This wasn’t the first time somebody had something bad to say about Josh Pastner.
“They ripped me to shreds about my coaching in Memphis,” Georgia Tech’s basketball coach said. “The day I got the job, 50 percent wanted me there and 50 percent said, ‘Why are we hiring this guy to replace John Calipari?’”
But what happened to Pastner in November was different. Being criticized for illogical player rotations or a bad play coming out of a timeout isn’t the same as having your reputation smeared or your character shish-ka-bobbed.
In his first season at Tech, Pastner led a lightly regarded team to 21 wins and the NIT finals. By early in his second season, he had been accused of blessing and employing third-party scum to shower players with impermissible benefits, bribe recruits and, here’s the mother of unfounded mudslings, sexual assault.
“There’s a big difference between that and basketball,” Pastner said Tuesday. “Anyone who knows me knows what I stand for in terms of integrity and the NCAA and treating people the right way. I would have regrets if I didn’t do the right thing and if I didn’t make the most of the platform that was given to me. I don’t take that for granted. I would never do that.”
Did the accusations affect his family?
“It’s no fun for anybody when you’re seeing things being said that aren’t true. The things were so outlandish. It was hard on my wife. It was hard on me. It was no fun for anybody.”
Georgia Tech plays its 18th game of the season Thursday night against No. 2-ranked Virginia. It’s about basketball now.
Nobody figured it would take this long. But as Pastner reiterated, “It’s been a very weird few months.”
Just as in Pastner’s first season, the Yellow Jackets weren’t expected to accomplish much in Year 2. But they’re surprising folks again. They’ve won four consecutive, including three consecutive in the ACC. They upset No. 15 Miami, then beat Notre Dame and won at Pittsburgh.
It had been two years since Tech won three consecutive ACC games. One would have to travel back to the 2003-04 season to find the last time the Jackets started 3-1 in the conference. They went to the Final Four that season.
No, don’t go there. It’s just a reference point, not a fantasy projection.
Reality could be smacking them in the next two weeks. Tech has games against three of the top seven teams in RPI: Virginia (2), North Carolina (5) and Clemson (7). Come through that with minimal scars, then we’ll talk.
Pastner is just happy he has a roster of players who are healthy enough to practice and play and, hey, nobody is suspended.
“It’s like we had seven teams in two months,” he said.
He can take the land mines of an ACC schedule. The other stuff was unexpected.
It started in November when the school self-reported NCAA violations, holding out -- and ultimately suspending -- star guard Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson from competition for accepting impermissible benefits. The benefits were apparel, meals and transportation totaling less than $525 for Jackson and $750 for Okogie.
Then it got weird. Ron Bell, a self-proclaimed long-time friend/associate/fixer for Pastner, revealed to a website that he provided the benefits for the two players, and more, but did so with Pastner’s blessing.
One mudslinging moment led to another. Tech attorneys and the NCAA got involved. When it was over, neither party found any reason to hold Pastner culpable. The players received short suspensions, but there were no sanctions against the program or its coach.
In fact, Tech officials and the NCAA entities came to the conclusion Bell was pretty much a wacko. That’s best illustrated in the civil suit Pastner filed last week against Bell and his girlfriend, Jennifer Pendley, for – quoting here -- “defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil conspiracy, aiding and abetting and injurious falsehoods and attempts to blackmail and extort both Pastner and his family.”
It gets better. On pages 28 and 29 of the 47-page complaint, Pastner’s attorneys outline Bell’s out-of-the-blue claim to the NCAA that Pastner sexually assaulted Pendley. When an NCAA official told Bell by phone that the organization had no authority or jurisdiction over such matters and that he only wanted to arrange an interview with Bell to discuss potential NCAA violations by Pastner, Bell grew irate.
From the complaint: “…Bell became irate and angry with the NCAA enforcement staff representatives, demanded an apology, and made threatening statements that caused the NCAA enforcement staff representatives to end the call, cease contact with Bell, and decide that it would be unsafe to send an NCAA enforcement staff representative to Arizona to interview Bell in person. ...”
In all my years of looking at PDFs referencing potential major NCAA investigations, never once have I come across investigators canceling an interview because they feared it would be “unsafe.” And likely a waste of time.
Pastner also has had an assistant coach, Darryl LaBarrie, placed on paid administrative leave this season (an unrelated matter). It has been that kind of year. So much for second-season nirvana.
But Pastner said he’s at peace now. The mountain of exhibits submitted in the civil suit exposes multiple charges in three states that Bell has faced, including fraud, terroristic threats, domestic violence, drugs, burglary, larceny and forgery. Pastner filed the suit because Bell continued to threaten and blackmail him, even after the NCAA finished its investigation.
“It was just like, ‘Enough,’” he said. And then he referred questions to his statement of last week, in which he not only denied the charges but said, “I am disgusted and devastated by the actions of two individuals. ... My family and I are victims of fraud and extortion and the extent to which these individuals have gone to harm us is truly unfathomable.”
On some level, this whole experience might have actually toughened his team.
“It’s been a real rallying point to some degree,” he said. “There are a lot of great lessons. I don’t want to get too religious here or anything, but sometimes you have a plan, and the good Lord has another plan. It’s way easier said than done. But taking it one day at a time is really the way to live.”
He thanked Tech’s administration for support. He praised the players. He said he never had a problem recentering them: “They know who I am.
“As much as things can maybe wear on me internally, I have an outlook that if you have your health, you are a true billionaire. I was up front with the players, very transparent, told them everything. Hey, this isn’t intramurals. It’s men’s college basketball. They needed to know the truth about what was going on.”
Now it’s over. It’s about basketball. Pastner can deal with anything that happens there.
• Ear candy: Fresh “We Never Played The Game” podcast on Falcons’ loss and Roquan Smith’s departure. Click here