So Josh Pastner, the University of Memphis basketball coach whom we lionized editorially a few weeks back, doesn't do everything right. But nobody's perfect. Pastner went off the reservation this week when he said on a Knoxville radio talk show that playing UT isn't a good fit for the Tigers. The reason? Going to Knoxville usually pays no recruiting dividends for the University of Memphis, whereas when the Big Orange comes to play in Memphis, that creates a wedge for UT recruiters here.
Pastner did go on to tell Josh Ward and Will West of WNML-AM 990 that "we play it because the athletic director wants me to play it and he's my boss and what he says goes. ... Look, my athletic director, I think he's the best. I mean, the absolute best. If he tells me to do something, I totally believe in chain of command."
As it happened, the aforesaid University of Memphis athletic director, R.C. Johnson, was the featured speaker at the weekly Memphis Rotary Club luncheon this week, and, as gently as possible, Johnson scolded Pastner (whom otherwise he bragged about) for the indiscretion and went on to say what Pastner himself had acknowledged during the radio interview, that University of Memphis-University of Tennessee was a cross-state rivalry with the potential to be as big (and as mutually profitable) as such other storied rivalries as Michigan-Michigan State, Ole Miss-Mississippi State, and Oklahoma-Oklahoma State.
"But that's Josh!" said Johnson, with the air of a proud papa concerning an overachieving son.
Altogether, Johnson (who has been in the crosshairs himself once or twice) handled the situation well. He struck other good notes during his speech to the Rotarians, laying out the four desiderata of his program at the U of M this way: 1) Strive to improve the grade point averages, graduation rate, and general academic achievement of student athletes. 2) Become such an integral partner in the larger Memphis community that matters of fund-raising become natural outgrowths of the relationship (for purposes of comparison, the annual athletic budget for the University of Texas is $143 million; that of the U of M is $38 million). 3) Run a clean program. (Johnson expressed regret for the Derrick Rose test-taking fiasco that resulted in NCAA sanctions and the loss of a season's worth of basketball wins.). 4) In a word: Win!
As to the latter goal, Johnson cited recent successes in such sports as softball, golf, baseball, track, women's soccer, tennis, and men's and women's basketball. Of the football Tigers' 1-11 record in 2010, Johnson jested, "I let Jack Soden run the football program last year." The head of Elvis Presley Enterprises was an innocent guest in the audience.
In all seriousness, Johnson said of the athletic program in general that its rise in the competitive world of intercollegiate athletics was dependent on two factors: football and television sets. And that, he said by way of completing the cycle, was as good an explanation for big in-state and regional gridiron rivalries as any.