Tech’s issue: Is Josh Pastner more trouble than he’s worth?

Ron Bell crouches near Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner during a practice. Pastner told NCAA investigators that Bell had no special access to his basketball programs. CONTRIBUTED

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Ron Bell crouches near Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner during a practice. Pastner told NCAA investigators that Bell had no special access to his basketball programs. CONTRIBUTED

Of all schools, Georgia Tech should know better. Largely because of its lack of cooperation, the Institute managed to turn a gift of $312 in clothes into four years of NCAA probation, a $100,000 fine and forfeiture of the 2009 ACC football championship. That ax fell in the summer of 2011. Less than a decade later, we've been given a strong indication, courtesy of Alan Judd's reporting in the AJC, that basketball coach Josh Pastner — Judd's words here — "repeatedly shaded the truth" in his interview with NCAA investigators.

Which makes me want to shout, “WHAT are you DOING?”

On the March night that the AJC's Ken Sugiura broke the news that Tech had received a notice of allegations (NOA) from the NCAA's committee on infractions (COI), I approached Pastner, who was sitting in the stands at the ACC tournament in Charlotte. As ever, his Yellow Jackets had been eliminated on the first day. Pastner stayed in town to watch Zion Williamson's ballyhooed return from shoe malfunction. I asked for comment on the NOA. Pastner said he couldn't offer anything on the record, which I understood.

Still, he gave the impression that he considered these latest developments no big deal — even as his program had been charged with two Level I violations, classified as severe, and one Level 2, classified as serious. To be fair, Pastner wasn’t named in any violation. The first two involved then-assistant Darryl LaBarrie taking then-recruit Wendell Carter to the Cheetah and letting Tech alum Jarrett Jack pay. The third involved Pastner-friend-from-hell Ron Bell.

It was during an interview with the NCAA on Nov. 30, 2017 — the NOA was delivered 16 months later; the NCAA moves at glacial speed — that Pastner essentially said he didn’t know Bell all that well. Even as we stipulate that Bell isn’t a credible witness — an Arizona prosecutor has filed 10 misdemeanor charges against Bell and girlfriend Jennifer Pendley for a false report of sexual assault — he does have pictures. The one accompanying the online version of Judd’s story is revelatory.

Pastner is shown, hands on hips, above the 3-point circle. He’s wearing practice gear. The setting is Tech’s McCamish Pavilion. On the sideline, seated, is longtime Tech publicist Mike Stamus, known as Moose. He’s looking at his phone. Crouching by the scorer’s table is Bell. He has his chin in his hand. He’s also wearing practice gear. If you didn’t know better, you’d mistake him for a coach.

Another photo shows Bell on a treatment table in the training room. Another depicts him in the locker room with Josh Okogie, one of two Tech players Bell would host at his Arizona home after paying their airfare. (There’s your Level 2 violation.) Even if we believe next to nothing of what Bell says, are we to disbelieve the photographic evidence that he was treated as much more than a casual acquaintance?

Try getting into a big-time college basketball team’s practice. Or its locker room. Or its training room. Actually, you shouldn’t try — you might get arrested. At best, you’ll be stopped by security and escorted from the premises. Big-time college teams control access to their teams and players. I’ve been hanging around college/pro sports for 40-plus years, and I’ve never ridden on a team bus. No offense, but I doubt you’d be invited, either.

Of Bell, Pastner told the NCAA: “He was at practice like anybody else.” Really? Anybody is welcome to crouch on the sideline as Pastner and his players work? Then: “I never let him in the locker room.” Really? Were those images Photoshopped?

The NCAA already had Pastner’s, ahem, truth-shading interview when it filed its notice of allegations. Again, he wasn’t cited, not even for truth-shading. Tech has filed its response. I doubt any resulting NCAA sanctions will implicate Pastner. But his for-the-record characterization of Bell as just another guy — he was likewise afforded insider status when Pastner coached Memphis – defies credulity. It also brings Pastner’s credibility into question, which mightn’t be a Level 1 or 2 violation in the NCAA’s eyes but can’t play well on The Hill, as the seat of Institute power is known.

Pastner has been in place three seasons. He has not made the NCAA tournament. His best year was his first. His team hasn’t been better than a double-digit seed in the ACC tournament. His latest class ranked 119th in the nation, according to 247Sports’ composite index, and 14th in the 15-team ACC. He has landed some transfers, but that takes us back to the dark days of Brian Gregory, which Pastner was hired to correct.

What does it say that Tech never had a chance at Anthony Edwards, the nation's top recruit, of Holy Spirit Prep, which sits eight miles from McCamish? What does it say that Georgia, which hasn't won an NCAA tournament game since 2002, landed the Ant-Man? (For the record, Tech offered a scholarship when he was a rising sophomore at Therrell High. It was told, "Not interested.")

Boilerplate disclaimer: Tech isn't an easy job. Reality: Bobby Cremins landed big-timer after big-timer, as did Paul Hewitt. Both took the Jackets to the Final Four. This is an ACC school based in Atlanta – those are Selling Points No. 1 and 2. The state of Georgia produces a ton of talent. Asked about Tech after its latest tournament exit, the Duke alum and ACC broadcaster Mike Gminski said: "I would guess that the fan base was probably expecting better recruitment." 

Pastner banked much in-house capital with his way-better-than-anyone-imagined Year 1. That capital hasn’t exactly compounded. His second team, which included Okogie and Ben Lammers, went 13-19. Last year’s team, sans both, went 14-18. He’s 48-53 overall, 20-34 in league play. He explains away the reasons for a lack of improvement — Lammers was hurt in Year 2; Okogie’s NBA leap wrecked Year 3 — but there comes a time when you can’t explain away your record.

I like Pastner. He has been a much better tactician than I expected, which is why I want to give him the benefit of most doubts. It would be fascinating to see what he could do with even mid-level ACC talent. Alas, he's stuck on lower-tier ACC talent. Three years on, he remains the steward of a program in search of traction.

A Pastner text to this correspondent after last season’s final game: “We will get there. We are close. I really believe that.”

I’d like to believe, too. But I read Judd’s detailed story and find Pastner denying that which can easily be proved and thereby flouting the NCAA. And then I wonder if his bosses, who never want to see another NOA from the COI, are starting to ask if Pastner has become more trouble than he’s worth.

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