There was a bit of poetic justice in the air Tuesday night at the Pavilion at Ole Miss.
A year ago, Josh Pastner was a coach under the gun at Memphis, having finished the season at 19-15 that had Tigers fans furious with their team’s failure to make the postseason for two consecutive seasons and maintain the lofty standards set by former coach John Calipari. It was widely speculated that only his $10.6 million buyout was keeping him in his job. When he was a surprise hire at Georgia Tech last April, Memphis fans rejoiced over his departure.
On this evening, the ACC coach of the year brought a team that had been projected to be among the weakest among the power conferences with a spot in the NIT semifinals on the line. And, in front of about 50 friends who made the roughly 85-mile trip down from Memphis, Tenn., and several media members from the market who had witnessed – and perhaps helped create – the toxic atmosphere that Pastner said helped cause what he calls internal depression, his team was the convincing winner. The Yellow Jackets played one of their most complete games of the season in beating Ole Miss 74-66 to earn a spot in the NIT semifinals next week in New York.
It might not have been a victory lap for Pastner. He said he has already cleansed himself of the emotional baggage from his time at Memphis. He has said previously that he doesn’t want to play the “I told you so” game. But the opportunity to share a personal triumph with those who knew him well at Memphis, and those who chronicled his time there, swirled in a different mix of emotions to the night.
“It was a tough stretch last year, but you know what?” Pastner asked. “I loved the job at Memphis. I understood the enthusiasm, the emotional investment and part of that comes with the territory. But to be where we are now, as I always like to say, sometimes you look at life, things are much deeper than they look on the surface. And to be a year from where I was last year, to be (reaching) 20 wins in a major rebuild job and going to New York is a real special thing to be able to do that.”
In his post-game news conference – which he arrived late to because he was greeting friends from Memphis – Pastner dusted off talking points from his seven-year tenure at Memphis. He took the Memphis job, at 31, only because no one else would take it. He noted again that Memphis won 70 percent of its games and that he won his first 150 games faster than any coach in Tigers history.
He noted that last season, despite all the rancor over the Tigers’ 2015-16 season, Memphis could have made the NCAA Tournament had the Tigers won the American Athletic Conference Tournament championship game, which it lost to Connecticut.
“However, there was a lot of noise,” he said. “There was no doubt about (that). I remember going to my TV show after we lose to East Carolina at home, and I went to the TV show on that Sunday night, and I didn’t know if Monday morning – because we were playing Central Florida on Tuesday – and I didn’t know if the president was going to call me and say, ‘Hey, you’re out of here.’ But fortunately, he didn’t. He stuck with me through the year.”
He didn’t neglect to mention a stat that he has taken pride in. Among power-conference coaches, only two have gone the past eight years without a three-game losing streak – Calipari and him.
“So think about that now – there’s no three losses, and so I tell people, that’s hard to do,” he said. “And that’s a credit to the players that we had at Memphis and obviously the players for this year at Georgia Tech.”
He made sure to note that he wouldn’t be at Tech and in the ACC if not for Memphis. He acknowledged the opportunity he received from Calipari and Memphis administrators, five of whom he named.
In a text message later in the night, Pastner called the post-game recollecting with media part of a joyful night.
“I have done my cleansing before,” he said. “Tonight, I was just filled with positive energy, happy for the players and the program, and it was good to see old faces.”