At sinking UNO, summer recruiting proves to be anything but Easy
"One kid, and one assistant coach," he says. "But they're both still being recruited away."
With a year left on his own contract, Pasternack needs to find an entirely new team, capable of competing as a D-I Independent, by the time classes start on Aug. 23 -- without being able to offer any scholarships. He'll repeat the same four words all summer, on the phone, in gyms in three states and on the way into a Target store to buy a BlackBerry charger to keep calling people about prospects; in his office at UNO, in his living room in Old Metairie, and at a new-age Cajun dinner before ordering a shrimp-and-alligator sausage cheesecake appetizer: "We've gotta get players."
He'll never say it in the leisurely cadence of native New Orleansians, although he is one; he'll say it with the hyper-intensity of a 33-year-old head coach who attended Indiana University in the mid-1990s for the sole purpose of student-managing under
This will be a hard-hat kind of recruiting period. Since 2000, only one other D-I school, Birmingham Southern, has lost its conference affiliation and begun a transition to D-III in the same year -- and it decided to suspend men's basketball for that season.
At the outset of the NCAA's 2007 summer evaluation period, the coaching community's upper crust was watching top recruits at Nike's
Coming back to rebuild in the wake of Katrina -- which had ruined his childhood home just off the 17th Street Canal -- seemed like a noble idea at the time. In just their second game of that '07-08 season, Pasternack's Privateers upset No. 21 North Carolina State on the road, and went on to finish with 19 wins, their highest total in 11 years. "I thought we had turned the corner," he says, "but after that, there was just so much ..."
So much what? Uncertainty, for one, and upheaval. Enrollment had plummeted from around 17,000 students to 10,000 after the storm, and a lack of student fees and state support led to a multi-million-dollar shortfall in the athletic budget. In May 2009, a campus-wide vote to raise student athletic fees failed. On the same day, without warning to Pasternack, a letter went out to athletic departments nationwide advertising that his players were available due to the fact that UNO "is unsure of whether the Department of Athletics will continue at our institution." (He subsequently lost freshmen
The transition process will take until 2015-16 to complete. it was such a controversial move that Miller resigned in the lead-up, and is writing a book about his battle to keep UNO athletics afloat, tentatively titled
When I join Pasternack on July 6, near the three-year anniversary of his hiring at UNO, he's a long way from the LeBron camp, at a showcase hosted by scout
In recruiting parlance, most of the players here are "availables" -- fresh high-school graduates or junior-college sophomores who've yet to receive a scholarship offer. They've paid $120 each for three days of scrimmaging in jerseys with "The Hoop Dream" printed on the front. It's a nice euphemism. This is where desperate players go to be seen by desperate coaches.
While watching a game in Jonesboro, he leafs through a packet of mostly unknown players' names and contact information that cost $100 at the door. "Normally, in July, you're just babysitting kids for next year," Pasternack says, explaining that elite teams have done the legwork to ID and engage with elite players long before their final summer on the circuit. "
NCAA rules forbid Pasternack from talking about specific prospects, so I ask him what he's looking for, in general, in the packet.
"Right now," he says, "I'm looking for Louisiana area codes: 504, 225, 337."
Louisianans pay in-state tuition, which is half as much ($10,000) as the out-of-state fees. Unfortunately, the camp roster is light on those area codes.
After the game, I find out from Smith that he attended an Advanced Skills Camp at UNO a week earlier, and the Privateers are actively recruiting him. "I'm just waiting for word from the coach," he says. "You're OK with paying your own way there?" I ask. "Oh, no." he says, apparently unaware of the extent of UNO's limitations. "I would need some kind of scholarship."
Pasternack's plan is to invite the best availables from Jonesboro, as well as those that his lone remaining assistant,
Braun was the coach who gave Pasternack his first job, as a video coordinator, when he was 22 years old and fresh out of Indiana. "Joe has always been relentless," Braun says. "He was begging me so much for the job that I told him, 'If I hire you, will you stop calling me?'" Pasternack hasn't stopped being impatient. On the second day of the Jonesboro camp, once he has a list of around 15 targets, he calls Lewit. "Bill, we can't wait until August to do this skills camp," he says. "Kids will make decisions by then. We've gotta do it earlier. We've gotta get players."
The headline on the front page of
"I'm sure a lot of you know our situation," Pasternack tells attendees during a mid-day info session. When he finishes explaining UNO's plight, he says, "What that means is, we have a lot of spots open."
