At Tech, Josh Pastner’s old friendship imperils basketball program

Josh Pastner had been the Georgia Tech men’s basketball coach for not even two months. He hadn’t yet guided his players in a game, hadn’t led them in practice, hadn’t signed a single recruit.

But messages that appeared in Pastner’s Twitter feed June 3, 2016, laid the groundwork for an NCAA investigation that now imperils Tech’s basketball program.

An Arizona man named Ron Bell, then Pastner’s friend and biggest fan, shared with the coach his messages urging a prospective recruit to sign with Tech. Those messages, the NCAA has since determined, turned Bell – a former drug addict and prison inmate whom Pastner befriended several years ago – into a representative of the school’s athletics program.

And, the NCAA’s staff concluded, Pastner “knew or should have known of Mr. Bell’s involvement in promoting the institution’s athletics program” to improperly recruit players for the coach’s benefit.

Regardless, the NCAA apparently will not hold Pastner responsible for Bell’s actions, or for those of a former assistant coach accused of giving cash to a recruit and a team member when he took them to an Atlanta strip club.

Tech announced late Thursday that the NCAA has notified the school of three severe rules violations involving Bell and the former assistant coach, Darryl LaBarrie. Tech faces significant, though still undetermined, penalties. The NCAA said LaBarrie not only gave money to the athletes, he later lied about it. (LaBarrie said the allegations “are not all factual.”) And Bell, according to the NCAA, improperly paid for a trip by two Tech players to his home in Arizona and recruited another player to transfer to Tech.

But the NCAA accused Pastner of no wrongdoing, even though its rules presume that head coaches are accountable for compliance failures within their programs.

The NCAA declined to comment, as did Tech and Pastner. The coach’s attorney, Scott Tompsett, said in a statement, “Josh cooperated fully with the NCAA investigation and he has not been charged with any violations.”

However, a review of public records, many of them contained in legal filings, suggest that Bell did little to hide at least some of his illicit activities from Pastner, or anyone else. In a text to Pastner’s wife, Kerri, Bell once boasted that when he delivered the transfer player, “Josh will be impressed with my recruiting skills.”

‘A tangled web’

Pastner and Bell once were so close that Bell and his girlfriend, Jennifer Pendley, rode on the basketball team’s bus, stayed in the team hotel during road games, ate meals with players and spent time at Pastner’s home with his wife and children.

But the relationship fell apart in the fall of 2017, quickly devolving into dark accusations, lawsuits and countersuits.

Upset over what he perceived as disrespect from Pastner, Bell publicly alleged NCAA rules violations at Tech and Memphis, Pastner’s previous school. Pastner then sued Bell and Pendley for defamation; they sued him back, claiming Pastner sexually assaulted Pendley. Pastner and his lawyers strongly disputed that accusation, and an investigation commissioned by Tech cleared Pastner of wrongdoing.

Bell recently sued Pastner again, along with the coach’s lawyers, claiming they improperly interfered with Bell’s witnesses and previous attorneys. Pastner’s lawyers said the latest suit has no merit, and their attorney warned Bell’s lawyer about possible sanctions and disciplinary action if the case continues.

“It’s quite a tangled web,” said Bell’s lawyer, Justin Niedzialek.

But in February 2017, in more amiable times, Bell started to recruit a player who might elevate Pastner’s team to a more elite level. The only problem was that NCAA rules prohibit recruiting a player from another team without that school’s permission.

Bell had become close to a Memphis player named Markel Crawford while Pastner coached there. Their relationship deepened after Crawford’s father died in late 2016.

Then, on Feb. 8, 2017, an assistant coach at Memphis told Bell that Crawford wanted to play his senior season at another school. The same day, Bell texted Pastner’s wife, Kerri, to schedule a telephone call: “Want to run something by you that fell into my lap.”

Over the following two weeks, Bell was in continual contact with the coach and his wife, documents filed in one of the lawsuits show. Bell made clear how hard he was trying to recruit Crawford for Tech, while also repeatedly pledging his loyalty to Pastner.

On Feb. 9, in a message about Crawford, Bell wrote to Pastner: “I know people promise this or that, Josh, but I am not them, especially when it comes to you. You know me. If I say something is going to happen, it will.”

Pastner replied: “Let’s touch base tomorrow.”

The following day, Bell wrote to the Memphis assistant coach: Pastner was “all in ‘with both feet’ is exactly what he said,” Bell wrote. “He gave me instructions on how to handle this within the rules.”

Later, Bell texted Kerri Pastner with good news: Crawford had told him he wanted to transfer to Tech.

“Markel is not going to go around saying anything about next year, will he?” she wrote back. “I just don’t want anyone thinking Josh is stealing their players.”

The coach cautioned Bell to tread lightly. Crawford couldn’t commit to transfer until the season ended in April, he said, and “anything else in the short term is wasted energy.”

Bell persisted. He bought Crawford a pair of athletic shoes. He said he gave him gift cards to buy food. He bought airline tickets for Crawford and his brother to visit Arizona.

“When Markel is playing in Gold & Blue next year,” Bell wrote to Kerri Pastner on Feb. 21, referring to Tech’s color scheme, “Josh will be impressed with my recruiting skills. I am the only one who is allowed to talk to Markel. Josh or his staff cannot until the Memphis season is over.”

Ultimately, Crawford decided to transfer to Ole Miss. He now plays on an NBA development-league team in Memphis.

As the prospects of Crawford’s transfer to Tech faded, Pastner wrote to Bell:

“I know your intentions are pure and you have a good heart. I know you would not do anything against rules.”

‘Central issue’

A month after he failed to get Crawford, Bell turned his attention to two players already on Tech’s team: Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson.

Bell brought them out to Arizona in May 2017, paying for their airline tickets, meals and other expenses. He also bought them shoes and clothing. All of it was not permitted under NCAA rules.

Bell later said Pastner asked him to entertain Okogie to persuade him not to transfer. (Okogie played one more season at Tech before entering the NBA draft.) The players posted videos from their trip on social media, according to court papers, and shared their posts with at least two members of the coaching staff.

Pastner has said he first learned of the players’ trip in October 2017, after he and Bell ended their friendship. Tech reported the impermissible benefits to the NCAA within hours and suspended the players, Jackson for three games and Okogie for six.

But Tech’s report drastically understated Bell’s involvement with its basketball program, falsely asserting that he and Pendley had no special access. It said Pastner’s interactions with them were “consistent with contact he maintains with other fans and supporters of the program.”

Tech will address the earlier assertion when it responds to the NCAA’s notice of rules violations, said Lance Wallace, the school’s director of media relations. “That is the central issue,” he said, but he declined to elaborate.

In papers filed with the NCAA, Pastner’s lawyers depict the coach as a victim, betrayed “deliberately and knowingly by individuals who had been told repeatedly not to do what they were intent on doing.”

“There was nothing Pastner could have done differently to prevent the violations.”

But as early as 2016, when the NCAA now says he became a representative of Tech, Bell’s devotion to Pastner seemed to turn into something more ominous.

That October, just before Pastner’s first season at Tech began, Bell texted him: “I have photos of your office in Memphis and exactly where everything was on the walls and bookshelves. That might be helpful in setting it up if you liked the way it was in Memphis. I would like to help.”

The same week, Kerri Pastner and her daughters visited Bell and Pendley in Arizona. Everywhere she looked, she saw pictures of the coach and memorabilia from his career.

“We are at Ron’s house,” she texted her husband. “He has a shrine of you. Weird.”

Ron Bell, kneeling, watches as Josh Pastner runs a drill during basketball practice at Georgia Tech in 2016. CONTRIBUTED

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