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Seven reasons you’ll like Josh Pastner more than what’s-his-name

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There's some irony — four letters of it — in Josh Pastner's name. If the 32-year-old rookie coach of the Memphis Tigers represents anything, it's certainly not the past. Over a summer that saw an ugly story (John Calipari's departure for Kentucky) get gruesome (the NCAA's "vacating" of the program's 2007-08 Final Four season), Pastner hit the ground running toward this still-proud program's future.

If the Great Recession has taught us anything, it's that crisis opens the door for opportunity. Pastner is not so much rebuilding (or reloading) the U of M program he's been charged with leading; he's here to help it grow. Here's why Tiger fans should like what they see.

 

Pride of Ownership. For the better part of a decade, the Memphis program was less the university's or the city's, but Calipari's. One coach — one man — was the axis, and that can be dangerous. But the Tiger program had a national reputation before Calipari, and it will after Pastner. Whether it's a sales pitch or genuine adulation, Pastner appears to recognize the vested sense of connection this city has with its college basketball team, from bankers to bartenders, from teachers to traffic cops.

"I don't want this to be about me," Pastner says. "This is about the city of Memphis. It's the city's team, the university's team. It's about the former players who put in the blood, sweat, and tears to get the program where it is today. It's about the fan base."

 

Optimism Trumps Cynicism. A quote from Calipari: "It disappoints me sometimes — when I've been here going on five years and I've been pretty fair and consistent in how I deal with things — that people get mean and vicious. But you know what? I don't hear it, I don't read it. I just get disappointed if anybody else believes it."

This was in January 2005, after Tiger guard Jeremy Hunt made the police blotter for an altercation with his ex-girlfriend. In Calipari's eyes, the community got "mean and vicious" by suggesting that allowing Hunt to remain in uniform was insensitive. 

A quote from Josh Pastner at his introductory press conference last April: "There are 86,400 seconds in a day, from midnight to midnight. You realize how precious life is and how fortunate things are. When you get an opportunity like this, it's humbling. I totally realize the responsibility I've been given. I fully realize it."

It's easy to be positive — as Calipari certainly was — while going 137-14 over four years. But when times are challenging and hard questions are asked, calling certain fans "the miserables" doesn't help alleviate the tension. It's hard to picture Pastner even using the word, let alone using it to describe Tiger fans.

"People here are so genuine," Pastner says. "I'm the same guy I was when I was an assistant coach. And I've seen good intentions, good motives throughout the city."

As for dealing with the lingering cloud of NCAA sanctions, Pastner is utilizing an arsenal of feel-good techniques.

"I have a word painted above my door," Pastner says. "Gratefulness. It's the most important word. When you're grateful, you keep things in perspective. You keep your ego in check. You realize how precious life is. You don't live with a fear base: if I don't do this, if I don't do that. What you have to do is live in the moment, being present, being centered, having clarity. It's all a matter of attitude, and that's based on commitment. It's not based on money or material things. Attitude is based on choice, and you choose how you want to be."

 

Challenges Define Us. Winning the Conference USA championship won't be easy anymore. Pastner would like to control how much the gap has closed between his program and the rest of C-USA, but make no mistake: The gap has closed. No Tiger appears on the preseason all-conference team. They'll be picked to finish anywhere from second to sixth, maybe lower by some pundits.

Pastner sees this as the kind of challenge no Memphis team has faced in years, and he relishes it. "Every game is hard," he says. "Winning is hard. Winning 61 straight conference games was hard. It wasn't because other teams let us win. Memphis was just better.

"We will get our opponents' best shot this year, because they all feel like this is the year to get Memphis. We'll have to play nearly perfect games. This is the year teams will feel like they can get Memphis."

 

Underdogs Are Charming. Until they bite. "The expectations won't be the same this year," Pastner admits. "It's not good or bad; it's reality."

Sports fans experience different emotions when their team wins a game it shouldn't, as opposed to winning a game it's expected to win. It's a transition Tiger fans will have to make this season. A sigh of relief after beating UAB at the buzzer on the road is quite different from the exultation of upsetting the Blazers in hostile territory with an NCAA-tournament berth on the line. Scratching and clawing your way toward the postseason — as opposed to considering the regular-season merely prelude — has its virtues.

"The city really needs to rally around its team," Pastner says. "We don't need a sixth man in that arena; we need a seventh man. I suppose I'd rather undersell and over-perform. It's going to take time. We'll get back to where we're the favorites. It's going to be a fun year for fans, for everyone involved."

