Why, if he had wings, he might just take flight - that's Georgia Tech basketball coach Josh Pastner. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Josh Pastner positively can’t wait for second season at Georgia Tech

His players gradually learned how to deal with the unrelentingly upbeat tone, and here in Year 2 of the Josh Pastner Experience, they should be much more able to hear it.

“Last year it was kind of hard getting a feel for him because he is not your average coach,” Josh Okogie, the Jackets smooth sophomore guard, said last week, before fracturing a finger in Saturday’s exhibition loss to Georgia State. “It took a minute to get a feel for him. Now I know what he’s all about and what he’s trying to get us to do it’s easier for me to relate to the guys what he’s trying to get done.”

Not average? How so? “He’s always so positive. His energy level is always on 100. He doesn’t use any cuss words. But he knows how to get his point across. Just a different vibe,” Okogie said.

And as the world continues its tilt toward the negative, as the crass and the crude become everyday language, Tech’s basketball coach continues to resist that dialect. Although he will be tempted. Like Saturday, for example, when the talented Okogie was lost.

Oh, if his guard doesn’t rebound or his center doesn’t make a razor cut to the basket, Pastner will throw a nutty. But returning to a place of optimism – his personal version of the team’s new recovery room with its three zero-gravity chairs and low light and soothing sounds – is vital.

“Life is just too short to be anything other than positive, anyway,” Pastner said. “I’m not as good of a coach when I’m negative or down or I have self-pity. I like energy-givers.”

Here’s the definition of personally positive: Who else would have in his back pocket an obscure stat such as this? Did you know that only two Division I basketball coaches have not lost three games in a row in the past eight years, Pastner asks? That would be himself and his mentor while at Memphis, John Calipari (we’ll take his word for this). He has lost two consecutive plenty of times, Pastner will confess, but not three. That probably should have ended last season – when Tech lost consecutive games six times – but it still didn’t.   

And, yes, Pastner actually said this sometime Wednesday during his prolonged exposure at the ACC basketball media gathering, probably the first time it has been uttered here: “I prefer Positive Pauls to Negative Nellies.”

Tech travels to China for the ultimate road game against UCLA on Nov. 10. Among the scheduled off-court activities is a team meeting with internet entrepreneur Jack Ma. Might one of Asia’s richest men come away from that encounter wondering why he can’t enjoy his position as much as that curious fellow in charge of the basketball team with an insect for a mascot?  

Like the positivity, the pep was there from the start, too.

Again, his players noticed. The more attentive among them came up with a unique way of describing Pastner’s energy level. “You never see him yawning,” Okogie said. 

“He’s always ready to go.”

It’s not that Pastner is physically incapable of a yawn, but, as he explains, “I really have an appreciation for life. I don’t take life for granted. I love my job. I love doing what I do. I have a great appreciation for everything. I’m energized.

“Our team, especially our young guys, they need that energy to understand how hard you have to play every possession. If guys played as hard as Josh Okogie every possession, I could maybe yawn.”

It’s exhausting just tracking Pastner on Twitter. In one post, he’s giving a motivational talk to the staff at NBA TV. In another, he’s enjoying the Atlanta Kosher BBQ Competition. And so on. As with his first season, he’s still available to speak to just about any group – don’t know if he works birthday parties or bar mitzvahs – and give any interview if he thinks it will advance the Georgia Tech cause a millimeter.  

Pastner could start big-timing some of these requests, now that he is the reigning ACC Coach of the Year. Which brings us, after positivity and pep, to the part about perspective. 

The plaque Pastner received for that honor hangs in his office now. It recognizes the fact that his Yellow Jackets, picked to go next-to-last in the 15-team ACC, thought to be lacking the ability to win anything at all in the conference, actually went for 8-10 in the ACC and won 21 times overall. Those were pretty much the exact numbers for predecessor Brian Gregory in his prior season on the Flats. But this one just felt better.

It wasn’t until his fifth year coaching at Memphis that Pastner beat a Top 25 team. In his first ACC game at Tech, he upset eventual national champion North Carolina. Tech also claimed victories over a No. 8 FSU and a No. 12 Notre Dame. A run to the final of the Miss Congeniality of tournaments, the NIT, was the foam atop the cafe latte. 

So, admittedly, he gets kind of a charge whenever he’s introduced to a group as the ACC Coach of the Year. Enjoy it, he figures. Soak it in, because, he said, “It might not be like that six months from now.”

Fully realizing he left one step ahead of the mob in Memphis keeps Pastner grounded. Same for knowing that when he arrived at Tech, it wasn’t to rave reviews. Wrote Pat Forde, a valued voice for Yahoo Sports, at the time: “Let’s just say that Memphis fans were happier to see Pastner go than Tech fans were to see him arrive – the only thing keeping him employed was a bloated buyout, part of a silly 2013 raise that gave him a salary of $2.65 million a year. (Then Tech AD Mike) Bobinski hired a guy whose well-appointed program over the past two years had not performed as well as the guy he just fired.”

Pastner will look around him and see a coach who took the Falcons to a Super Bowl in February is dodging brickbats today. And note that a certain other football coach at a certain other rival Georgia university whose initiation was tempest-tossed is being measured for national prominence now. 

“You’re as good as your last game. Nobody recognizes that more than me,” Pastner said.

As besides, “We had a great year last year and still finished 11th (in the ACC). We still got a lot of work to do.”  

Constant last season was Pastner’s message that his team had zero margin for error. Little has changed – maybe there’s this much margin for error now (see Pastner holding thumb and forefinger two inches apart). Still in a major rebuilding project, he said. 

At the same time Pastner also has some sense for what a real rebuilding project entails. His old high school outside Houston was washed out of commission by Hurricane Harvey. More intimately, his parents Hal and Marla Pastner were flooded out of not one, but two apartments. The first in Houston, the second in South Florida by Hurricane Irma. They are settled in metro Atlanta now, in good health, taking stock of the loss of family keepsakes. 

When Tech tipped for the exhibition against cross-town Georgia State at noon Saturday, the proceeds going to hurricane relief, Pastner had a very direct connection to the cause.

From there, a season of greater expectation will unfold. The bottom two-thirds of the ACC is a mosh pit, Pastner said. These Jackets could finish anywhere from fourth to 15th, he figures. His team has some notable talent up top with the return of freshman All-ACC Okogie and an All ACC-caliber post presence in Ben Lammers, but a lot of unknowns beyond that. But, now, Okogie’s status has been scrambled.

“We could be better this year than last year and not win as much. It’s just a hard league,” the coach cautions.

But where a year ago there was no clear goal, now his players are openly speaking of getting to the NCAA tournament.

“You want to be in that discussion, for sure. I know the Tech fans would be disappointed if we weren’t. I know, however, that it’s very hard to do. In this league, it’s very hard to do. And we have a lot of work to do,” Pastner said.

He means that in the most positive way possible.

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