On Friday afternoon, Hal Pastner was on the floor of Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion. His son Josh had just been introduced at a news conference as the Yellow Jackets’ new basketball coach. Now Josh was fielding more interviews and the Pastner clan — besides Hal, there was his mother, Marla, his wife, Kerri and their daughters, Payten, Kamryn and Harper — was soaking in a momentous day.
His father could tell that his son was flagging, having slept little the previous night, if at all. But he saw something else, too.
It was, he said, “the energy of enthusiasm of, like, ‘Wow, what I love to do’ — the recruiting, talking to players, selling a great program and teaching ’em up, coaching ’em up and taking something at the highest level — the ACC — and going against the best.”
After a sour and dispiriting end to his seven-year tenure at Memphis, one in which Tigers fans applauded his departure for Atlanta, Pastner aims to rise again. With the challenge to lift the Yellow Jackets back to national prominence, Pastner has a chance to make his own imprint. At the age of 38, having gone from coaching wunderkind at 31 to local pariah, Pastner is running to this next opportunity.
“I love the opportunity to build,” Pastner said. “Because people say, ‘Hey, it’s going to be hard next year.’ Everyone was telling me. I’m like, I’m fine with that.”
In April 2009, Pastner was 31, an assistant coach ready to follow John Calipari from Memphis to Kentucky, when he was named the next Tigers coach. Pastner was the next act after a historic success, a four-year run in which Memphis averaged 34 wins, reached the Elite Eight twice and the national championship game once.
In seven seasons, Pastner averaged 24 wins and led Memphis to four NCAA tournament appearances, but never made it past the second round. Not bad, but not Calipari. After two seasons without postseason play, and signs of dysfunction such as a flood of transfers, Pastner’s future at Memphis was very much in doubt.
Pastner is energetic, optimistic and liked by his peers. But as he fended off slings the past two seasons, his father saw a heaviness in him. Hal Pastner told his son that the troubles were blessings, and that he would someday understand.
“Life’s about learning, growing,” he said.
As he conducted his search, Tech Athletic Director Mike Bobinski saw a coach with a .696 winning percentage, a gift for recruiting, drive and a vision for success. He didn’t ignore the storm that had centered on Pastner’s team, speaking with several people for an understanding of what had happened.
“When things sort of devolve like that in a highly charged environment, it’s like an avalanche,” Bobinski said. “You can’t stop it.”
And then he offered a way out and a new start. Pastner will have a rough ride — the Jackets return 24 percent of their scoring. But he isn’t following Calipari and 33 wins per year, either. He has a chance to build and to tell his father he was right.
Said Hal Pastner, “All that took place was a blessing, which has led him to today, for a true blessing, to get this opportunity.”