Commentary

Two frenetic days with Josh Pastner

For two days, ESPN.com gets full access to the new face of Memphis hoops

Originally Published: May 12, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- "My man, Josh Pastner, University of Memphis Tigers, how are you? What's going on?"

"Oh, hey. Hey, can you hold on one second? I have another call. Stay there. Don't hang up. I'll be right back."

Click.

"My man, how are you? Hey, can you hang on? I have a call on the other line. Don't hang up. I'll be right back."

[+] EnlargeJosh Pastner
David C. Minkin for ESPN.comPastner has appeared on just about every local media outlet since accepting the Memphis job.

In two days, Josh Pastner ate two meals we can vouch for, slept maybe six hours, interviewed an athletic trainer, spoke to hundreds of rabid fans, posed for at least 75 pictures, signed more than 100 autographs, put out one in-house fire, did two radio interviews and two in-studio TV appearances, contributed to one conference call, drove six hours for a 90-minute speaking engagement …

… and held approximately 45,000 phone conversations.

After spending two days in Pastner's world, you are left with one thought: How in the hell has this man never had a sip of caffeine? Keeping up with him requires an IV drip of it.

There is good reason for all of Pastner's hyperkinetic energy (besides genetics and a chronic case of impatience). On a fairly slow-spinning coaching carousel, Pastner has spun into the most intriguing job of all. At 31, he is the new men's basketball coach at the University of Memphis, a job previously held by John Calipari, who became the face of the program and a folk hero in town after building the Tigers into a national power.

Since 2006, Memphis' NCAA résumé reads Elite Eight, Elite Eight, Final Four, Sweet 16. Not even the likes of North Carolina, Duke or Kansas can lay claim to such largesse. In fact, the Tigers' 137 wins over the past four seasons is unmatched by any four-year stretch in college basketball history.

Facts like that make the chests puff out here on the banks of the Mississippi. Ask native Memphians what the Tigers mean to them and they will try to explain without sounding overly hokey how a basketball team has restored optimism and swelled civic pride in a city that has endured racial strife and economic struggles.

Drive in from the airport and you find rooftops painted "Go Tigers!" and billboards saluting the college, not NBA, team. Memphis basketball is a civic institution -- one of the few things, the locals say, that brings the community together.

So the people here were collectively stung by Calipari's departure, not because he left for the bluegrasses of Kentucky, but because he took everything but the potted plants with him -- secretaries, athletic trainers and, most of all, players.

"It was gut-wrenching, or at least that's the version you can print," said Riley Knight, Memphis class of '82, about Calipari's departure. "If someone wants to leave you can't deny them that, but it's the way he left. We felt deceived. And then he came in and took everything. There's no doubt he brought us to a new level of respect as a program, but he also left us with an empty cupboard."

Added David Roach, Memphis class of '88, "What did he call himself? A dirty rotten scoundrel? That's about right. He showed no integrity -- none."

Into that mountain of hurt walked the optimistic, enthusiastic Pastner. Fresh as a new penny and considered something of a coaching savant, he has said all of the right things and promised the moon, albeit with a side order of realism.

Fans and city residents have embraced him in a protective, enveloping hug.

At least for now.

"Someone just said to me, 'Good luck. But you know if you don't win, you're gone,'" Pastner said as he left an alumni function in Nashville. "I know that."


It is Wednesday afternoon when Pastner pulls into a Costco parking lot in his shiny new Porsche SUV, plastic still lining the floors in the back.

[+] EnlargeJosh Pastner
David Minkin for Espn.comWhether he's getting good news or bad news, the cell phone is never far away from Pastner's left ear.

"They made me take this car," he apologizes. "I'm a Toyota Corolla guy."

Pastner has a speaking engagement in Nashville tonight, part of the Tiger Tour with football coach Tommy West and women's basketball coach Melissa McFerrin. It's a three-hour drive to the Frist Center, and with sports information director Lamar Chance at the wheel, Pastner is free to do what he does best: work the phones.

Armed with what must be the largest minutes plan in cell phone history, Pastner puts telemarketers to shame as he tirelessly makes calls and sends texts.

There is good reason for the communication assault. It is May 5. In 15 days, the early-signing period closes. Since Calipari bolted for Kentucky, DeMarcus Cousins and Darnell Dodson have followed; Xavier Henry has changed his mind from Memphis to Kansas; and Eric Bledsoe has picked UK over Memphis.

