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Coaching in Calipari’s shadow, Pastner keeps Memphis among nation’s elite

Memphis coach Josh Pastner  is congratulated by teammates after they beat the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Memphis coach Josh Pastner is congratulated by teammates after they beat the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

USA Today, our Gannett partner, has had some excellent college basketball coverage lately, including this feature on former Arizona Wildcat player and assistant Josh Pastner, the head coach at Memphis. Worth a read …


MEMPHIS — When anybody asked Josh Pastner five years ago about working under John Calipari, the then-Memphis assistant offered the same emphatic response: “The guy who follows this guy, you are literally crazy. You can’t do it. You have to be a nutjob to even think about it.”

As Calipari pursues a second national title at Kentucky, Pastner now finds himself in the fifth season of a job that he himself deemed impossible. What college basketball fans find at Memphis is a 36-year-old coach whose evolution is playing out amid a shadow cast by a man who established an almost unreachable standard.

It is a career path that even Lute Olson, Pastner’s mentor who coached him at Arizona, did not believe was best. Olson told USA TODAY Sports that the ideal path for Pastner would have been for him to work as an assistant under Calipari a few more years before taking a mid-level head coaching job that would have allowed him to grow into the job without the pressure and expectations that exist at Memphis.

“Memphis is a big-time program,” Olson told USA TODAY Sports. “Taking over at 31, I just think he’s handled it very well, but that’s a tough way to go … It was a huge challenge, and I really was hoping he would get maybe another couple years as an assistant.”

The basketball-crazed city of Memphis applauded Sunday’s victory against Oklahoma State in the Old Spice Classic title game, just Pastner’s second career victory against a team ranked in the USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll. And though he embraces the challenge of replacing Calipari, who won 91% of his games and advanced to two Elite Eights and one national title game his final four years, has been every bit as formidable as Pastner expected.

During his first month as head coach, Pastner worked himself so tirelessly, sacrificing adequate sleep and food, he questioned the profession, feared for his health and nearly fell asleep on a couch at The Peabody during a live television interview. He worked the recruiting trail so hard that he talked basketball on the phone to the mother of a recruit while driving his pregnant wife to the hospital while she was having contractions.

Losses have gnawed at his gut to such an extent that his players say they’ll be awakened with 5 a.m. calls from their yet-to-sleep head coach seeking a sounding board. And then there are the letters, like the typed, four-page one written by a former General Motors executive that arrived in Pastner’s office Nov. 26, one week after a 21-point loss at Oklahoma State.

Lifting the letter from his desk, Pastner began reading: “‘The small problem is a very big one now. I am a fan who thinks highly of you. But I am writing to you to offer some urgent advice. The mood both locally and nationally regarding Tiger basketball has taken a dramatic negative turn because of the showing against Oklahoma State.’”

The author went on to recommend wholesale changes to Pastner’s defense, offense and substitution patterns. Then came the kicker: for Pastner to “take a page or two” from Olson or Calipari.

Josh Pastner jumps for joy during the Arizona-North Carolina game in the 1997 Final Four. Photo by Brian Bahr, Getty Images Sport

Josh Pastner jumps for joy during the Arizona-North Carolina game in the 1997 Final Four. Photo by Brian Bahr, Getty Images Sport

Most coaches would love to win 75 percent of their games, make three NCAA tournament appearances and amass an impressive Academic Progress Rate, all feats Pastner accomplished in his first four seasons as a college head coach. But for all the banner recruiting classes, a portion of the fan base expects Calipari-esque success, and that does not include just one NCAA tournament victory.

“Just as he hears it, I hear it,” said guard Joe Jackson, a senior and Memphis native. “There are so many basketball experts in Memphis. There’s so much that starts coming in from everywhere — the letters, the calls, all these different people — it all piles up, and that’s when the pressure starts coming. I could not imagine being the head coach here right now.”

