The NCAA investigator warned of dire consequences if Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner lied about breaking the association’s rules.
“Understand,” Pastner answered.
For the next four hours, however, Pastner repeatedly shaded the truth about a relationship at the heart of allegations that, almost two years later, still endanger the men’s basketball program at Tech.
Throughout an interview with NCAA enforcement officials on Nov. 30, 2017, Pastner dramatically mischaracterized his ties to Ron Bell, an estranged friend, reformed drug addict and former prison inmate from Tucson, Arizona. The NCAA questioned Pastner about Bell's claims that the coach instructed him to give impermissible benefits to players and to recruit an athlete from another school.
In the interview, Pastner inaccurately described Bell’s access to his players and coaches. He disclosed only a handful of the approximately 2,000 electronic messages in which he and Bell discussed recruiting, coaching strategy and other matters. He understated his knowledge of Bell’s illicit recruiting and failed to mention Bell’s visits to his home.
Pastner not only denied wrongdoing, he depicted Bell as little more than a casual acquaintance, an ordinary fan.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained a recording of Pastner's confidential interview and compared his statements to text messages, emails, photographs and videos, many of them contained in court documents. This review comes as Tech faces a reckoning for what the NCAA has deemed a "severe breach of conduct" involving Bell and a former assistant men's basketball coach accused of an unrelated offense. The association is weighing penalties against the school.
The NCAA may expel coaches who withhold information or lie to its investigators. But it has not accused Pastner of breaking any rules, despite evidence that undermines his story.
Neither the NCAA nor Tech would comment on Pastner’s interview.
The NCAA investigation, as well as civil and criminal cases in Arizona, resulted from an epic breakup between Pastner and Bell, who once depicted himself as the coach’s most loyal friend. Since late 2017, Pastner and his lawyers have described Bell in starker terms: dishonest, manipulative, untrustworthy. The Journal-Constitution reported last year that many of Bell’s claims about his background and even his medical history could not be verified. He now faces misdemeanor charges of making false statements to authorities in Arizona. Nevertheless, many of Pastner’s statements to the NCAA don’t stand up to scrutiny.
Pastner did not respond to a request for comment. His lawyer, Scott Tompsett of Kansas City, said in an email that Bell made false claims about Pastner as part of an extortion attempt.
“Whether Bell was ever in the locker room or around the team is irrelevant and trivial compared to the crimes that have been committed against Josh,” Tompsett wrote. Questioning Pastner’s truthfulness is “disgusting and offensive,” Tompsett said, and perpetuates “malicious efforts to damage Josh and his family.”
Listen: "What was his role on the team?"
In the NCAA interview, Pastner said Bell ingratiated himself by claiming to have a terminal illness. Their relationship, he said, was “literally like a Make-A-Wish Foundation.”
“I was being a compassionate human being and allowing him normal access as I would with anyone else in that situation,” he said. Describing himself as a victim, he blamed Bell, his players and even their families for any violations of NCAA rules.
“My entire life has been on treating people the right way, living life the right way, making an impact on people the right way,” Pastner said, pounding the table to punctuate his point. “That is my DNA and moral fiber.”
Listen: "My entire life has been on treating people the right way..."
Bell’s lawyer, Justin Niedzialek of Phoenix, discounted Pastner’s blanket denials of wrongdoing as a “misdirection” aimed at avoiding sanctions and saving his job.
“If he’s misleading the NCAA, he’s misleading Georgia Tech, quite possibly,” Niedzialek said. “It does raise a question as to his credibility.”
‘Dear, dear friend’
The NCAA questioned Pastner a few weeks after Tech learned that Bell had spent about $1,400 on travel, clothing and meals for two basketball players who visited his Arizona home in 2017. The NCAA forbids athletes from accepting benefits not available to all students.
Pastner told the NCAA he had not known about the trip and should not be held accountable for it.
“The players did not tell me the truth,” he said. “They knew better.” Later in the interview, he said: “How are the parents not aware of this and asking me, ‘Is this OK?’”
“Ron knew how I felt about rules,” Pastner said. “He would always tell me I’m his hero, I’m his idol, he looks up to me, my integrity, my character, my values, my principles. He said he could never imagine he got to meet his hero and idol in life.”
Pastner never explained – and investigators never asked – why he spent so much time discussing rules compliance with Bell if he was merely a fan.
Nor did Pastner tell investigators about his relationship with Bell outside basketball. Bell visited Pastner’s homes in Memphis and Atlanta several times; a video shows him balancing the coach’s young daughters on his knees as they recite Christmas wish lists. Pastner’s wife and daughters also visited Bell and his girlfriend in Arizona.
Regardless, Pastner insisted Bell had no access to his teams that would enable illicit behavior.
“I might have let him break the huddle or something,” Pastner said. “He was dying. I was being a compassionate human being and allowing him normal access as I would anyone else in that situation.”
“He was at practice like anybody else,” Pastner also said. “I never let him into the locker room.”
Listen: "I never let him into the locker room."
But photos and videos – most of them taken by Bell’s girlfriend, Jennifer Pendley – demonstrate Bell’s extraordinary admittance into Pastner’s inner circle.
