Josh Pastner makes a heck of a first impression. He’s smart — graduated from college in 2 1/2 years, had his masters by the time most collegians find the library — and he speaks so well he could work for the BBC. (Nary an “ah” or “um” in the entirety of his remarks to the media Friday, remarks that weren’t read from a script.)
In those remarks, he sounded every theme a Georgia Tech coach should — that this is, contrary to what some say, “a gold mine” of a job; that this is “a championship-level program”; that he plans to “recruit like crazy” and that such recruiting “starts locally.” When he gave a shout-out to the area’s AAU coaches, I almost applauded. (If you can’t recruit AAU talent, you have no shot.)
Then I caught myself. If this is a gold mine, why did the job fall to Pastner, who missed the NCAA tournament the past two seasons at Memphis? Why was Pastner eager if not desperate to leave a big-time job for an opportunity maybe half a dozen others spurned?
Mike Bobinski, Tech’s athletic director, interviewed two coaches Saturday at the Final Four. One was Bryce Drew of Valparaiso, who chose Vanderbilt. The other was Pastner, and it’s worth noting that Bobinski took four more days to come back to him. If you’re wondering whether Bobinski was concerned about the Memphis unraveling, the answer’s yes.
“I wanted to know what that was about,” Bobinski said. “I looked into it and lost that concern. It was something that built up and took on a life of its own. It became an avalanche.”
Pastner became the Memphis version of Paul Hewitt — had early success and got handsomely rewarded; stopped winning big, but was too expensive to fire. As we knew, Tech eventually dug deep and fired Hewitt at a cost of $7.2 million; it would have cost Memphis $10.6 million to can Pastner.
Pastner was 31 when he replaced John Calipari at Memphis. He averaged 26 wins over his first five seasons, making the NCAA tournament four years running. (Never got past the first weekend, though.) The Tigers moved from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference in 2013. Their records over the next three seasons were 24-10, 18-14 and 19-15. This year they finished 8-10 in a league that sent four teams to the Big Dance.
Conventional Memphis wisdom holds that the change in conferences revealed Pastner as an ordinary coach. Conventional wisdom also holds that the program had gotten away from him. Twelve players had transferred since 2014. Over Pastner’s seven seasons, you could count the number of four-year Tigers on one hand. We’ve just likened Tech’s new coach to Hewitt, but doesn’t that part sound like Brian Gregory?
Of the news that Pastner was in talks to leave for Tech, Geoff Calkins of the Commercial Appeal wrote: “It’s the best possible news for Memphis. The current situation was toxic and unsustainable. … Next year was shaping up to be more miserable still.”
Pastner made his reputation under Lute Olson at Arizona as a demon recruiter. One of his biggest Memphis signees — Shaq Goodwin, a McDonald’s All-American from Southwest DeKalb — spoke with the Commercial Appeal’s Jason Smith and described his four-year relationship with Pastner as “bittersweet.”
Goodwin: “He’ll bring it up every two days or something like that. Like, you could tell that it was on his mind. … ‘Hey, guys, I know my job is in jeopardy, but we need to stop worrying about that and worry about the wins.’ But if you say that five times in a week, you know.”
Bobinski said Pastner all but leapt at Tech’s offer: “It’s a new life. It was like a weight had been lifted. I think he wanted a fresh start.”
Not surprisingly, Pastner has a different slant. Asked what went wrong at Memphis, he said: “I don’t think it went wrong. Look at the overall body of work. I loved my time at Memphis. … I’m ready for the challenge of building something. This is not about trying to leave Memphis. This is about the opportunity at Georgia Tech.”
I’d like to believe him. I’d like to believe he’s the right guy for a program gone wrong. I’d like to believe Bobinski when he insists what happened at Memphis won’t happen here. But what does it say when the fans cheering louder are the ones you’ve leaving?
I wish I could feel better about this. I’ve long been disposed to like Pastner, who, as Calipari would say, is a Basketball Benny. I remember Alex Wolff of Sports Illustrated raving about an Arizona walk-on who graded film like a coach. (Pastner has a framed copy of Alex’s story.) I’d love to be wrong about this hire.
So do it, Josh. Prove me wrong.