Josh Pastner has plenty of strengths. Georgia Tech’s new coach is optimistic. He is diligent. He is a proven recruiter.
“Tireless worker,” said Virginia Tech football coach Justin Fuente, who knew Pastner from Memphis, where both coached before taking their new jobs. “But first and foremost, just a great human being.”
Pastner, who will coach his first regular-season game on the Yellow Jackets’ bench Friday night against Tennessee Tech at McCamish Pavilion, is at the start of a four-month journey that likely will determine the depths of another attribute — patience.
“I think I’ve handled it now to this point, but we’re also 0-0,” Pastner said this week. “I don’t know.”
Pastner has demonstrated evidence of patience. He said he’s the type to sleep on a question or problem rather than react immediately. Conducting multiple interviews with candidates, along with doing background checks with industry sources, Pastner took four weeks to hire his three-man coaching staff, a task other coaches might finish in half the time.
However, even he’s uncertain of how he’ll handle this season, and how he can lead his team through it. Tech was picked in a preseason media poll to finish 14th in the 15-team ACC. Sports Illustrated projected Tech to be the third-weakest power-conference team in the country.
The predictions are based on, among other things, Tech having lost 78 percent of its scoring and 67 percent of its minutes. In his never-ending effort to keep expectations low, Pastner doesn’t need prompting to share that he’s been told that the Jackets may go 0-18 in ACC play.
This is new territory. In the first 18 of his 20 seasons in college basketball, first as a walk-on at Arizona, then as a staff member and assistant coach with the Wildcats, then one season as an assistant at Memphis to John Calipari and then finally as head coach with the Tigers, Pastner went to the NCAA tournament 17 times, and the other season he went to the NIT. Only in his final two seasons at Memphis did he miss the postseason, but Memphis still was a combined 37-29.
Pastner has even claimed that, going back to high school, he has never lost more than three games in a row. (That isn’t quite true; Arizona lost three in a row in the 2005-06 season, when he was an assistant to Lute Olson.)
It is almost inevitable that the Jackets will endure considerably longer losing streaks and suffer lopsided defeats to the likes of Duke, North Carolina, Louisville and others.
“I’m such a positive guy. I’m always thinking positive, but I’ve tried to put myself in position mentally if things don’t go our way in some areas,” Pastner said. “How would I handle the situation?”
Pastner sought the wisdom of two mentors whom he served as an assistant coach, Olson and Kentucky coach John Calipari. Olson built a powerhouse at Arizona, but inherited a team that was 4-24 the season before his hire in 1983. When Calipari got his first head-coaching job, at Massachusetts in 1988, the Minutemen had had 10 consecutive losing seasons.
“You know what both guys said?” Pastner said. “(They) said Year 1 should be the least stressful year of all your years because, really, there’s nothing other than just you can only go up.”
The year can be spent laying foundation, establishing culture and a playing style. The results likely will matter less than they will in coming seasons.
Operations director Julian Swartz, who was on the Memphis basketball staff under Pastner for the past four years, believes his boss can handle leading his team through the impending odyssey. Swartz played for Wisconsin and then-coach Dick Bennett, who built the Badgers from a non-factor to a national powerhouse.
“Dick Bennett and Josh Pastner are the same in terms of their character,” Swartz said.
Swartz noted the intense public and media scrutiny that Pastner was under at Memphis and saw him endure it after taking the job at 31. (A favorite story of Pastner’s is that when Calipari was considering leaving Memphis for Kentucky, a helicopter hovered over his house.) Swartz observed, also, that Pastner is relentlessly positive, a problem-solver and a person committed to long-term success.
“He has just the makeup and the personality, and with being so positive and focused on the process and focused on standards and doing things the right way, the results will take care of itself,” he said.