In one picture, Bell poses with basketball player Josh Okogie in Tech’s locker room at McCamish Pavilion. In another, Bell crouches on the gym floor during a practice, a few feet from Pastner. A video shows the couple on the team bus with Tech’s players as they arrive for a game at Tennessee. In an older video, Bell shoots jump shots with Memphis players before a game at Tulane as Pastner watches from the corner of the gym floor.
Yet another video contradicts Pastner’s assertion that he had only once sent a package, containing Georgia Tech T-shirts, to Bell’s home in Arizona. The video shows Bell opening a gift Pastner had sent from Memphis: an autographed basketball.
“Ron, you are a dear, dear friend!” Pastner had written on the ball. “A brother from a different mother!”
‘You know me’
Bell, 52, grew up in New York and lived in the Atlanta area several years before moving to Arizona about 2004. He has said he became addicted to prescription painkillers and that Pastner saved his life by helping him get treatment — an episode Pastner has said he doesn’t remember. Bell, whose criminal record dates to his late teens, later went to prison on drug charges. Pastner has said he knew none of that when he and Bell renewed their acquaintance in 2013. Bell began attending Pastner’s games and practices in 2015.
During the 2016-17 season, Bell tried to recruit a player he thought would help Pastner: Markel Crawford of Memphis. Any effort to sign another team’s player during the season is against the rules, and the NCAA now says Bell was acting as Tech’s representative in illicitly pursuing Crawford.
In his interview with the NCAA, Pastner portrayed himself as an innocent bystander.
Pastner said he “became aware” that Bell was “independently talking” to Crawford. But he didn’t see Crawford as a good fit at Tech, he said, and “I just didn’t think any more of it.”
Text messages, however, indicate Pastner knew Bell was trying to arrange Crawford’s transfer as early as Feb. 9, 2017, more than two months before the NCAA allowed recruiting of potential transfers.
That day, Bell assured Pastner he could deliver Crawford.
“I know people promise this or that, Josh, but I am not them, especially when it comes to you,” he wrote in a text message. “You know me. If I say something is going to happen, it will.”
“Let’s touch base tomorrow,” Pastner replied.
Pastner and Bell apparently spoke by telephone the next day. Bell recounted the call in a text to Pastner’s wife, Kerri, saying her husband was “very excited about the possibility” of signing Crawford. “He gave me instructions on how to handle this within the rules.”
A day later, Bell texted Kerri Pastner again: Crawford, he said, told him he wanted to transfer to Tech.
Kerri Pastner replied: “Markel is not going to go around saying anything about next year, will he? I just don’t want anyone thinking Josh is stealing their players.”
She did not respond to a request for comment.
It is not known whether Josh Pastner saw the exchange. But on Feb. 15, he told Bell that Crawford could not initiate a transfer before the season ended.
“Anything else in the short term is wasted energy,” Pastner wrote.
“This was totally him doing this,” Pastner said. “This was not my direction. I did not direct him in any way, shape or form. None.”
Listen: "This was not my direction."
When an investigator asked why he hadn’t reported Bell’s in-season contact with Crawford, an apparent rules violation, Pastner answered, “I don’t know – it just slipped my mind.”
After four years of texting, emailing or calling each other virtually every day, Pastner and Bell abruptly ended their relationship on Oct. 2, 2017.
They spoke by telephone 10 times that day as Bell complained that Pastner had not shown enough appreciation for his support. The conversations became more and more heated until Bell finally threatened to expose transgressions that he said would destroy Pastner’s career.
Pastner told the NCAA he hadn’t known what Bell was talking about.
“I had never thought for one second of an NCAA rules violation,” Pastner said. “You know what I thought at the time, when he was so enraged with anger? Because all that sexual harassment and sexual assault stuff was coming out, I was thinking he was going to say I assaulted him or did something to his girlfriend.”
This reaction would be remarkable for its timing: Pastner’s final conversations with Bell took place three days before news broke about allegations against the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, before the torrent of stories alleging misconduct by other prominent men, and before #MeToo became a hashtag, much less a movement.
Even more striking is when Pastner related this story to the NCAA: six days before Bell first alleged – to an NCAA official – that Pastner sexually assaulted Pendley, his girlfriend.
Pastner denied the allegation, and an investigator hired by Tech in the spring of 2018 cleared Pastner, a spokesman for the school, Lance Wallace, said in a statement. “We stand by the results of that investigation,” Wallace wrote.
Several lawyers dropped Bell and Pendley as clients, casting doubt as to whether purported evidence of the sexual assault existed. More recently, a municipal prosecutor in Arizona filed misdemeanor charges — 10 against Bell and five against Pendley — accusing the couple of falsely reporting the alleged assault. Those charges are pending, along with a defamation lawsuit Pastner filed against the couple and a countersuit accusing him of sexual assault.
At the end of the NCAA interview, Pastner pointed out that just days before turning on him, Bell had tweeted that Tech was lucky to have him as coach.
“He follows rules and has integrity,” Pastner read from Bell’s tweet. “#nograyarea.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first explored the relationship between Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner and Ron Bell in a February 2018 story, “The coach and the ex-con.” Subsequent stories reported on investigations by Tech and the NCAA.
Alan Judd is an investigative reporter for the AJC. He has written about persistently dangerous apartment complexes in metro Atlanta, juvenile justice, child welfare, sexual abuse by physicians, patient deaths in state psychiatric hospitals, and other topics. Contact him at email@example.com or at 404-526-5029. Follow him on Twitter @alanjudd3000.