It's not often you'll hear a coach openly say he doesn't want to play an opponent. Usually -- even when coaches are padding their schedules with early season softies -- coaches try to sell their schedules as master documents of their own making. Defiance and competitive solidarity are much more coach-y, and thus much more popular, ways to discuss scheduling in public.
Count Memphis coach Josh Pastner as among those willing to tell it like it is. Speaking with Knoxville-area radio show hosts Josh Ward and Will West on WNML-AM 990 Monday, Pastner was in a candid mood, fully admitting that he -- much like his predecessor, John Calipari -- doesn't like playing in-state rival Tennessee and preferred the game wasn't on the schedule at all. From the Memphis Commercial Appeal:
“I have no desire to play Tennessee,” Pastner told hosts Josh Ward and Will West on WNML-AM 990. “I don’t think it does us any good. I’m just being honest with you. For us, it’s a game that, I don’t know why we play it, but we play it because the athletic director wants me to play it and he’s my boss and what he says goes.”
Reached later, Pastner said he hasn’t hidden from his feelings, which he said are rooted in recruiting and aren’t personal. To Pastner, it’s simple: He doesn’t consider Knoxville a fertile recruiting ground, so why give Tennessee exposure in Memphis, a place where the Vols actively recruit players.
Pastner said he understood why his athletic director, R.C. Johnson, is so in favor of the game: It's great for the fans. Provincial bragging rights are on the line, and the game promotes a rivalry between the schools that can only be good for each team's bottom line. Frankly, when both programs are on the rise -- as they were during the John Calipari and Bruce Pearl years of the recent past -- the fixture is probably good for both schools. It's a big one on the calendar. It garners national attention and exposure. College GameDay's been known to show up from time to time. That can't be a bad thing, right?
But things have changed. Under Pastner, Memphis is ascendant, stockpiling young talent in loaded recruiting classes, another of which arrives on campus this summer. At Tennessee, Pearl's departure and the impending NCAA sanctions have put the Volunteers into what will likely be a protracted rebuilding period. You can understand if Pastner doesn't want to do the Vols any favors just this very moment. As Sean Combs' character in "Get Him To The Greek" would say, Pastner is in the power position. If the game works for both sides, great. If not, maybe it's not as worthwhile as everyone thought.
Still, the Tennessee-Memphis rivalry doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Why? Because Pastner, like all good employees, knows when to sit down, be quiet and let the boss make the final call:
“(Johnson) feels it’s great for the state of Tennessee,” Pastner told the radio station. “A lot of people want it in the state of Tennessee, and so I understand that. … I’m OK with it. Look, my athletic director, I think he’s the best. I mean, the absolute best. If he tells me to do something, I totally believe in chain of command. He’s the boss. If he told me to go play Ole Miss, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi State and anyone else, I would do it, because he’s the boss.”