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‘It’s not about me’

Southern’s Rusty Cram on the verge of becoming program’s winningest coach

    Leaning back in his desk chair, situated in his cozy upstairs office in the far corner of Hanner Fieldhouse, Rusty Cram finds it hard to believe he’s just two wins shy of becoming Georgia Southern’s all-time winningest women’s basketball coach.
    A modest smile creeps across his face as he fondly recalls everyone who helped along the way. And as he inches toward the milestone, Cram wants to make one thing very clear — this is not a personal record.
    “It’s not about me,” said the 11th-year head coach, who came to Southern as an assistant nearly two decades ago. “This involves so many people from coaches to players to fans and family. It’s a part of everybody. This is a record for everybody that’s been involved.
    “It’s incredibly humbling when you think of all the young ladies who have passed through these doors and the stories they have to tell. That’s what comes to my mind, all the people that have been part of the program.”
    Those people include two very important women — his wife Jana and assistant coach Regina Days-Bryan – who have helped guide Cram in the female-dominated world that is his everyday life.
    “They sometimes help me step back and take a look from a different perspective because I think like a guy,” he said. “That’s helped me tremendously. Jana is my biggest fan and my best critic at the same time.”
    Days-Bryan, a former standout post player for the Eagles, has been Cram’s right-hand man since 1997. She said his unique style of coaching has kept her from leaving his side.
    “I’m not sure I can work for someone else,” said Days-Bryan, who considers Cram a part of her family. “He really cares for the girls. He’s just like their daddy. I think he started out as a big brother, but as the years went by, he became daddy. The kids really come first. You hear coaches saying that all the time, but it’s really true with him.”
    Days-Bryan appreciates Cram’s approach to the game and his innate understanding that there are a lot of things more important than the game itself.
    “Basketball is big because it’s our livelihood, but it’s not the whole world,” she said.
    And in Cram’s world, he makes sure his players know they are a top priority.
    “We want them to know that they are the most important part of our day and they matter to us,” he said. “It’s important for us to make sure they understand that. They have to want to play for me, and I can’t expect them to do that if I’m not going to give them my full attention.”
    His players say they have something special in Cram.
    “I know how much he really cares about his team and his staff,” said Lee DuBose, a four-year letterwinner under Cram from 2002-2006. “He takes an extra step just to make sure everybody is happy and playing well. Most other coaches don’t care about that and only want you to play basketball, but he’s going to make sure you get your education, have everything you need and feel at home here. He was a great coach to play for.”
    DuBose, now Cram’s student assistant, said his tremendous teaching skills help make him such a highly regarded coach.
    “I think I learned more in my first week here than I did in all of my high school career,” she said. “That’s really why I’m still here — because I want to be a coach, and I know I’m going to learn so much from him.”

Reading girls
    When he first broke into the profession, Cram coached high schools boys in Alabama and Louisiana. Heading the girls’ teams was something that unexpectedly came with the job, kind of like, “Hey, while you’re here, we need you to coach the girls, too.”
    Cram did what was asked but couldn’t overlook his feeling that the girls’ teams were getting shortchanged. He ultimately decided to focus solely on the girls, knowing he had something to offer.
    “I felt like I could fight some battles as a male within that game,” said Cram, who has 161 career wins heading into tonight’s game at Elon. “I feel like through the years I’ve done a pretty good job of fighting the war for them and getting girls’ athletics up to where they need to be.”
    But doing so has been a challenge that required Cram, a self-described people person, to learn how to read his players. Simply taking the time to care was the first step of the complicated process.
    “There is an emotional side that’s more prevalent with girls,” he said. “But that’s just the way that I live life — caring about people in general. It’s not about W’s with me. It’s more about life situations, the personal side.”
    And it’s the personal side, Cram said, that’s been one of the greatest rewards of his demanding job.
    “My wife and I have the luxury of being able to deal with these young ladies on a very personal basis, help them through problems, watch them graduate and get them ready to be successful in life. Those are the fun times.
    “You build relationships that are going to last a lifetime. They come in as strangers their freshman year, and one day you are going to watch them in each others’ weddings as best friends. They establish lifetime friendships and commitments to each other, and being able to sit back and watch that — I certainly enjoy that side of it.”
    Although the job has plenty of upsides, it’s no cakewalk.
    “I wish I could tell you it’s always rosy, but it’s not,” Cram said. “We are in a highly competitive business. It’s getting tougher and tougher every year because you do have to compete at a very high level and people are getting better.”
    While he has the girls under his wing, Cram teaches doing the right thing. He encourages them not to be flashy with their philanthropies, such as nonchalantly purchasing a meal for a less-fortunate family they encounter on a road trip. He also makes every effort to ensure playing at Georgia Southern is a highlight of his player’s lives.
    “When a young lady leaves here, I want them to look back, be glad and feel good about the years they had here,” Cram said. “I think for the most part we’ve done that. That’s my ultimate goal — that they come here, get that degree, have a good career, are positive, make lifetime friends and move on in life and be very, very successful. If we’ve done that, then I don’t know what else could be asked of us.”

In the right place
    Back in 1990, Cram had never even heard of Georgia Southern. He was living in Florida, where he’d left coaching because of family obligations, when he got the phone call — former GSU coach Drema Greer needed an assistant.
    Greer had already interviewed more than a dozen other candidates but hired Cram on the spot, even though he lacked college coaching experience. Three years later, Cram was promoted to associate head coach before taking over the program in 1996. During his tenure, he’s been a part of five Southern Conference championships and two NCAA tournament appearances, earned SoCon coach of the year honors in 1998 and 2001 and became just the third league coach and first GSU head man to record 100 conference wins.
    His fondest memories over the years are part of his “Wall of Fame,” a cluster of framed pictures hanging on his office wall.
    “The girls up here on this wall have special meanings to me,” he said as he glanced at the photographs. “If there is a day I need some pick-me-up, I can look at them and think about their different stories of things they went through. It picks me up because I know why I’m here. Jana and I feel like we have a reason why we are at Georgia Southern, and that’s why we continue to stay here.”
    What’s that reason?
    “I feel like the good Lord and his infinite wisdom knew what he wanted for us, and we are here because we feel like this is where he planted us,” he said. “And we will be here until we feel like it’s time for us to move on somewhere else. We love Georgia Southern, and we love Statesboro. We love this community.
    We feel like we have something to bring to the university, the campus, the community, and as long as we are feeling that we are going to continue to do that.”
    And in the meantime, as he approaches becoming the winningest coach in the program’s history, he reiterates his place in the success.
    “It’s not about me — I want people to understand that,” Cram said. “It’s about the girls who walk through these doors. I teach them what I know and try to get them to perform at their best level.
    “Could we have won more? Absolutely.”

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