Positive thinking was the mantra as Josh Pastner rode the July prep basketball circuit, a duty some coaches regard as a painful ordeal. But, then, where others find life’s glass half-full or half-empty, the new Georgia Tech men’s coach is relentlessly wedded to staying positive.
“I’m just a glass-overflowing type of guy,” Pastner declared.
His unabashed embrace of “an attitude of gratitude” and having “pep in your step” – old-fashioned inspirational pearls commonly heard in gyms – was both convincing and convenient, given that his two most recent Georgia Tech predecessors were fired. “For me, it’s a blessing,” Pastner said of picking up the pieces in Atlanta, “and I pinch myself and I don’t take it for granted.”
A listener taking in this worldview inevitably wondered how much life experience Pastner had outside the cocoon of organized basketball despite the flecks of grey in his dark, curly hair. At 38 he is five years younger than any other ACC coach.
Countering the impression he’s channeling the eternally optimistic Professor Pangloss (famous for teaching that this is the “best of all possible worlds”) in “Candide,” Voltaire’s classic satire, Pastner conceded it takes daily effort to remain upbeat.
“Everybody gets down,” he said. “I get down a lot. It takes a lot of work to really stay in the mindset of being grateful.”
Texas’ Shaka Smart, who began his head coaching career about the same time as Pastner, said the two occasionally “talk about the mental side of coaching and recruiting and staff, those kinds of things.” Smart insisted his colleague’s embrace of positivity is heartfelt. “He’s great with that,” Smart said. “He’s got a great way about him in terms of choosing to see the good in players and in opportunities. That’s a real strength.”
Last place possible
Keeping his prominent chin up at Georgia Tech (21-15, 8-10 last season) could be quite a challenge for Pastner after winning 69.6 percent of his games in seven seasons at Memphis. He’s inherited a thin roster that lost its top four scorers, top three rebounders, and the two 3-point shooters who made more than a third of their long-distance attempts. Only returning guard Josh Heath started a majority of last year’s games.
Pastner volunteered that a last-place finish in 2016-17 is a distinct possibility. “I’m OK with all that,” the coaching wunderkind said of rekindling the Tech torch. “My thinking is, it’s a great opportunity. This is a rebuild.”
My thinking is, it’s a great opportunity. This is a rebuild.
Georgia Tech basketball coach Josh Pastner
This was more than preaching the positive – fortune has long smiled upon Josh Pastner, as he is quick to acknowledge.
From the age of 9 “he immersed his life in the game of basketball,” said Hal Pastner, his father. As a teen he produced his own high school scouting reports. When Josh was 16 the elder Pastner left the bench and made his son the head coach of Houston Hoops, a powerful, talent-laden AAU program that more recently produced Duke’s Justise Winslow and Rasheed Sulaimon, and North Carolina’s Justin Jackson. At 16, Pastner was a more callow sideline leader than another boy wonder familiar to ACC fans, N.C. State Hall of Famer Everett Case, a high school coach at 19.
The younger Pastner dispatched in excess of 1,000 hand-written letters to coaches at every level of NCAA and NAIA ball in pursuit of a chance to combine playing and coaching in college. A marginal athlete, he was invited to attend Arizona in 1996-97, joining Lute Olson’s program as its fortunes crested.
Featuring four future pros, those Wildcats captured the school’s sole national championship. En route to the pinnacle, they topped a trio of elite, No. 1-seeded schools – Kansas, directed by Roy Williams; North Carolina in Dean Smith’s final game as a coach; and Kentucky in Tubby Smith’s last year at Lexington. “I still think it’s the best NCAA run in the history of the tournament,” Pastner said. “I don’t think it gets talked about enough, the ’97 NCAA championship.”
Pastner functioned as a player/coach while enrolled at Arizona, where he proved an exceptional student in both realms. “I believe in academics,” he said. “I graduated in two and a half years without (attending) summer school.” He earned a master’s degree in Teaching and Teacher Education by the time he completed his playing eligibility.
Pastner’s professional career as an assistant coach was spent mostly under the tutelage of Hall of Famer Olson, followed by a one-year stint with John Calipari at Memphis. The man Pastner and others call “Coach Cal” jumped to Kentucky in 2009 after a 9-year stay at Memphis. Pastner, then 31, was en route to UK to join Calipari when offered the helm at Memphis instead. “I was thrown in the fire just like that,” he recalled. “The only reason I got the job was because no one else wanted to follow John Calipari.”
Pastner recruited well at Memphis, and his first five teams reached the NCAA tournament. On the other hand, the program endured quick NCAA exits, numerous transfers, and a weak record against top-25 opponents. A 2014 shift from Conference USA to the stronger American Athletic Conference was accompanied by a decline; Pastner’s teams didn’t make the NCAAs his last two seasons at Memphis. When he neared 150 career victories in 2015, the Memphis Commercial Appeal headlined ambivalently: “Love him or hate him, Pastner about to be among the top 10 winningest coaches over first six years.”
With public sentiment for a coaching change rising and home attendance falling, Pastner landed the Georgia Tech job in a far better league at a comparable level of pay. Memphis even contributed $1.26 million toward Pastner’s 6-year, $11.2 million deal at Georgia Tech, saving about $9.3 million had it chosen to fire him.
Grateful to get job
The Yellow Jacket program peaked a surprisingly long time ago, reaching nine straight NCAA tournaments from 1985 through 1993 under Bobby Cremins. Only 34 upon arrival in 1981-82, the former Appalachian State coach built the program virtually from scratch by marshaling small corps of high-level players. Cremins’ tough-minded Jackets captured three ACC titles (1985, 1990, 1993), reached the first Final Four in school history in 1990, and matched the competitive best his coaching contemporaries, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and N.C. State’s Jim Valvano, had to offer.
But since 1994, including seven seasons under Cremins, Georgia Tech slid slowly off the national radar, earning just six NCAA bids. The highlight was a 2004 national championship game appearance under Paul Hewitt; since then there were just two finishes in the ACC’s upper division. The most recent NCAA invitation came in 2010, also under Hewitt. Among ACC members, only Boston College and Virginia Tech, with far less substantial basketball traditions, have gone longer without an NCAA bid.
Still, Pastner pronounced himself “extremely grateful and fortunate” to get the job. Critics were complimentary of him personally, less so of his coaching. They pointed out the Jackets had similarly hired Brian Gregory in 2012 – only to fire him in 2016 – when he’d about worn out his welcome at Dayton. Pastner also garnered ridicule over an off-hand comment about shunning assistants overly fond of recreational golf outings.
One close observer saw the bright side. “The word on him is great recruiter, great guy,” said Cremins, who had a similar reputation. “I’ve been impressed with him. He’s got great enthusiasm. Sometimes it’s better going into a thing not knowing what you’re getting into.”
It’s easier to stay positive that way, too.