Memphis is in the mix to join the Big 12 as it expands from 10 teams to 12.
And who may have played a significant role in making that happen?
Possibly Georgia Tech’s new basketball coach.
Go back to April 2009, when Josh Pastner became Memphis’ coach after John Calipari left for Kentucky. In four months, the school would be required to forfeit its 38 wins from its 2007-08 season when the Tigers reached the NCAA championship game. The Tigers were also placed on probation for three years. It was the second major-infractions case for the school in a five-year period. The basketball team’s most recently published APR scores were 902 and 916, scores that in later years would have kept them out of postseason play.
Despite the basketball success, the school was not exactly an attractive candidate to move up from Conference USA.
Move forward to March 2013, when Pastner received an extension from the school that would ultimately be the source of friction when the Tigers failed to maintain the success of his first four seasons. The basketball team’s most recent APR score was a perfect 1,000, and a 995 would be released three months later. The school’s probation had ended, thanks in part to NCAA rules compliance by Pastner that “verges on an obsession,” according to a story in the Commercial-Appeal of Memphis, Tenn. And the school was preparing to move to the American Athletic Conference (previously known as the Big East) that summer.
At that time, Pastner said in a recent interview, then-school president Shirley Raines told Pastner that he was directly responsible for the move.
“She told me I was singlehandedly responsible for changing the image of the University of Memphis, both publicly and with the NCAA, so we have the opportunity to change conferences,” Pastner said. “That’s what she told me.”
Pastner deflected credit, saying he was acting on a directive given to him by Raines at the time of his hire.
“She said, ‘If you have one person arrested, if you break one NCAA rule or you don’t graduate kids, I’m firing you,’” Pastner said. “And I don’t care if you lose every single game, but you’d better do those three things right, (and then) you can coach here as long as you want.’”
Pastner further said that his adherence to those charges was the reason he received the contract extension in 2013, not due to the Tigers’ 31 wins drawing schools looking to hire him away.
“Because I had not one player on my watch arrested, I didn’t have one NCAA issue on my watch and I graduated guys at record pace at Memphis,” Pastner said.
Raines declined an interview to confirm the conversations, but did provide a statement responding to Pastner’s recollection.
"All coaches know that win-loss records matter, but I emphasized to Coach Pastner, and to other coaches employed by the University in the 12 years I was president, that student-athletes must stay out of trouble, NCAA regulations must be followed and that student-athletes must graduate. Coach Pastner was a positive image for the consideration of our University to join the Big East."
Pastner’s recall may not be entirely accurate. In a story by the Commercial Appeal earlier this year that reported a possible conflict of interest in the negotiation of the contract – Pastner’s agent had also once been Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen’s – Raines stated in an e-mail that the negotiation for the extension was in response to an offer to Pastner from another school.
“The recommendation and intention were to keep Josh,” Raines wrote. “It was felt there was a lot of fan and donor support to keep Coach Pastner.”
Raines is clearly a big supporter of Pastner’s. Another statement she provided to the AJC:
“Josh Pastner is one of the coaches I was proud to have employed and to have him as a representative of the University of Memphis when I was president. He is a man of integrity, made sure we fulfilled all the NCAA requirements, that student-athletes graduated and that they lived their university lives as positive contributors to the community. You are fortunate to have him at Georgia Tech and in Atlanta.”
It’s unclear if and when the Big 12 will expand, and who would join – Cincinnati, Houston, SMU, South Florida, BYU and Colorado State are among many names being tossed about by fans and media. Memphis’ bid has the backing of FedEx, which is based in Memphis and has vowed to sponsor a Big 12 Conference football championship.
But should it come to pass, this line of thought could be easily argued – without Pastner, Memphis might not have gotten into the AAC. And if Memphis hadn’t gotten into the ACC, it probably wouldn’t have much chance of getting into the Big 12.