 

This Job Will Shape Josh Pastner. The new coach is a clean slate, a tabula rasa, a newlywed even. No NCAA baggage, no failed NBA adventure. Pastner will make his name here.

"I worked for Coach Cal for only a year," Pastner says, "but what he did the last four years — the number of wins [137] — isn't reality. That was the greatest run in the history of college basketball. But as much as he helped shape the program — or Coach [Gene] Bartow or Coach [Larry] Finch or Coach [Dana] Kirk — I hope that the program will shape me for my time. I also hope to do some great things in the community to help shape it. It's a win-win for both."                       

Pastner dismisses the thought of coaching in the NBA someday, or anywhere else for that matter. "This could be the final-destination job," he says. "Usually you hop from job to job before you land an elite position like this. I hope to be here like Jim Boeheim at Syracuse or Lute Olson at Arizona. I hope the community will want me to be here that long, 30-35 years. I love college basketball, molding young men. And I love developing student-athletes toward the chance of playing in the NBA. Then I can go watch them play! I love everything about what I'm doing."

 

The Big East Watch. Pastner dodges questions about a BCS conference like a seasoned politician. We're in C-USA, he'll tell you, so that's the league we need to win.

But U of M athletic director R.C. Johnson didn't hire Mike Tranghese — former commissioner of the Big East — to sample buffet options at alumni events. The next evolutionary step for the Tiger program is a major conference, one that will bring television revenue, major-bowl opportunities for the football team, and a recruiting hook C-USA will never provide. Among the major conferences, the Big East is the most likely suitor, with only eight football teams and a basketball league — including old rivals Louisville, Cincinnati, and Marquette — that would benefit from the addition of Memphis.

 

Reconnect with Memphis' "Farm System." In 11 years under Larry Finch (1986-97), the Tigers suited up eight native Memphians who scored at least 1,000 points for their hometown university. Over the nine years Calipari was at the helm, the program had two such players (Antonio Burks and Jeremy Hunt). Calipari made it a priority upon his arrival to "recruit nationally," and to ignore talent beyond the Bluff City would be myopic. But when your program sits in a hotbed of prep talent, "inside-out recruiting" (as Pastner has described it) is a wise approach. Memphians don't go to Kansas City for their barbecue or St. Louis for their blues. Start with making FedExForum the destination of choice for top local talent and you're likely to see a magnet effect that stretches beyond the Mid-South.

With Elliot Williams returning to his hometown after a year at Duke, Pastner's team will have an immediate infusion of local blood. Add to the mix 2010 recruits Joe Jackson (White Station High School) and Chris Crawford (Sheffield), and Pastner may exceed Calipari's total for local 1,000-point men by his fifth year on the job.

"Our job is to protect our home base," Pastner says. "This is an elite program, and we're still going to recruit nationally. But there are so many good student-athletes here locally. It just gives us a leg-up. If we want a kid from Memphis and he doesn't come here, it will be strictly because he doesn't want to play here. It won't be because someone outworks us."

                   

 In evaluating his team, Pastner sees its speed as a chief strength. With veteran guards Willie Kemp, Doneal Mack, and Roburt Sallie joined by Williams, the Tigers will be pushing the ball. But the quickened pace may expose what Pastner — and everyone else who looks at the roster — sees as the team's primary vulnerability.

"Our lack of depth is our weakness," he says. "We have two inside players: Pierre Henderson-Niles and [junior-college transfer] Will Coleman. Our numbers make our margin for error slim to none. We'll play small ball a lot, but I think that can be a strength. Knock on wood that we stay healthy."

Like a veteran coach, Pastner turns to his seniors with the hope of finding leadership on the floor, particularly three players who have endured a turbulent transition and still have basketball to play. "This is the year for Willie, Doneal, and Pierre to really leave their mark," Pastner says. "Sometimes people have a natural tendency to lead. You've got to be able to do your job and be accountable for your own actions. Leading is by sincerity. If you don't believe, people see through it."

So what does the city's new standard-bearer for optimism actually worry about? What's his chief concern when he skips the temptation of coffee (or soda, to say nothing of alcohol) and starts his day? "The community has been so good to me," Pastner stresses. "I love Memphis. And I want to give back. I want to win for the city. I don't want to let anyone down."

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