As we know from one of the headlines that followed the new Georgia Tech basketball coach into town — Pastner says no golf for assistants — Josh Pastner was not in these parts this week to scout the very fine local courses.
Augusta National is closed for the summer, anyway. And the two times he has been offered a badge to the springtime Masters, Pastner declined, passing it along to a charity back in Memphis.
This much is known about the new fellow charged with making Tech basketball relevant again: To say he just eats and/or breathes basketball is to vastly undersell the importance of food and/or oxygen.
And he really doesn’t have anything personal against golf — but a bit more on that in a moment.
If it’s early July, that must mean it’s Peach Jam time, when many of the country’s tallest and springiest teenagers gather for a big AAU tournament on the other side of Augusta.
And like ants to sugar, the coaches of college basketball follow them there. Look, there’s North Carolina’s Roy Williams, still a little gimpy from May knee replacement. Isn’t that Kentucky’s John Calipari over there, posting up between adjoining gyms? Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim just slipped in to watch E1T1 (Florida) play the Rens from New York. There was Georgia’s Mark Fox, bouncing between different tournament sites in the south without the benefit of Kirby Smart’s helicopter.
“Welcome to the madness,” Fox said with a knowing smile.
An amazing scene, really, coaches from programs large and small lining the boundaries of four gyms at the same time, so close to the game action that their gleaming, new, free shoes were in-bounds more often than not.
A scene that brings home like nothing else the intense, never-ceasing competition for talent that defines all their fortunes, especially those of a new guy trying to get Georgia Tech back to the NCAA tournament.
“You’re all vying for similar types of players. It can be a very cutthroat business, but that’s why it’s not just recruiting,” Pastner said. “We’ve already offered (a scholarship) to some guys, so we need to be there so they see us. Others we need to evaluate, see whether they are good enough or not.”
This was Pastner’s element, obviously. He is meant to be on a polished wooden floor, just as an actor is meant to be on the stage.
In fact, though he may be only 38 years old, Pastner can date his association with North Augusta’s Peach Jam as far, or farther, than any of the old wise coaching heads who now command the room. He was there for the first tournament, in 1996, when he was just 18 and coaching the Houston AAU team his father, Hal, founded.
Now, as one of the college coaching crowd, he jockeys for position. The first game of Wednesday night he watched from the endline. The next from midcourt, across from the stands where the public roosted. There was a strategy to even this, his positioning at a contest between mostly rising high school juniors and seniors.
“The only reason I sit here is so the parents can see you across the floor. It’s about being seen,” he said.
There is one common image employed by anyone who tries to summarize Pastner, and that is of a short and blocky coach, topped by a shock of curls, who is so professionally intense even his hair won’t relax.
“He’s going to work his butt off,” Bobby Cremins, the former Tech coach who stopped by Peach Jam, said. “And it’s all going to come down to recruiting.”
But is it really possible, Pastner is asked, here in this building full of Type A-plus personalities, to out-work this kind of competition?
“I don’t think you can out-work people. There are so many good coaches out there who work their butts off,” he said. And, then, young Pastner will take off on a humble riff about how there were plenty more qualified people to replace Calipari at Memphis when he was promoted in 2009. Just, he said, as there were those “probably more deserving of being the coach at Georgia Tech than I am.”
“To get the job at Memphis I was in the right place and the right time,” said Calipari’s former assistant, who was fully prepared to follow him to Kentucky in 2009. “Nobody wanted the job, everybody turned it down because they didn’t want to follow Calipari. But sometimes opportunities come along, and it’s on you to take advantage.”
With Pastner, there hardly could be an opportunity he wouldn’t fully exploit, given that so much of his story is based on trying to create a place for himself in basketball where none seemed to exist.
In high school, he mailed out hand-written appeals to college coaches at all levels — hundreds of them — seeking a walk-on position. Part of the pitch involved his AAU coaching experience and his willingness to hold down the end of the bench and serve as a sort of coach in uniform. Arizona’s Lute Olson was intrigued.
As a Wildcat, he was known for three things: Being that annoying, over-active bench guy during the Wildcats’ 1997 NCAA championship run; getting his bachelors degree in five semesters, and a masters a year later; and compiling a 42-0 record in games in which he played (he only got in during blowouts).
He scored 40 points in four seasons at Arizona, not surprisingly none of them on dunks. “I always told people I’d dunk the ball when it was worth three points,” he said.
Pastner said he doesn’t swear at players — he, in fact, once suspended a player at Memphis for a game for his persistent loud cursing. Doesn’t drink alcohol, and never had a carbonated beverage. Doesn’t need caffeine to fuel his constantly revving engine. He is Jewish, but it seems he easily could pass for a Mormon.
The head coaching resume is incomplete. In seven seasons at Memphis he was 167-73 with four NCAA tournament bids, with a precipitous drop-off his last two seasons there (37-29, amid fan grumbling). A tireless obsession with recruiting is the consistent aspect of his coaching career.
He tells the story of being on the phone talking to a recruit while his wife was in labor with their first daughter, Peyten. And of keeping his wife waiting at the hospital for hours past her scheduled release after having second daughter, Kamryn, because he was shepherding a recruit around campus.
“I had to go see the kid because I was like I love my wife and children, but for the short-term that kid could help me beat Louisville. And my wife and daughter couldn’t,” he said. “She understood. And so, we got that recruit.”
For Pastner’s first 100 days on the Tech job — that actual mile marker occurs July 18 — Pastner has hired a staff, began ingraining his messages of “positive energy,” and a “culture of appreciation” while hitting the recruiting trail on the run. His vacation has consisted of a one-day stopover in South Florida with his wife, Kerri, and four children. She was in complete charge of finding the new home in the Chastain Park area.
Which is a long, winding way of getting back to the whole no-golf thing. Pastner would like to tell all the golf writers who got their khakis in a bunch when he proclaimed that none of his assistants could be golfers: Nothing personal. Some of his best friends play. It’s just that such a leisurely diversion does not fit the task at hand.
He’s at a place that hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2010, and one that just lost 80 percent of its statistical presence from a year ago.
So, honestly, who has time for 18 holes?
“I get to the end of the night, and there’s not enough time,”Pastner said. “I’m thinking I need to be on the Pacific Time Zone — I need three more hours. In a rebuilding situation it’s going to take that type of mentality to move the needle in the direction that we want to move it.”
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