Josh Pastner's next step at Memphis
In basketball-crazed city, expectations for Tigers' coach are high in his fifth year
When Josh Pastner accepted the head coaching gig at Memphis in 2009, he understood the magnitude of his decision.
John Calipari had reached the national title game a year earlier in the most impressive achievement of his lengthy stay with the Tigers. He won 252 games (38 were vacated due to NCAA violations), reached the NCAA tournament six times and won 20 or more games in eight of his nine seasons at the school.
Memphis tried to retain him before he bolted for Kentucky following the 2008-09 campaign, a sign of his success and the admiration the program's supporters had for him.
Pastner, Calipari's assistant at the time, figured he wasn't that high on the school's list of potential successors when he was offered the job. He also recognized the difficulties that might come with that promotion.
"Calipari probably had the greatest four-year run in the history of college basketball [at Memphis]," Pastner said. "The greatest. No one had ever done what he did in those four years. Here I am 31 years old. I'm the crazy man following him. I was able to get the job because nobody wanted to follow him. I was probably 199th on the list. I didn't try to change and fix things. I tried to piggyback off the momentum he created."
To a degree, Pastner has maintained Memphis' legacy in recent years. His program has won the past two Conference USA regular-season titles and three C-USA tourney titles in a row. Memphis has reached the NCAA tournament three times in the past four seasons, too.
But a postseason run has eluded him. Memphis won its first NCAA tournament game under Pastner when it defeated Saint Mary's in the second round of last season's Big Dance.
Tuesday's matchup against Big 12 title contender Oklahoma State in Stillwater is just the beginning of a challenging nonconference slate for Memphis, one that includes the Old Spice Classic (and a second potential meeting with the No. 7 Cowboys) and meetings with Gonzaga (FedEx Forum) and Florida (New York). The early quarrels could impact No. 11 Memphis' standing on Selection Sunday and its postseason path.
"[The Oklahoma State game] is very important just because it's an away game and those are the type of games you need to win to get a great seed, not a good seed, in the tournament," said senior Joe Jackson. "We need this win just to put our name in that category. I think we'll have to be ready to play."
A move to the American Athletic Conference -- a league that features recent national champions Louisville and Connecticut -- will give the program more national prominence thanks to an extensive list of national TV appearances that it lacked in C-USA.
Plus, the Tigers have been knocked in recent years for lofty records that were partially achieved by wins over teams in a non-power league. But that criticism will gradually fade if they're equally successful in the American.
"These nonconference games are hopefully preparing us for the American," Pastner said. "For us to be elite, we need our upperclassmen to be elite. And then, our teams need to be consistently good, night in and night out, on the glass. They need to play with tremendous energy."
But the switch could also magnify the level of scrutiny Pastner encounters as he attempts to push a team that features veteran guards and a top-three recruiting class beyond the first weekend of the NCAA tournament for the first time since Calipari left for Lexington.
"There is so much anticipation, high, high expectations and a lot of moving parts, so you have to be relentless," said former Pastner assistant and current Texas A&M-Corpus Christi coach Willis Wilson. "You have to have a vision of what you want and you have to be pretty stern about how you want to lead and the direction you want to take things because there's a lot of external influence on the program. It is a basketball town at levels that people really can't understand unless you've lived there or worked there."
Success is an expectation in the city of Memphis, where basketball is king.
In 1973, Larry Kenon and Larry Finch led the program to the national championship game, where it lost to Bill Walton's UCLA squad. Former All-American Keith Lee was the star on a Memphis team anchored by local products who reached the Final Four in 1985. Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway captivated the country and drew comparisons to Magic Johnson in the early '90s. And Derrick Rose's squad nearly gave the program its first title before suffering an overtime loss to Kansas in the 2008 title game.
Although the players and coaches have changed, the expectations have not.
"We're going to get over that hump this year, in my opinion," said Harold Byrd, president of The Rebounders booster club, which supports Memphis. "I think the expectations are national championships. We don't expect too much out of Josh. But this is a city that's crazy about its basketball."
For us to be elite, we need our upperclassmen to be elite. And then, our teams need to be consistently good, night in and night out, on the glass. They need to play with tremendous energy." -- Memphis coach Josh Pastner
Pastner is obsessively positive, a trait that has contributed to his accelerated progression in coaching. His voicemail greeting contains a quote from author Parker J. Palmer.
"How easily we get trapped in that which is not essential -- in looking good, winning at competition, gathering power and wealth -- when simply being alive is the gift beyond measure," he says on the greeting. "Have a great day, a positive day and be a positive energy-giver. Talk soon."
While Pastner acknowledges the pressure to avoid another early exit in the NCAA tournament (the Tigers lost to Michigan State in the third round last season), he's not overwhelmed by it. That's because he's a day-by-day leader who cautions his players against looking too far into the future.
"We just don't have an opportunity to look past anybody," Pastner said.
But Pastner is not judged by postseason success alone, according to his most significant backers. In June, the Tigers received an NCAA Public Recognition Award for the fourth straight year after achieving high Academic Progress Rate scores.
He has attracted some of the most talented players in the country, too. Pastner's 2013 recruiting class was ranked third by ESPN's Recruiting Nation.
"I think Josh has stepped in and filled [Calipari's] shoes very well," Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen said. "And now the next piece of it is to have a lot of postseason success. I think it's moving in the right direction. I really believe that."
Entering his fifth season, the 36-year-old has guided the Tigers to three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. And this year should be No. 4.
Missouri transfer Michael Dixon scored 15 points and recorded four steals in the Tigers' 95-69 win over Austin Peay on Thursday. Freshman Nick King added 13 points and five rebounds off the bench. In all, six players registered double figures.
Pastner has the pieces to challenge Louisville and UConn for the inaugural American title. But he can stamp his imprint on the program with an NCAA tournament run.
Pastner said that's not his team's only priority. It is, however, something he covets as much as the vocal, Memphis faithful.
"I don't care if we're playing in the YMCA league," Pastner said. "When you're coaching the Memphis Tigers, the expectation is to go 40-0 every year. … It doesn't matter for Memphis whether we're in the American or any other league. The expectation by the city, by the fan base, they want you to go 40-0 every year. We've won regular-season titles and I know we haven't made a deep run in the NCAA tournament. I recognize that. Those things aren't easy to do.
"But it doesn't say the 'Road to the Conference Championship,' it says 'The Road to the Final Four.' I get it. People want us to make deep runs every single year. I recognize it. I want it more than anybody."