2006. A thirsty search committee, like a pretzel salesperson lost in the desert, was delighted to get a third-party call from someone saying there just might be interest from an available retired Hilton Head resident who had coached his way to three Atlantic Coast Conference championships while at Georgia Tech and played a lead role in the Frank McGuire glory years at South Carolina.
Cremins, unlike his flip-flop change of heart with South Carolina during his Georgia Tech glory years, was smitten with Charleston.
Still is, which is why this is so hard.
"I could just tell he wasn't himself these last few weeks," sophomore forward Trent Wiedeman said.
Like Cougars fans and Cremins' pals, Wiedeman and his teammates tried to read between the lines Friday.
Back next season?
Gone for good?
"Honestly, I don't know," Wiedeman said. "It could go either way."
It's quite possible, one of Cremins' longest and closest friends said Friday night, that rest will add perspective.
"Bobby does not want to coach this weekend," the man said. "He talked about, 'Doctor's orders.' But maybe it's a different story in six weeks."
Maybe it's too early to start rolling out a list of post- Cremins candidates that might fit the program as well or better than Byington.
It isn't too early to say that the pleasant white-haired guy has been wonderful for the College of Charleston basketball program, the school, the Lowcountry, the Southern Conference and the sport.
Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 or on Twitter at @sapakoff.
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