John Calipari revisits working with Josh Pastner at Memphis

In a March 2009 photo, then-Memphis coach John Calipari sits next to his then-assistant Josh Pastner during a game against Tulane. In a month's time from the photo, Calipari was coach at Kentucky and Pastner was his replacement at Memphis. (Joe Murphy)

In a March 2009 photo, then-Memphis coach John Calipari sits next to his then-assistant Josh Pastner during a game against Tulane. In a month's time from the photo, Calipari was coach at Kentucky and Pastner was his replacement at Memphis. (Joe Murphy)

In the spring of 2008, John Calipari did not know Josh Pastner well. Calipari was the celebrated coach at Memphis who had just led the Tigers to the brink of a national championship. Pastner was a 30-year-old assistant coach at Arizona, tabbed an up-and-comer.

But Calipari had two spots on his staff to fill, and he wanted Pastner to fill one of them. For one thing, Pastner had a reputation as a strong recruiter. And, as an assistant at Arizona, he brought in new recruiting territory.

“I looked at him and said, ‘You know what? This is a young guy that’s going to be a great head coach someday,’ and the more I was around him, the more I liked him,” Calipari said Thursday.

Pastner served on Calipari’s staff for the 2008-09 season before Calipari left for Kentucky. And, in the whirlwind that followed, Pastner replaced Calipari at Memphis and stayed for seven seasons, leading the Tigers to four consecutive NCAA tournaments before falling short of the postseason in his final two, leading to his move to Tech in April 2016.

“I love coach Cal,” Pastner said. “I wouldn’t have gotten the Memphis job without coach Calipari, which allowed me to get the Georgia Tech job. He’s awesome. I loved working for him.”

Saturday at Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, Calipari and Pastner will face each other on the court for the first time. It’s part of a two-game series in which the Wildcats will come to Atlanta to play at State Farm Arena in November 2020. The series was put together this summer. Pastner saw it as a way to strengthen his team’s non-conference schedule in hopes of helping earn the Yellow Jackets’ first NCAA tournament berth since 2010.

“I said to him when we talked about (a series), I said, ‘Atlanta, for us, to be able to get in there and play (would be helpful),’” Calipari said. “We like Atlanta, our fans like Atlanta, but I told him, ‘If you don’t want to do this, don’t do it. This is for you.’ My hope is that, as we go through this, it helps their program.”

In a phone interview with the AJC, Calipari spoke with fondness and appreciation for Pastner. In their one season together, Memphis went 33-4 and fell in the Sweet 16.

“His recruiting was so relentless that the kid would basically say, ‘If you stop calling me, I’ll come,’ ” Calipari said. “He’s one of those. He’s relentless. But he’s such a good guy.”

Pastner said that the opportunity to work with Calipari led him to leave Arizona, his alma mater, where he had been an assistant coach for six years, the first five with Lute Olson, the last with Kevin O’Neill after Olson took a leave of absence for the 2007-08 season.

“I think he’s undervalued as a coach,” Pastner said of Calipari. “He doesn’t get enough credit. His teams always play great defense and they’re great rebounding teams. He’s an elite recruiter, obviously, but he does such a great job of meshing the talent together, which is not easy.”

Pastner went so far as to say that he could envision Calipari running for president “because he’s so good with people, charisma and everything else.”

Calipari appreciated that Pastner was “someone who was into basketball, not about wearing a suit. It was more, it’s about the game and it’s about teaching and it’s about that.”

Pastner said that, among his skills, Calipari is a marketing genius.

“If he started a slice-by-slice pizza place right up the corner, it would be a multi-million dollar company,” Pastner said. “He’s just that good.”

Calipari defended Pastner’s performance at Memphis, where he was unable to continue Calipari’s NCAA tournament success, perhaps putting some of his marketing acumen to work.

“I mean, it was going to be a hard deal, but let me say this to you,” Calipari said. “It would have been hard for me to feed that animal. And I think, again, what he did there and how he did it, a lot of these programs, it’s never enough. We built it up and I thought he did a terrific job while he was there.”

At Tech, where Pastner won ACC coach of the year in 2017 in his first season but has followed it up with two losing seasons, Calipari said that “you’re talking about a league that, there’s ups and downs with every program in that league except two (Duke and North Carolina). Every program has ups and downs. It’s just how it is. He’ll go through that.”

The Jackets will face the No. 8 Wildcats with a 4-3 record and in the wake of a 97-63 home loss to Syracuse last Saturday. Pastner called the game “an anomaly” with the Orange playing on fire and the Jackets sluggish in the midst of final exams. Tech continues to wait for point guard Jose Alvarado to return from an ankle injury, which has thrown the Jackets off kilter.

“I’ve watched the tape and I think they’re doing some good stuff,” Calipari said of the Jackets. “And I know they’ve been in some close games, but, hey, so have we.”