Like her husband, Kerri Pastner is grateful for the fans’ passion because it reflects what the program means to the city. But she has found it difficult to listen to critics call for her husband’s job after going undefeated in Conference USA play (16-0) last season. She now avoids talk radio, blogs and newspapers.

Does Memphis’ recruiting class rank up with Kentucky’s?(Photo: Rick Osentoski, USA TODAY Sports)

“I wonder, what if we started at a smaller school, would there be more room for error?” Kerri Pastner said. “Would it be OK to lose a couple games? Sometimes I wonder if he would have had more leeway at a smaller school, but he loves this, loves the pressure of it.”


Pastner’s career — his entire life, really — has been a product of preparation. At 8, he told his father he wanted to be a head coach. At 13, he published his own scouting report on Houston-area talent. As a teen, he wrote more than 1,000 personal letters to college basketball teams of all levels. By 19, he had applied for the Los Angeles Clippers head coaching position. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Family Studies from Arizona in 2½ years. As an assistant, he talked to recruits by phone while on dates.

But when he was asked to be Memphis’ head coach in April 2009, he was caught completely off guard.

Pastner had just called his father, Hal Pastner, to say that he had boxed up his belongings in his apartment, returned his courtesy car and was about to hop on Interstate 40 bound for Lexington, Ky., where he would join Calipari’s staff at Kentucky. That’s when then-Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson unexpectedly summoned Pastner to his home.

Pastner arrived in shorts and a T-shirt. An unshaven Johnson greeted him in sweat pants. Having never interviewed, the last thing Pastner expected was to be offered the head coaching job. So when Johnson asked, “Do you want the job?” Pastner politely said, if he was going to be an assistant, it was going to be under Calipari.

“No, no, do you want the head job?” Johnson asked.

Stunned, the 31-year-old agreed to succeed Calipari and had 24 hours to prepare for a news conference. “Of course I’m thinking I’m going to get punked by Ashton Kutcher, c’mon,” Pastner recalls thinking. When he called his wife, she could only say, “Huh? What!?! I was ready to go to Kentucky.”

Pastner immediately called Calipari, reiterating his concerns about filling Calipari’s shoes. Pastner recalls Calipari reminding him of why he left the Arizona staff to join the Memphis staff for the 2008-09 season as an assistant — to learn to become a head coach — and then saying, “Here’s the news: If you get fired, I’ll just hire you as an assistant.”

That first month was an unrelenting blur of tasks, e-mails, calls and texts as Pastner, then a one-man staff, looked to maintain Calipari’s momentum despite understandably losing staff and players to Kentucky. Pastner worked “literally around the clock,” his father said. That came at a price, Pastner said: his physical and mental health.

Within weeks, Pastner got married, adhering to his promise of keeping his cellphone off during the actual wedding ceremony. But Kerri Pastner says they still haven’t “technically” had a honeymoon. Keeping the program afloat, especially in spring of 2009, was overwhelming and all consuming.

“There is no manual to prepare for that, especially at this level of a program and following Coach Calipari,” Pastner said. “I loved every second of it, but I remember thinking, ‘If this is going to be how it is as a head coach, I will not survive. I’ll be dead, literally in months.’ I was serious.”


Pastner found some level of normalcy after the first several weeks. But he continued a learning process that coincided with the runs that two other 30-something head coaches — Butler’s Brad Stevens and VCU’s Shaka Smart — made to the Final Four.

Even in defeat, the 2012 NCAA tournament loss to Saint Louis, which was meaningful to Pastner because it was the final victory in the distinguished career of Rick Majerus, who died last December. It also was an educational tool.

Pastner feels he over-prepared his team in the days leading up to the game; “paralysis by analysis,” he said. And when Memphis held an eight-point lead midway through the second half, Pastner recalled that he had to admonish Chris Crawford and Will Barton during a timeout because of an argument over sharing the ball. The Tigers were never the same that day.

“Professionally, he is a work in progress,” Hal Pastner said. “He’s growing with every game, every day. He is learning continually. Five years ago he didn’t know what he thought he knew.”

