Josh Pastner Q&A on Memphis, Georgia Tech and golfing assistants
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With the 2016 college basketball coaching carousel nearing its conclusion, SI.com is checking in with all the major hires about their new gigs. These Q&As will be posted periodically throughout April and May. Next up is Josh Pastner, who spent seven seasons as Memphis’s head coach before leaving for the same post at Georgia Tech on April 8. Pastner, 38, led the Tigers to a 167–73 record, a winning percentage of 69.6%, and four NCAA tournament appearances, the last of which came in 2014. He is married and has four children.
Sports Illustrated: You had a pretty good job at Memphis. What was it about Georgia Tech that intrigued you?
Josh Pastner: First of all, let me say this: I had a great job at Memphis. And I loved being a head coach there for my seven years. I loved every second of it. I think it’s probably the most intense job, maybe in the country, especially following John Calipari. He had the most wins in a four-year period of any coach in the history of college basketball, and that’s what I was following. We had a great run. And I loved every second of it. The opportunity at Georgia Tech came, and I just thought it was a tremendous opportunity to be able to coach in the ACC and at such a high-level school. I just thought it was a great opportunity.
It’s different. When I became coach at Memphis, it was just a straight—sustain, sustain, sustain. We were trying to win 30 [games] every year to match coach Calipari. But here, the difference is that we’re building. This is a rebuild. It’s going to take time. You have a chance to put your own imprint on the program.
The 2016 recruiting class is obviously in the past, so we have to focus on the future. And it’s going to take time—it’s going to take a couple of classes put together. But I’m excited about the build. I’m excited about the challenge. I’m excited about the opportunity, and I’m really looking forward to it. There are a lot of positives about this job.
SI: How long was the decision-making process for you?
JP: It was quick. It happened within hours. There was no time to dilly-dally around. It was A to B to C to D to E within hours. In fact, I was on my way to Little Rock, Ark., recruiting for Memphis when it happened.
SI: So you took the job without visiting the campus in Atlanta?
JP: No, I never visited the campus. I met with the athletic director [Mike Bobinski] at the Final Four, but I didn’t visit the campus. But I’ve got good gut instincts on stuff, and this one felt totally right.
SI: It seems like you’re intrigued mostly by the challenge. Was that the biggest part of it?
JP: Yeah, it was the excitement of building something up. I was excited for the opportunity to do that. It’s going to be a grind now. It’s going to be every day, all day to try to move the needle forward. I’m very fortunate to come in and take over here. The culture is great. So that’s a great sign. It’s just going to take time.
But I’m excited about that. I look at the glass as overflowing—not as half-full, but overflowing. But that’s my vision for the job in terms of my excitement level and my positive feel. That’s my mindset and that’s my energy level.
SI: You made some headlines early on in your Georgia Tech tenure when you said that you wouldn’t hire golfers as assistant coaches. Has the reaction to that surprised you?
JP: I mean, it was more of a figure of speech. Listen, I have the greatest respect for golfers. I loved watching Tiger Woods in his prime. And I have attended the PGA St. Jude Classic in Memphis. My point was: Everyone here has to be aligned with my vision. My staff has to be aligned with my mission and Georgia Tech’s mission. If anyone is out of line, it won’t work.
And part of that is: This is going to be an everyday, all-day process to build it back. And it’s going to take time. And it’s about working efficiently. It doesn’t mean just working for the heck of it. But in the short-term, until the needle moves, you have to commit to a level of work that’s going to be efficient and sharp but also long. It’s going to be long hours, long days and weekends. It’s not about just working for the sake of it; it’s about working efficiently to build something.
I’ve had tons of people love the comment. And that’s just kind of what it is.
SI: Are there any other hobbies assistant coaches aren’t supposed to have?
JP: I probably ought to refrain from everything, otherwise that’ll end up being the central news story. (Laughs.)
SI: Where are you in the process of hiring your staff?
JP: I haven’t hired anybody yet. [Editor’s note: On Monday, Pastner hired Julian Swartz as operations director and Tyler Benson as video coordinator, and on Tuesday he hired Georgia State assistant Darryl LaBarrie as his first assistant coach.] You know, when I took over the Memphis program, I didn’t hire any full-time staff member until I'd been on the job a few weeks. I was by myself on the job there and I’m doing the same thing here, in terms of a full-time staff member. But I want to hire properly. I want to make sure I make the right hires. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m at a turtle-pace when I hire people. It’s a process. And I’m working in partnership with my athletic director, Mike Bobinski.
SI: As you look back on your time at Memphis, what things have you learned? What things do you think you did well and where can you improve?
JP: I think a big key in having an opportunity to grow as a human being is admitting your strengths and weakness, and I recognize a lot of my strengths and I recognize tons and tons of my weaknesses. I have a lot more weaknesses than I do strengths. But I recognize them. And I look back at my time at Memphis where I had an opportunity, and we did a lot of good. And other things, I learned from. And that’s all part of it. And as I evolve and continue to grow, you take each day and each learning experience and you hope to better yourself. And we did a lot of good at Memphis.
