It was after a workout in July, after another series of three-on-two fast-break drills that went as well as a Three Stooges paint job, that Josh Pastner walked into a conference room with his coaching staff and asked a completely illogical question: “How are we going to get to 20 wins?”
Everybody waited for the punchline.
“They were like, ‘Coach, stop. It’s probably going to be more like five or 10,” Pastner recalled. “One of my staff members, Julian Swartz, said, ‘If we win 20 games, I will call the Naismith Hall of Fame myself. If we get 15, there should be a statue of you on campus.’”
Swartz was a school counselor before coming to Tech, so this funny talk was in his wheelhouse. He confirmed the meeting recently, saying, “I thought it could be a very long, emotional season. ‘Coach, 20 wins, you’re talking goofy now.’”
Pastner heard all of the negativity when he replaced Brian Gregory as Georgia Tech’s basketball coach. But he never has been a glass-half-empty kind of guy. More like: The glass isn’t half-empty, it’s just half-visible.
The Jackets didn’t lose more than two consecutive all season — and, yes, they hit 20 wins. They’ve advanced to the semifinals of the NIT on Tuesday night in New York. Prepare for honors in bronze.
This season seemingly affirms two things: 1) Tech has benefited from Pastner’s infectious enthusiasm, which has spread from him to the players, through the program, the campus and the fan base; 2) Maybe the inbox he inherited from Gregory wasn’t so bad after all.
It’s clear Gregory not only stabilized the program but hit on recruits, notably junior Ben Lammers and freshman Josh Okogie, the Jackets’ two leading scorers.
“I thought we had a chance to be pretty good this year,” Gregory said by phone.
That wasn’t meant to diminish Pastner’s accomplishments. To the contrary: Pastner and Gregory are friends. They have a mutual respect for each other. When Pastner got the job, one of his first phone calls was to Gregory, seeking insight into the program. The two spoke a few times in the first couple of weeks of Pastner’s tenure, which hardly is the norm in these situations.
“In this profession some coaches can get sideways when someone takes over the program after they’ve been released,” said Gregory, who was hired at South Florida this week. “That’s not my character. We had some really good conversations the first couple of weeks. Josh is one of the good guys in the profession. He’s done a great job. I’m happy for those guys. I root for them every game.”
Pastner inherited a far better situation from Gregory than Gregory did from Paul Hewitt, both in terms of economics and stability. Remember the post-Hewitt contract fallout.
“Sometimes you take over a job, and there can be a lot of stuff going on,” Pastner said. “But that wasn’t the case here. The culture when I took over was great. We have great kids, and that’s a credit to Brian. Maybe the program just needed a little infusion of energy. But I give Brian a lot of credit for what he built here.”
Coaching is a strange profession. Gregory won 21 games last season. He got fired. Pastner has won 20. He’s being celebrated.
But Gregory failed to make the NCAA tournament for a fifth consecutive year, and it was clear athletic director Mike Bobinski had decided to make a change. Gregory praised the job Pastner has done, but said he never bought into the public narrative that he left behind a depleted program, even if losing a senior-laden class.
“I was really proud of the character and the talent of the players that were coming back,” he said.
It was somewhat ironic that Tech’s 20th win in the NIT quarterfinals came in Oxford, Miss., not far from Memphis. The win over Ole Miss drew a media contingent that chronicled Pastner’s exit at Memphis. Pastner won 24, 25, 26, 31 and 24 games in his first five seasons, but he failed to make the NCAA tournament in years 6 and 7, and he certainly never approached the postseason success of his predecessor, John Calipari. Under immense pressure, he left after the season for the Tech job. (Memphis neither fired him nor stood in his way.)
New Memphis coach Tubby Smith (19-13, 9-9 in the AAC) didn’t do much better this season than Pastner did last season (19-15, 8-10). But nobody in Elvis town is saying a word.
Pastner: “I was following John Calipari. Tubby’s following me. That’s the big difference.
“Let me tell you a story: We won 18 straight (in 2012-13) and we were a six-seed that season. People were on me because we hadn’t played in the Sweet 16. We were playing St. Mary’s and we’re up two points. With two seconds left, (Matthew) Dellavedova comes off a screen and has a shot for three, but he misses and we win the game. If he made it, we lose. I probably would’ve been fired or at least had to leave. But he missed, and I got a new seven-year contract. That’s our profession.”
So Pastner is soaking this up while he can. Elevating expectations so quickly in a job can backfire. Ask Paul Johnson. Tech’s football coach went 20-7 in his first two seasons and then everybody wondered why he couldn’t achieve that success in the next four.
Pastner still needs to recruit and build depth in classes. But a 20-win season, beating four top-25 RPI teams, winning ACC coach-of-the-year honors (and two other awards) has all been sweet.
Even more remarkable: Pastner and Calipari are the only two major college basketball coaches to avoid a three-game losing streak in the past eight seasons. After consecutive losses, Tech this season managed to upset VCU, Clemson, Florida State and Indiana (in the NIT opener, leading to Tom Crean’s firing).
This is the same team that in a practice early in the season, “We could not complete a fast break,” Pastner said.
“Two-on-one, three-on-two, it didn’t matter. We went for an hour. We were the Bad News Bears. A friend who coaches with the Wizards was in town watching, and he told me later, ‘Coach, just try to stay positive.’”
Actually, that was never the problem.
Staff writer Ken Sugiura contributed to this article.