It's never easy to replace a legend
As one of the top recruiters in college basketball, Josh Pastner often spends half his day on the telephone.
In 2008-09, though, things almost got out of control. Then a first-year assistant at Memphis, Pastner found himself answering more calls than he placed. Prospects weren't the ones dialing Pastner's number.
It was his friends.
"All of my buddies wanted to know what it was like to work for John Calipari," Pastner said. "I remember telling each of them, 'He's phenomenal, the best. Whoever ends up following this guy is crazy.'"
Pastner paused and chuckled.
"Who would've thought," he said, "that I'd end up being the crazy guy."
Glamorous as the jobs often appear, replacing a coaching icon is never easy. Gaudy expectations from fans, players who are resistant to change, media comparisons to the predecessor all of it is enough to overwhelm even the most confident head coach.
Kansas was fresh off its second straight Final Four appearance when Bill Self replaced Roy Williams in 2003. Fran Dunphy took over a Temple program in 2006 that had enjoyed 23 straight winning seasons under John Chaney. Mike Davis was an Indiana assistant in the fall of 2000 when he was tapped to replace Bob Knight, who was fired a month before the start of practice.
Davis led the Hoosiers to the NCAA title game the following season but never advanced past the NCAA tournament's opening weekend after that. He resigned four years later.
"Of course there were comparisons," Davis said. "It happens any time one coach replaces another. But it's almost unfair when people compare you to a legend, a guy that has done so many great things.
"It was my first head-coaching job. I was too naive to realize it then, but I was in over my head."
Pastner said the situation he inherited at Memphis easily could have become too much for him, too. In the weeks after Calipari left for Kentucky, coaches such as Tim Floyd, Scott Drew, Leonard Hamilton and Mike Anderson all rejected overtures from the Tigers.
Pastner had packed up his belongings and was a few days from joining Calipari in Lexington when athletic director R.C. Johnson summoned him to his home and offered him the job.
"I kept waiting for Ashton Kutcher to jump out from around the corner to tell me I'd been punked'" Pastner said. "Before that I hadn't thought about the job for one second -- not one second."
Just like that, the 31-year-old Pastner -- who had zero head-coaching experience -- was responsible for a program that had 17,000 season-ticket holders. In Calipari, he was following a coach who had won a combined 137 games the previous four seasons, the most by any coach over a four-year span.
"John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Dean Smith in the history of college basketball, no one had won that many games in four years," Pastner said.
"I tried to tell everyone, 'That four-year run enjoy it, but it's not reality.' If it was reality, other people would've done it. It had never been done before. At the same time, once you've won at that level, you're always going to be compared to that level. It's a tough situation."
Pastner has done an admirable job in his first three seasons. Memphis has reached the NCAA tournament each of the past two years, won the Conference USA regular-season title last season and the tournament title each of the past two seasons. They'll likely enter the 2012-13 campaign ranked in the top 15 nationally.
The key, Pastner said, has been embracing all the positive aspects of the job instead of dwelling on the difficulties of meeting the expectations created by Calipari.
"I didn't try to reinvent the wheel," he said. "I looked at the situation and said, "OK, there are great things in place because of what Calipari did here. Let me piggyback off of that.'
"I'm very appreciative of being able to follow Cal. I never use the word 'replace.' I'm just the gatekeeper in the chair, trying to keep the momentum going."
Former Kansas interim athletic director Drue Jennings was looking for someone to do even more than that when the Jayhawks' position came open in the spring of 2003.
Other than Kentucky, there may not be a coaching job in America that involves as much pressure as the one in Lawrence. The inventor of the game, James Naismith, was the program's first coach. Retired jerseys of former standouts such as Wilt Chamberlain, Danny Manning and Paul Pierce hang from the rafters at Allen Fieldhouse, which is packed with 16,300 fans for every game.
Williams is one of the biggest reasons expectations are so high. He won more games in the 1990s than any other coach in America. His final two Kansas teams went a combined 63-12 and reached back-to-back Final Fours.
When Jennings began searching for Williams' replacement, he knew he couldn't afford to make a mistake.
"It was stressful," Jennings said. "At KU, you've got to have someone that's darn near a saint. You've got to have not only the basketball prowess, but the character to go with it. People at KU demand that you run your program with integrity, that you take youngsters and turn them into men and represent your university."
Within a week of Williams' departure, Jennings had hired Self.
"Let's face it," Jennings said. "I got lucky."
It almost didn't happen. A few days before he accepted the job, Self telephoned his father, Bill Sr., and expressed reservations about taking the job. Self had spent the previous three seasons at Illinois.
"What's holding you back?" Self's dad asked.
His son seemed wishy-washy.
"Roy won so much there," Self recalled saying. "Will I be compared to that? I don't know if there's any way we can win that many games. It almost seems impossible."