Most people in their first job are in a position where they can make a mistake or two and no one notices anything. My job, every singly timeout, every time I came out of halftime, anything I said to the media, wherever I was in public, whatever play I designed, who we recruited—it was the most debated and talked about thing under an intense magnifying glass for my seven years as a head coach.
I’m a better coach than I was in Year 1, and I hope to be a better coach 10 years from now than I am today. And that’s just part of the evolving and maturation process in growing as a head coach.
SI: Are there any specific things that you’re thinking about?
JP: There are two or three things that I am so clearly defined on that I want to attack that I’ve learned in my time in Memphis. I maybe won’t share publicly, but I know where I want to get and how I want to get there in a much more clearly defined way. There are things that I did really well that I want to bring, and there are things that I want to avoid doing here at Georgia Tech and not make the same mistakes.
SI: What’s the biggest difference that you’re facing in recruiting now as the Memphis head coach vs. as the Georgia Tech head coach?
JP: Well, listen, the majority of people in the profession thought we did a heck of a job. I mean, we won 70% of our games in Memphis. Most times you do that, you have a statue built of you. It just so happens I was following a guy who had won over 90% of his games the last four years he was there. And I was his assistant. He was a guy who had a helicopter tracking his movements when he was deciding if he should go to Kentucky or not. Not for a hostage negotiation, but for whether or not he would go to Kentucky.
But people in the profession—if you ask anyone in the profession—they’ll tell you we did a great job at Memphis. The welcoming and encouragement around the country in the grassroots has been great as I’ve been at Georgia Tech. Now we have to get the job done. And it’s going to take time, and it’s going to take everybody with two feet in. It’s not going to be a quick fix. There aren’t any shortcuts to get it to a championship-level, sustainable program.
And going back to Memphis, I was the last guy they wanted to get the job. I mean, Memphis probably got 20 people raises, because no one wanted to follow Calipari. I just happened to be the last man standing. If you had asked the people of Memphis at the time—the city was in mourning having lost Cal and not being able to find a coach—if they would win 70% of their games, everybody would have signed up for that.
SI: People who have replaced legendary coaches have not fared especially well.
JP: I had a great run.
SI: I wanted to ask you about the Georgia Tech roster as it stands now. What’s your first step in making a connection to these guys?
JP: We lost over 85% of our scoring, 80% or so of our assists. We’re starting over in a lot of ways because a majority of the guys who are returning weren’t in the main rotation. If you lose 80% of production that people look at in the box score, that’s a challenge. But I’m excited about the challenge. I know this group is going to play as hard as any team will. We’re going to leave it on the floor. We’re going to play the right way. I’m excited to build and grow with the current guys.
And that’s where we have to recruit well in the ’17, ’18 and ’19 classes. There will be no quick fixes. It’s about identifying, getting and developing guys.
SI: You have a well-known reputation for being a very driven guy, back to when you took 30 credit hours in a semester at Arizona . . .
JP: It was 33 in one semester. In my fifth semester.
SI: Do you have something that helps you unwind in the limited free time you give yourself?
JP: The only thing that helps me unwind is when I exercise early in the morning. I’m locked in with full energy then.
SI: What’s your exercise routine?
JP: I run. Or I’ll box. When I was at Memphis, I would box. And when I was in Tucson, I loved boxing. But now I’m in a little place where there’s no boxing. But I like intense workouts. I’ll go 30 minutes of intense stuff, just to try to get my heart-rate up. When I don’t work out, I’m not as clear. And I’m not as good of a coach. It’s important that I get a workout.
SI: So even when you’re unwinding you’re going as hard as possible?
JP: Absolutely. I’m trying to be as intense as I can in that window. Because in my mind it allows me to eat—because I love to eat. It’s probably a bad way to do it, but I don’t eat until about 10 p.m.
SI: So it justifies the cheeseburger if you get in the run early?
JP: (Laughs.) I try to avoid the cheeseburgers, but certainly a slice of pizza. Everything I do, I try to do with pace. Everything I do is with pace and with energy. That’s just how I’m wired. I’m not a great relaxer. And that’s an area of weakness of mine. That is something I could do better at.
However, I don’t take anything for granted. Even though I’m at a high pace, I do not take things for granted. I believe in gratefulness and appreciation and not entitlement. Those are core values of mine. I never take things for granted. Even though I’m going at a high pace, and that’s how I live my life, I never lose an attitude of gratitude. Every day. It’s much easier to say it than to live, but it’s how I live and operate.
SI: Well it seems like there’s an argument to be made that going hard and using your time efficiently is a way to live your life with gratitude. We don’t get that much time.
JP: That’s true. But I don’t take things for granted. I recognize that there are so many more coaches than there are good jobs, and there are probably even more deserving coaches for this job, or coaches who could be a head coach but aren’t yet. I get it, and I’m very, very grateful to be a head coach in the ACC. I’m not someone who takes that for granted for even one second.