The Tigers, should Shawn Taggart remain in the draft, have only seven scholarship players on next season's roster.

The ironic twist is Pastner unwittingly caused his own fiasco. He helped recruit Cousins, Dodson, Bledsoe, Henry and the still-unsigned John Wall to Memphis, promising all of them that should Calipari leave they could get out of their binding letters of intent.

When Calipari left for Kentucky, Pastner initially planned to go to Lexington and made the calls urging the Memphis recruits to come along.

"I'm on the phone saying, 'You have to come to Kentucky. We want you with us. You need to come with Coach Cal,"' Pastner said. "And then I get the job and I'm telling them, 'No, you've got to be here. You want to be in Memphis with me. I'm your man.' You can see why these guys all probably thought I was crazy. I recruited against myself."

Unlike the rest of the city, Pastner harbors no ill will against Calipari and even called for his blessing before taking the Memphis job. Publicly he lauds the ex-coach and privately insists that the players who signed to play for Calipari should be allowed to follow him.

Pastner's allegiance is understandable but tricky. For starters, fans don't want to hear it. To make Memphis his program, Pastner will have to sever the cord that ties him to Calipari.

That, he argues, will become easier when he is recruiting the classes of 2010 and 2011, classes that will have seen him in action as a head coach.

[+] EnlargeJosh Pastner
David C. Mikin for ESPN.comMultitasking is simply a way of life for Pastner, who is a stickler for returning every single call, e-mail and text he receives.

For now, his newness as a head coach and the late start has left Pastner with monumental work to do.

Fortunately, he is something of a recruiting prodigy whose background stretches back to when he was recruiting and scouting for his dad's AAU team at the age of 14. It's a story filled with tales of abandoned dates at movie theaters and detailed scouting reports written as a teenager.

Since getting the job at Memphis, Pastner has penned a few more chapters.

He and his fiancée, Kerri Lamas, recently purchased a house, a huge step for the previously apartment-dwelling, air-mattress-sleeping Pastner.

Asked where it is, Pastner laughs, "I have no idea. I couldn't tell you the address or how to get there."

Closing date? "No clue."

Number of bedrooms? "I think four, maybe five."

Asked when he and Lamas will be married, he says, "In a few weeks, May 16."

When told that's only a week and a half away, Pastner pauses. "It is? Oh. Well, I told her I'd put the phone on silent. It'll probably be on vibrate, but don't tell her that."

Pastner turns off his phone and BlackBerry only when the FAA insists on it, so his concession to Lamas is huge.

On this particular day, the phone hum is constant. Tomorrow, Bledsoe will announce his decision. The point guard is down to two schools -- Memphis and Kentucky. (In another crazy twist, new Memphis assistant coach Glynn Cyprien was, until Billy Gillispie got fired, a UK assistant and led the Wildcats' recruiting charge to bring Bledsoe to Lexington.)

Under NCAA rules, Pastner can't speak about unsigned recruits and is careful to avoid doing so. But even with a reporter following his every move, he can do his job. On the eve of the announcement, that's doing anything and everything he can to find out which way Bledsoe is leaning and tilt that lean toward Memphis.

"Did you ever see that movie, 'Dumb and Dumber'? The part where they tell him, 'You have a one in a million chance' and he says, 'So you're telling me there's a chance?'" Pastner says. "That's us."

He manages a 20-minute power nap on the highway to Nashville, waking up after the arm propping up his head slips off the windowsill.

At 5:30 p.m., Pastner arrives at the Frist Center, where approximately 125 alums and fans have gathered for a reception. The words "Kentucky" and "Calipari" can be overheard buzzing through conversations as Pastner, West and McFerrin meet and greet fans.

Pastner is last to speak. The other two coaches commend Calipari to tepid applause, but promise that Pastner will hang a national championship banner, earning riotous reaction.

Just before the new basketball coach speaks, someone's cell phone rings in the audience.

"If that's a recruit, answer it," Pastner says.

After wowing the crowd, he returns to the car and the phones, stopping briefly at a roadside Arby's for dinner and an adjacent convenience store for a Pop-Tart. Painfully considerate -- in the manic days after he was hired, he had his fiancée log his text messages so he could return every one -- Pastner apologizes for always being on the phone.