Two former Alabama walk-on guards that stood out at the Jonesboro camp are here:
The best player, without question, I recognize as one of LSU's starters from last season's NIT Season Tip-Off against Arizona State:
Kinsley has a full scholarship offer from Southeastern Louisiana, but learned something intriguing four days ago. He could transfer to UNO and be eligible immediately -- and his 24-year-old brother,
The Kinsleys were born in New Orleans and raised in Baton Rouge; their father,
Fred is intrigued by the presence of
One of the other court coaches is the Privateers' lone returning player,
The Wolfpack, along with Rutgers and Tulane, have been trying to recruit him away for his senior season, but he's on the verge of completing a geography degree, has a girlfriend at UNO, and feels loyalty to the program, so he's pledged to stay until the end. "There's some sentiment every time I look around at the empty locker room," he says. "But life goes on. You have to move on."
Everyone else who played in the Privateers' past two tumultuous seasons (with final records of 11-19 and 8-22) has moved on -- literally. When Tyrna gives a tour of the Privateers' facilities to the campers, the remains of a team can be found in various lockers: a business card, smudged with fingerprints, from an assistant coach at Akron. (Small forward
It's quite strange, then, when Carmouche's godmother,
As the camp closes, 29 days remain until the start of UNO's fall semester. Pasternack and Lewit convene privately that night to re-assess their '10-11 depth chart. Because of NCAA rules. they still can't opine to the media about prospects, but when the recruiting process is over, they'll recount a few moments from the meeting: Pasternack concluding that Canady could've played in the Sun Belt; Lewit saying, "I can't emphasize how important it is for us to get the Kinsleys"; Pasternack halting discussion to watch, with great reverence, an ESPNU segment of Duke's Mike Krzyzewski -- the most famous of Knight's acolytes -- conducting a Team USA practice in Las Vegas.
In the week that follows, Pasternack and Lewit woo their targets from the first two skills camps, then split up to travel to two more "availables" events on July 31, the final day of the summer evaluation period. Pasternack attends the
Before Pasternack can lock down a team, he has to lock down a staff. Lewit, a 41-year-old grinder who likes to say, "If you only work half a day, you're cheating yourself, and a day has 24 hours, so half is 12," has an offer to join a more stable situation at UT-Pan American, but accepts a promotion to associate head coach at UNO. There's no room in UNO's budget for further assistants, but Beshara opts to come on board in a voluntary role, as does
Inevitably, some of UNO's conquests in its Summer of No Scholarships are unsuccessful. When I check in with
The Privateers are forced to get creative with the key kids they're pursuing. Canady initially leans toward a D-II scholarship offer from Chowan University in Murfreesboro N.C., until he's presented with a way of paying in-state tuition at UNO: by majoring in Film Arts, which falls under an Academic Common Market agreement between Alabama and Louisiana. The cost and the distance -- just five hours away from his hometown of Montgomery, so his mother can drive to games -- are the right fit, and he commits to UNO on Aug. 9. (Another possible selling point: Canady could be eligible immediately at another D-I if he transfers out of UNO, so this could serve as a one-season audition. A recent Tweet of his reads, "I quietly want to get back in the SEC next year.")
Soon after, four of the junior-college recruits -- guards Knight, Roach and Kemp, and power forward Wertz -- all indicate they plan to attend UNO. Pasternack can't count them as Privateers, or even speak about them, though, until they're admitted and send in a tuition check. "When you need kids to pay," he says, "everything is uncertain." Even Pasternack's situation, for a few days, is unsure. On Aug. 16, he's announced as one of five finalists for the head-coaching job at University of Illinois-Chicago, which eventually hires Wisconsin assistant
Pasternack may be able to take solace in pulling off one coup this summer. On Aug. 10, Zach Kinsley calls and says he'll pass on full-ride offers in favor of playing with his brother, who's already been admitted to UNO. "The coaches really stayed on me," says Zach, who should be the team's offensive centerpiece at small forward. "They kept telling me that they needed me." He and Ryan, who's still waiting on his waiver from the NCAA, make plans to live together on their father's old campus, and do something he didn't get to 30 years ago: suit up for the Privateers.
"They took a roundabout way of getting here, but it was a no-brainer once they could play together," Fred says of his sons. "Zach doesn't have to be in the limelight. This can be just as gratifying. For them, UNO was the right place at the right time."
When class begins on Aug. 23, Pasternack passes along a headcount of new Privateers. "We started with one kid," he says, "and finished with 19." But he has yet to post a roster or schedule on the school's athletics website. Those will take time to finalize, so there is no time to relax. Few certainties exist anymore at UNO. He does, at least, have some players.