Memphis basketball coach

Memphis basketball coach:

The lights go down at the FedEx Forum, the home of the University of Memphis basketball team, and all eyes are on the video board at center court. The sound of Richard Strauss' "Thus SpokeZarathustra," better known as the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey," blares from the speakers. In a take on that movie's opening titles, a basketball stands in for a planet, turning slowly in the foreground. But instead of the sun coming up over the horizon as in the movie, it's the smiling face of new Memphis basketball coach Josh Pastner. The crowd goes wild.

It's the dawn of a new era in the Mid-South, and maybe in college basketball too. Pastner has succeeded John Calipari at one of college basketball's most successful programs — its 137 wins in the past four years are the most in the nation — and Pastner is only 32. He's not the youngest head coach in the country, but the only two who are younger are at Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne and Tennessee-Martin, two schools where it's slightly easier to learn on the job without a lot of scrutiny and pressure. The Memphis job is one where the school could have had a lot of high-quality candidates to choose among. Instead, they went for a guy whose previous head coaching experience was of the Houston Hoops AAU team when he was 16.

"A normal guy, that would be really something (to take over a program like Memphis so young)," Memphis athletics director R.C. Johnson said. "As someone said to me, he has been training for this since the day he was born. His 32 years in age are pretty young, but in experience, it's unbelievable."
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Pastner — the T is silent — won his first game as a head coach on Friday when the Tigers beat Jackson State 82-53. ("I'm 799 behind Jim Boeheim," he joked after the game.) The challenge will be exponentially tougher Tuesday when the Tigers face No. 1 Kansas at 9 p.m. in the Hall of Fame Showcase at Scottrade Center.

This is clearly a rebuilding year for Memphis. When Calipari left for Kentucky, he left the cupboard bare. But Pastner, one of the nation's best recruiters, has secured what many consider the best recruiting class in the nation. "They will be right back with a national top-five, top-10 ranking by next year," said Kansas coach Bill Self. "That's pretty good when you are starting a rebuilding phase."

As his players will unhesitatingly tell you, Coach Pastner is a lot different from Coach Calipari. Against Jackson State, Pastner was unhappy with the play of junior guard Roburt Sallie and yelled at him to come over to the bench during a timeout. Pastner told Sallie what he was doing wrong, then patted him on the stomach and sent him back on to the court, something that never would have happened under Calipari.

"I didn't play particularly well today," Sallie said after the game, "and in the past, I probably wouldn't have seen the floor the rest of the game. But that's Coach. I wasn't cussed out. It's all positive. Now, he'll yell at you. He's not a goody two shoes; he will get his point across and he demands excellence. He lets you play through mistakes."

"It's a real different style," guard Doneal Mack said. "It's better to have positive reinforcement than someone trying to break you down and trying to put the pressure on you."

Mack, a senior, said he has gotten phone calls from Pastner, some as late as 11:30 p.m., seeking his opinions on things from plays to run to scheduling travel and team shootarounds. "If he feels he's doing something wrong," Mack said, "he's going to come to the veterans and ask, 'What should I do?' He's that type of person."

Pastner's boundless enthusiasm and outgoing demeanor — he's the kind of guy who will touch you on the elbow or on the shoulder in conversation as he makes a point — have made him a natural as a recruiter, but his knowledge of basketball runs deep. While he hasn't been tested on X's and O's in the past, his pedigree says he's more than a guy with a nice suit. Pastner remembers sitting at home when he was in fifth grade, watching a Lakers-Celtics NBA championship game and telling his father, "If I can't play in the NBA, the next best thing to playing is coaching."

Even then, it was pretty evident that Pastner would not be playing in the NBA. At 13, he started his own scouting service and at 16, his father, an AAU coach in Houston, made his son the coach of his age-level team. He handled every aspect of the team, from travel to game-planning, and learned a lot about being a coach.

"I was probably too wild back then," Pastner said. "I was all over the refs and all over the players. I was too intense and it wasn't the right way to be."

When it was time to go to college, Pastner sent handwritten letters to every NCAA and NAIA coach, at all levels, asking to come as a walk-on, with the pitch that he wanted to be a coach, would be a positive influence on the team and would do anything the coaches needed. Arizona coach Lute Olson took him up on it. "What Coach Olson thought was, 'I'll get this guy to come on the team, he's going to walk on, he's going to work guys out and he doesn't go against the rules.' There's no time limit. So I was breaking down film, I was working guys out every single night," Pastner said.

As a player at Arizona, Pastner won a national title as a freshman and was 42-0, getting into games only when Arizona was well ahead on the scoreboard. (He averaged 0.9 points a game in his career.) At the age of 19, he applied for the job as coach of the Los Angeles Clippers of the NBA and talked with Clippers GM Elgin Baylor about the job. "When I look back on it," Pastner said, "I wouldn't have hired me either, but at the time, I thought I was ready to go."

Pastner finished his undergraduate degree in 2½ years, the fastest ever for an Arizona student-athlete, and added on a masters in a year, figuring that if he was going to deal with college presidents, he needed to show he was serious about academics. He went from being a player to being Arizona's video and recruiting coordinator and then an assistant coach and was regularly cited as being one of the best recruiters. In 2008, he joined Calipari at Memphis and was expecting to join him at Kentucky after last season when Johnson called to offer him the head coaching job. After he got over his initial surprise — "I thought he'd hired somebody and was asking me about the assistant's job and I said no," Pastner said — he took it.

This year is likely to be bumpy for the Tigers, but one thing is for certain: Josh Pastner is ready.


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