I met Josh Pastner at the Finch Center in late February, our introduction coming between interviews with Tiger players and Pastner's former, more famous boss. The conversation went like most do between new acquaintances, with emphasis on the weather. Having come to the Tiger program after a long stint at the University of Arizona, Pastner tried to define "dry heat" for me. And he told me how much he preferred winters in Arizona to the chill we were then experiencing in Memphis. "But I don’t mind now," he added, "because we’re winning."
Tiger Nation won't mind Pastner’s youth (he's 31), his inexperience (the Memphis post will be his first head-coaching gig), or his desert roots ... as long as the Tiger program is winning. I, for one, like the hiring, and for three reasons:
1) It feels fresh. There's nothing worse for a fan base than recycled coaches. And hiring the likes of Leonard Hamilton, Scott Drew, Mike Anderson, or Tim Floyd would have been precisely that. U of M athletic director R.C. Johnson would be investing in past performance by a coach in a setting entirely different from the one that coach would find in Memphis (and there's no other setting like this one in the country).
It took nine years, but Tiger fans have forgotten that when John Calipari was hired, he had lost his coaching legs, cast aside by the NBA’s New Jersey Nets and four years removed from his grand success at Massachusetts. He was a recycled coach. A recycled coach, mind you, exceptionally prepared to make the Memphis program part of the Calipari brand. This is a brand -- with national identity -- that young Pastner now must try to extend and make his own. But his slate his clean (barring any developments in the recruiting allegations from his days as an assistant to Lute Olson at Arizona). Pastner has the chance to establish his coaching credentials entirely in Memphis. And that feels fresh.
2) There's a sense of continuity. He may have spent but one season at Calipari's side, but one season as an apprentice to a Naismith Coach of the Year is better than a dozen alongside a second-tier basketball mind. And let's remember that Pastner was hired by Calipari in large part for his skills and energy as a recruiter.
The kid is in over his head, particularly if he's held to the standard Calipari left behind. A record of 137-14 over the last four years is the stuff of fiction at the Division I level. But Pastner was eyewitness to the management of a program at its greatest heights, so he's unlikely to overlook details that mattered in reaching those heights. If the link to Calipari retains a prized recruit or two, Tiger Nation should consider it a bonus. But Pastner should not be judged by the stars he retains for the next season or two. Which brings me to the third element I like about his hiring.
3) Pastner can be long term. Feelings were damaged when Calipari bolted for Kentucky, but the truth is the move just took longer than Calipari anticipated (making the breakup all the more painful for his former partner). Had Kentucky called in, say, 2002, do you doubt he would have gone then? Or 2006? Timing is everything, and John Calipari received everything he asked for in Memphis except the chair once occupied by Adolph Rupp.
I don’t get the impression Pastner will treat his new gig like a stepping stone. (Along the same lines, there is a danger if the Tiger fan base -- or worse, the U of M administration -- considers Pastner merely a stopgap until a "wow" coach makes himself available.) Using the year under Calipari as his foundation, Pastner can build a house in Memphis all his own. If he pays attention to detail -- and, importantly, asks the right questions -- that baby face can become the face of the Tiger program rather quickly. Calipari, after all, was but 29 when UMass hired him in 1988. The first lesson for Josh Pastner: if the New Jersey Nets call, don't answer.