Handling losses can be a struggle for all coaches. For Pastner, it has long been a significant issue. After Arizona’s Elite Eight loss to Utah in 1998, Hal Pastner remembers Arizona teammates consoling Pastner, who was despondent, even though Pastner had not even played in the game.

At Memphis, Pastner has internalized emotions following defeats. He’ll have sleepless nights on occasion and almost always hunker down in his office working instead of appearing in public until the team wins again, all because he felt he let the city down.

“He is such a perfectionist,” Olson said. “He just expects to win every game. I told him that losses are difficult to take and that my wife Bobbi, who died of ovarian cancer, told me right off the bat, ‘OK, you have an hour after the game if you lose, then I don’t want to hear anything about the loss.’ If kids see in you that you are worried, they are around you enough they know what you’re thinking.”

Kerri Pastner said her husband has definitely found more balance this season. Pastner felt he took a big step on Nov. 22 when he went out recruiting just three days after the Oklahoma State rout in Stillwater.

“One thing I have to realize, Coach, he’s just really gotten into it,” Jackson said. “He has not been in the business 20 to 25 years like these coaches. I don’t get stressed out about it. I just try to help him, like he tries to help me, you know what I mean? Because coach isn’t even that much older than me, for real. Let’s be honest about it. He’s young and he’s going to grow and all this stuff, it will all be behind him. And he’ll win three or four championships because he’ll be so seasoned.”

Right now, Pastner is recognized more as a skilled recruiter than an elite game tactician. Calling him a “tenacious” worker who does not require lots of sleep, Olson praised Pastner for his ability to communicate and build lasting relationships with players, their parents and coaches. Pastner recites ever-changing positive quotes into the voice mail message of his cellphone, and Jackson said he would call the voice mail while he was in high school merely to hear a recorded pep talk for the day.

Baylor coach Scott Drew has encountered a similar perception of being labeled a better recruiter than game coach. Drew said that perceptions evolve, pointing to how Billy Donovan was recognized mostly as an aggressive recruiter early in his Florida career and now is hailed as one of the game’s great coaches.

“I don’t think anyone should ever apologize for being a good recruiter,” Pastner said. “I am always fascinated by that. Part of the job in college is recruiter. That is a major part of the job. You have to do a good job on the recruiting trail. I never understood people say, ‘Well this team beat that team, well, they just had better players.’ Well, shouldn’t they get on the other coach for not recruiting better?”

Crawford, the senior guard, does not believe that the talent Memphis has collected squares with the postseason results; Pastner’s lone NCAA tournament victory came last season against Saint Mary’s. Though Crawford said there have been “spurts” where the Tigers have gotten the most out of their talent, “We have not played to our full potential as a group,” he added. “I feel that when the going got tough, we all just laid eggs, for real. Adversity hit us, we didn’t know how to react to it.”

Sunday’s victory was a significant step for Pastner and his team. Despite Memphis leaving Conference USA for the more difficult American Athletic Conference, Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said he believes Memphis will win 30 games for the second consecutive season. The bigger question won’t be answered until March.

Before his breakthrough with an Elite Eight appearance in 2006, Calipari struggled against nationally ranked teams and had just one NCAA tournament victory during his first five seasons at Memphis. Olson believes Memphis is on the verge of a similar breakthrough. And that would bring more positive letters for Pastner, who was crazy enough to succeed the man who Pastner thought never could be followed.

“People forget, I am following Cal … ” Pastner said. “His first five years here, there were some ups and downs, this and that. It was the last four years. I recognize that. I don’t hide from that. I get it, I am grateful for it. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

“We are so grateful for the fans that care. I appreciate the letters. It’s a matter of attitude, how you look at things. The glass is half full, I look at it as overflowing.”

Eric Prisbell, a national college basketball reporter for USA TODAY Sports, is on Twitter @EricPrisbell.

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