Self was taken aback by his father's response.
"He told me, 'You're right; maybe you should stay at Illinois,'" Self said. "'If you're scared of following Roy, you're probably not the man for the job.'
"He basically called me a [wimp]."
Fueled by that comment, Self accepted the job and immediately put his stamp on Kansas' program. Under Williams, the Jayhawks were known for a fast-paced offense that routinely scored in the 90s and 100s. Self slowed the game down a bit and employed a high-low attack. There also was a greater emphasis on toughness and defense.
"There was some resistance at first, which was understandable," Self said. "I'm coming in and telling the players, 'This is the best thing ever for you guys. This style and how we do things will be great for you.' In the back of their mind, they're thinking, 'We've won a lot more than you have. If what we were doing was great before, why should we think that your way is better?'
"I had to come to grips with that and try to convince them there are lots of ways to do it."
Nine years later, Self has won eight straight Big 12 titles and an NCAA title -- something Williams was never able to bring to Lawrence.
"We guessed right with Bill," Jennings said. "Someday someone will confront that same kind of pressure when Bill is no longer at KU. To keep that tradition alive puts tremendous pressure on whoever is responsible for it."
One person who didn't feel much tension when replacing a legend was Russ Pennell, a former Arizona assistant who took over for Lute Olson on an interim basis after Olson announced his retirement less than a month before the 2008-09 season.
Pennell was told by athletic director Jim Livengood that his appointment would be for only one year and that he wouldn't be considered for the permanent job.
"It was like someone gave me a Ferrari and told me I could drive it for a year but that I was going to have to give it back," Pennell said. "I wanted to have fun with it -- but I didn't want to wreck it. That was my approach."
It was like someone gave me a Ferrari and told me I could drive it for a year but that I was going to have to give it back. I wanted to have fun with it -- but I didn't want to wreck it. That was my approach.” -- Former UA interim coach Russ Pennell
Pennell's situation wasn't completely void of stress. The Wildcats had been to the tournament for 24 straight years, and with standouts such as Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill on the squad, expectations were still relatively high in 2008-09 despite Olson's departure and the tumultous exit of coach-in-waiting Kevin O'Neill.
"People kept asking, 'Will the streak stop here?'" Pennell said. "I didn't want to be the coach that ended the streak. That was always in the back of my mind."
Not only did the Wildcats reach the NCAA tournament, but they made the Sweet 16 under Pennell, who is now the head coach at Division II Grand Canyon. Arizona, which made the Elite Eight in 2011, is flourishing under Sean Miller.
It's not uncommon to see Olson in the stands at Wildcats games, but he hardly meddles in the day-to-day goings-on of his former program. Neither does Gary Williams, who has been far from a hovering presence since retiring last summer after 22 years at Maryland.
New Terrapins coach Mark Turgeon said Williams has been extremely positive during their limited conversations and that he appreciates Williams for giving him some space as he molds the program.
"I'm not trying to impress Gary," Turgeon said. "I'm not trying to do things like Gary. I'm doing the things that got me to where I am today. The only pressure I feel is the pressure to keep up the tradition that Maryland has always had."
One of the smoothest transitions following the departure of an iconic coach occurred in 2006 at Temple, where Chaney had worked since 1982. The Owls found their replacement across town in Dunphy, who had led Penn to six NCAA tournament appearances in the previous eight seasons.
Before he agreed to interview for the job, Dunphy said, he called Chaney, who had been a longtime friend.
"I told him, 'This is something I'm interested in, but I can't go any further without your blessing, your stamp of approval,'" Dunphy said. "John said, 'There are only a few people I'd like to see succeed me, and you're one of them.'
"At that point, any apprehension I had was gone."
It didn't take long for Dunphy to win over a group of players who were used to early-morning workouts under Chaney.
"At the end of my first meeting with the team, a player raised his hand and said, 'Coach, are we going to practice at 5:30?'" Dunphy said. "I nodded, waited a couple of seconds and then said, 'p.m.' They all got up and gave me a big hug."
Temple had a losing season in Dunphy's inaugural year but has won 20 or more games each season since.
"Is it difficult? Sure it is," Dunphy said. "No one in their right mind will tell you it's a piece of cake. I'm trying every day to live up to [Chaney's] accomplishments and have a successful program, but the guy was legendary.
"Eventually you realize you can't be that person. You can only be yourself."
Editor's Note: Who will be the toughest legend to replace? Myron Medcalf, Dana O'Neil and Andy Katz make their picks here.
MORE MEN'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL HEADLINES
- Brown: UNC scandal could hurt Smith legacy
- Holt: Davis accident 'changed my life forever'
- Hall of Fame coach Tarkanian hospitalized
- Hoosiers' Robinson: Let a lot of people down