That is until it rings at 10 o'clock. Pastner doesn't need to apologize for taking the call or to say who is on the line. It's clearly Bledsoe. Pastner talks and sells and talks and sells for a good 10 minutes. If the kid was trying to say he wasn't coming to Memphis, Pastner has filibustered his way out of letting it happen.

His mood slightly brightened, Pastner continues on the phone to other recruits, coaches and would-be coaches on his staff until Chance eases the Porsche back into the Costco lot at 11:30 p.m.

Pastner assumes the wheel.

He's still on the phone.


Sitting in the green room waiting for a live TV appearance on the local NBC affiliate, Pastner is working the BlackBerry while simultaneously using the in-house phone.

[+] EnlargeJosh Pastner
David C. MinkinPastner replaces John Calipari, who became a mainstay on both local and national TV.

It's 6:15 a.m.

He isn't sure how many hours he slept -- "Maybe three or four?" -- but has beaten everyone to the studio.

A cameraman peppers him with questions about recruits while weatherman Ron Childers tells him, "If you ever play Kentucky, kick their ass."

The television morning crew, fueled by their morning java, is stunned to learn that Pastner has never had anything with alcohol, caffeine or carbonation in it, and beg him to name some sort of vice.

"Maybe I'm addicted to my phone," he says sheepishly.

Before heading to his office, Pastner stops at Perkins for a quick breakfast, a nod to dietary sustenance that stuns people who know him well.

"I've only ever seen him eat once in the year that I've known him," says Pastner's secretary, Melissa Norris. "He had a sandwich."

By noon, though, even Pastner's "Dumb and Dumber" odds are out. Bledsoe has announced his commitment to Kentucky, a blow to a Memphis team that returns a decent roster of talent but is in dire need of a true point guard. Pastner is disappointed, but he's already moving on. It is the cruel nature of the business -- spend a year recruiting a kid and minutes mourning his decision.

Pastner says, "If there is a kid who can play and chew gum, we know about him … and that's globally," and he's only half kidding. This late in the game it is near impossible to find good talent that hasn't already been gobbled up. And while Pastner is not known for sitting idly by -- he finished college in 2½ years and graduate school in 1½ -- he also isn't about to just sign players for the sake of signing them. He will employ prudence if not all-out patience.

"He was recruiting out of the crib," U of M athletic director R.C. Johnson says, "and he hasn't stopped since."

The snickered notion in college basketball circles is that Johnson didn't so much choose Pastner as he hired the only man left standing.

Johnson says he met with six or seven other people, but refutes the notion that Pastner was never on his radar.

"There was a misconception that Josh wasn't on the list," said Johnson, in his Elvis memorabilia tricked-out office. "That's partly my fault because I initially said I wanted someone who had head coaching experience. And was a great recruiter. I probably should have reversed the order."

Pastner isn't concerned with where he ranked on Johnson's list. He has been dreaming about being a head coach since he was in the fifth grade.

He knows others will view his youth as a disadvantage; consequently, he has surrounded himself with experience.

[+] EnlargeJosh Pastner
David Minkin for ESPN.comAlums angered by the departure of Calipari have been won over by his energetic replacement.

Cyprien has been in the business for years, hopscotching from UNLV to Oklahoma State to Arkansas. Denver Nuggets lead scout Jack Murphy will join the staff once the Nuggets' season ends. And Willis Wilson, Pastner's other assistant, was the head coach at Rice for 16 years.

"I'm comfortable enough that I know I can go at Josh with any ideas and suggestions, anything at all, and it will only build on our relationship," says Wilson, who has known Pastner for 20 years.

Wilson and Cyprien join Pastner later at another alumni reception, this one at the Memphis Hilton. There is an overflow crowd of 500 in the ballroom here, and as much as they enjoy hearing from West and McFerrin, it is clear they are here for Pastner -- and he didn't disappoint.

He brings the house down with one line: "The only real difference between me and Coach Calipari is that I'm undefeated and he's not."

And for now, it's true.

Pastner is basking in a warm glow of perfection.

When the reception ends, a makeshift receiving line forms as fans wait to shake hands or pose for a picture with their new coach. Pastner spends a good 45 minutes greeting each and every one before finally ducking out of the hall.

As he walks out, he presses the phone to his ear, "My man …"

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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