Back in 2007, Josh Pastner lost to Arizona. Kind of.
Pastner, a Wildcats assistant coach at the time, was one of the head coaches for the Lute Olson All-Star Classic, an event that brought back many of the program’s all-time greats in an exhibition game.
Pastner’s team lost, so he had to do 20 push-ups at midcourt after the game.
Now, the stakes are more than push-ups. It’s Pastner’s Memphis team vs. Sean Miller’s Arizona team in the NCAA Tournament on Friday. Each coach is in his second year as the head coach at that school. Each coach in his first NCAAs as the head coach at that school.
Pastner’s Arizona connection is a rich storyline — thanks, NCAA selection committee — and here’s a quick Pastner timeline at Arizona:
1996: Arrives at UA as a walk-on guard from Kingwood, Texas
1997: Part of UA’s NCAA championship team.
1998: Receives bachelor’s degree in family studies after only 2.5 years.
1999: Coaches AAU Houston Hoops to Nike tournament title; finished master’s in teacher education.
2000: Is named Academic All-Pac-10 second team, ends UA playing career averaging 0.9 points a game in 42 games; leads Houston Hoops to Global World title in summer.
2000-01: Lute Olson names him UA graduate assistant coach.
2001-02: Is appointed UA’s video and recruiting coordinator.
April 2002: Is named UA assistant
2005: Rivals.com calls him one of nation’s top 25 recruiters.
2007: Turns down Kentucky assistant’s job.
2008: Memphis offers him an assistant’s job; he accepts.
* * *
Here is a column I wrote for the print edition of the Tucson Citizen, when Pastner was mulling that offer from Memphis (with some archived photos mixed in):
The program probably needs him more than ever, but if Arizona basketball assistant coach Josh Pastner is walking out the door for Memphis, there’s only one thing to say.
Good for you, Josh.
The timing isn’t great because the Wildcats, in the midst of an extreme coaching makeover, need Pastner’s stability more than ever. But he doesn’t owe the university, the program, the players, the recruits or coach Lute Olson any more than he has already given.
As a walk-on guard, video and recruiting coordinator, administrative assistant, assistant coach and lead recruiter, he always gave more than the demanding job demanded.
It was never surprising to see him – anywhere, anytime – with a cell phone attached to his ear, talking to a player, a recruit, a coach, whoever. Working. Always working.
Maybe the only surprising thing about seeing Pastner on a cell phone would be if he wasn’t text messaging on another phone at the same time.
He once told me, “If I was about to get married and my bride and I were walking down the aisle, I guarantee you my phone would be on my clip. And not turned off, either. I’d give the moment some respect and put it on vibrate, but I wouldn’t turn it off.”
He was kidding.
Point is, no one could be more devoted to Arizona basketball than Pastner, who arrived in 1996, bleeding red and blue and ready to learn from the first day. Nobody in Tucson has slept less in the past 12 years.
He, quite famously now, earned an undergraduate degree in 2 1/2 years.
He’s given his all to the UA’s coaching job. Now, he needs to do something for his coaching career.
Becoming a head coach is the twinkle in his eye, and he can best get there by skedaddling out of Tucson and adding new experiences and challenges to his Olson-infused resume.
Being at national-championship-contending Memphis under John Calipari will do the trick.
We’ve become so used to Pastner, on the sideline, as a local pitchman and through charitable ventures, that it’s easy to forget he’s only 30. He’s accomplished plenty with a lot left to learn.
He will be a head coach someday. No doubt. Maybe the road eventually will lead him back here. It works that way sometimes. But first he needs to hit the road. Go, Josh, go.
Some of Arizona’s most highly rated recruits have signed under Pastner’s direction, although Olson has, of course, retained the final say.
That’s not to say all of the recruits were hits, or that there was enough depth in those classes to cover for the predictable early entries to the NBA, but Pastner, even at his tender age, became a recruiting force that Arizona will be hard-pressed to immediately emulate at a critical time.
Jeff Goodman at Foxsports.com recently polled coaches for their take on “guys that instill a level of fear into their colleagues when they stroll into a gym.” Pastner was No. 7 on that list of elite assistants at high-major programs.
Perhaps he would have been inclined to stay if he had been elevated this offseason to be Olson’s top assistant.
Olson has brought in two veteran coaches with varied experience – Russ Pennell (officially) and Mike Dunlap (unofficially) – to sit on the bench with him.
Can’t argue with either’s pedigree.
But it’s not really about whether Pastner would have been/should have been No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3. In any case, he needed to expand beyond Arizona and probably should have done it years ago.
There’s no questioning his loyalty. Pastner could have gone to Kentucky as an assistant to Billy Gillispie last season. He could have gone to other places, at other times.
Loyalty. If anything, the Arizona basketball events of the past 12 months have reinforced that this is a business – an often cold business where loyalty gets drop-kicked out the back door.
Maybe that’s good, maybe that’s bad. It’s often just the way it is.
Long-time Olson assistant Jim Rosborough? Ousted.
Would-be successor Kevin O’Neill, who came in with the support of exalted alums Steve Kerr, Sean Elliott and others? Never made it to his promised second year as an assistant.
Assistant coach Miles Simon, hero of the 1997 national championship team? Contract not renewed.
And now Pastner is packing up, too. It’s all over except for the official announcement.
He knows: Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.
And Pastner is doing the right thing.
Good luck, Josh.