Pastner living up to reputation as quick starter

Photo by Casey Miles

Josh Pastner was cut out for coaching college basketball at a very young age. When he was 13, he already began scouting high school basketball players and published the “Josh Pastner Scouting Report” on local high school players. While others his age aspiring for a career in basketball spent hours on the blacktop, Pastner took it a step further. His father gave him the reigns to an AAU team that included such future NBA starters as Emeka Okafor and T.J. Ford.

Pastner was similarly precocious in many other aspects of his life as well. He completed his Bachelor’s degree in two and a half years, and he finished his Master’s degree in just one year, all while playing basketball for the University of Arizona.

Now, Pastner’s job is to show that his wisdom beyond his years, questioned by no one, is the right recipe for a Tech basketball program looking for a facelift.

While working under College Basketball Hall of Fame inductee coach Lute Olson and legendary current coach John Calipari, Partner quickly ascended in the coaching ranks and became known for his fervent recruiting efforts. In 2009, Calipari left the Tigers to take a job with a jungle feline of another kind: the Wildcats of Kentucky, whose two-year flirt with Billy Gillespie had done little to recapture the magic of previous coaches Rick Pitino (now at Louisville) and Tubby Smith (ironically, now at Memphis), and Pastner was set to follow. On his way to Lexington, he got a call from Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson. Pastner turned around and drove back to Memphis. The head coaching job was his, and he quickly accepted. His first job as head man had arrived.

Pastner recruited one of the top classes in the country and avoided a significant drop off to be named the Conference USA Coach of the Year. In seven years as the head coach at Memphis, he led the Tigers to an NCAA Tournament appearance four times. He also helped another one of his peers get an early start to his coaching career. While he was still an NBA player, Luke Walton joined Josh Pastner’s staff as an assistant coach. The two were teammates at the University of Arizona, and under the guidance of Pastner, Walton was able to develop the fundamentals of coaching that helped him in the NBA with the Golden State Warriors and now with the Los Angeles Lakers.

But times weren’t easy. The Tigers were still savoring the newfound relevance brought to the program by Calipari and expectations were high. The placard on the head coach’s office had changed, but Memphis very much remained John Calipari’s program in spirit. Despite solid year-in, year-out recruiting, Pastner was never able to transform his talent into the tournament success expected by fans. A move was in order, and the opening of the Tech job with Brian Gregory’s termination was an appealing one.

In Pastner’s own words to David Gardner of Sports Illustrated, “at Memphis … it was just a straight-sustain, sustain, sustain. We were trying to win 30 [games] every year to match Coach Calipari.” Any coach would have a difficult time filling those footsteps, let alone a first-time head coach.

Coaching at Tech allows Pastner to build up his own program. With the allure of a big city, recruiting opportunities, and the competition of the ACC, there’s a lot to like about coaching the Jackets. Pastner intends to fully see out a rebuild, viewing it as his chance to leave his “own imprint on the program.”

At the beginning of the rebuild, Pastner has put together a squad that is wildly exceeding pessimistic predictions by the media made in the preseason. Most polls and media outlets had the Jackets slotted to finish at the bottom of the ACC, either No. 14 or No. 15 out of 15 teams. A strong showing in non-conference games, including a win over 15-5 Virginia Commonwealth helped to set up the Jackets for a tough ACC slate.

Early results have Pastner in the ACC Coach of the Year conversation, and while conference play is just getting started, he no doubt deserves consideration.

Pastner has been very open with Tech fans as well as the media. He is clear about his goals for the program and his recruiting efforts demonstrate his dedication. He has the AAU circuit excited about how he has developed players like Ben Lammers and Quinton Stephens and also given freshmen like Josh Okogie and Justin Moore extensive opportunities to play. Pastner is locked in on the current season now, but when asked about the future by Ken Sugiura of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he was clear about his optimism.

“I think people have a vision of what we want to do and as we continue to upgrade with talent … we’ll be better as we move forward” Pastner said.

Until recruiting season picks back up in April, Pastner has put Tech fans and other ACC teams on alert. With Pastner’s past, this is more likely a trend than a fluke.