Memphis fans are beginning to wonder…how is the Josh Pastner era going to play out? To answer that question one needs to first consider the various ways the current season will unfold – and then understand the options the Memphis administration and program’s financial backers have as they attempt, as they do every year, to make sure the program stays or returns to an elite level.
According to Memphis Roar’s Grant Milner, Josh Pastner is not going to change the way he runs his program. He’s going to keep suspending guys for not obeying team rules, even if the ultimate sacrifice is the ability to win games. Here’s a quote via Memphis Roar from Pastner after the SMU game regarding his overwhelming propensity to use suspensions as a disciplinary technique:
I will not change. I don’t care what the situation is. What is popular is not always going to be right. I can promise you that, but what is right is not always popular. I’m sticking to my guns. I will not waver on my line or principle for any one individual. Period. I believe in that. That’s from the fiber of my cloth on that. So, if anyone thinks we’ve lost any control, they are in outer space. If anything, I’ve got too much control because I want to make sure that guys do right. That’s important to me.
Nobody should begrudge or condemn Pastner for disciplining his players and teaching them life lessons. Good on him. On the other hand it would be nice if he could do that and also find a way to win a lot of basketball games. One has to really wonder why Pastner’s players are breaking his rules so often, even if, as he says, the transgressions are nothing serious or morally reprehensible. And if it’s not that serious, as Pastner so often implies, why can’t he find some other way to get his point across?
Leaving that question aside for the moment, consider that there are really only 2 likely outcomes for this year’s team:
1. Pastner’s Tigers keep fighting, make the NIT or some other non-NCAA postseason tournament.
Oddly, this is really the best case realistic scenario for Pastner’s squad. Qualifying for the NIT could be a stretch for the current team, who may struggle to stay above .500 as they get deeper into AAC play. Perhaps Pookie Powell turns into a solid college point guard by the end of the year, and Demarnier Cunningham into a serviceable backup. Perhaps Austin Nichols continues to emerge as a 1st team all AAC level performer and some other guys (Godfrey, Woodson, Burrell, Crawford) settle into their roles. Maybe even Shaq Goodwin can rediscover how to make use of his immense talent. But even if everything breaks positively for Memphis from here on out, the dream of a 5th straight NCAA tournament is basically dead. The quality wins are non-existent and the potential bad losses have piled up.
2. Pastner’s team continues to fracture, does not improve, and Memphis misses the postseason entirely for the first time since 1999-2000. The year was 2000 and according to the story, if Memphis interim head coach Johnny Jones’ team had won one additional game in the CUSA tournament, then Memphis would have qualified for the NIT and was prepared to offer Jones the permanent job as Head Men’s Basketball Coach. The runner-up candidate who would not have been hired under that scenario? An then-assistant coach for the Philadelphia 76ers named John Calipari. For the first time in 15 years, Memphis is in some danger of missing the postseason entirely. In terms of talent level, wins / losses and the general vibe around the program, it’s safe to say that Memphis’ program has regressed to the Johnny Jones level. By the end of the year, Memphis fans may have to accept a dose of reality about how far their beloved program has fallen. Nobody needs to be reminded that ticket prices and donor requests have not fallen to the Johnny Jones level.
Such a scenario would leave the Memphis administration with a few options of their own, though obviously the latter would increase the noise and / or apathy surrounding the program:
1. Do nothing (other than maybe force some staff changes) and Hope Pastner turns it around. Unless someone with (a) a lot of sway within the athletic department and (b) deep pockets, really wants to make a change, this is the likely scenario. Obviously these people do exist and everybody has heard a rumor, but for at least another year, if not 2 – it would seem more likely than not that Josh Pastner leads the Memphis program. Pastner makes $2.65m per year on a deal that runs through 2019-2020. That’s $13.25m in guaranteed money. According to the Commercial Appeal’s Kyle Veazey, who analyzed the contract after it was signed in 2013, there is no buyout for Memphis in the contract:
Dismissing Pastner solely because of the team’s performance would be costly for the U of M. The Tigers would owe Pastner the balance of his contract — as many as four full seasons’ salary, if he’s dismissed before the date the contract automatically renews — if they wished to part with him.
In retrospect, Memphis’ attitude toward the 2013 Pastner contract negotiation was probably akin to how a lover badly betrayed in a previous relationship exhibits over-protectiveness and neuroticism in their next relationship. “YOU’RE NOT GOING TO LEAVE ME ARE YOU? YOU CAN’T LEAVE!” Memphis administrators and boosters were still so traumatized by the images of John Calipari leaving millions on the table to hop a private plane to Lexington that they threw all that money at Pastner – who as recently as 2013 had become one of the bright young stars in the profession and was a legit candidate at USC and possibly a target of UCLA. It’s amazing how 2 years can change everyone’s perspective such a great deal.
2. Be proactive in helping Pastner make a lateral move (or step back move) similar to Frank Haith leaving Missouri for Tulsa in 2014. This is an intriguing option. There are a lot of people, myself included, who really like Josh Pastner. Because he’s been personally very kind to me and my family, it’s painful to think of him being pushed out in any way. Yet the truth is that Pastner and Memphis may be better off moving in different directions. He may find more happiness in a less pressurized environment where he can focus solely on running a program the way he sees fit without constant comparisons to his predecessor and without the intense focus of the fans and media that the Memphis job generates. This is not to suggest that the pressure in Memphis is that great or that Pastner has somehow been treated unfairly, just that maybe he’d prefer a change of scenery. Everybody knew that following Calipari was not going to be easy.
According to Veazey, if Pastner leaves Memphis before April 6, 2015, he owes the University $600,000. After that date the number drops to $500,000. Memphis could decide to go ahead and waive that clause – by offering an amendment to the contract – in hopes that Pastner might then be more inclined to make a lateral move. There are other things Memphis could do financially to incentivize such a move without straight up firing Pastner, such as offering an exit bonus which would allow him to take a lesser paying job without as drastic a paycut. Ultimately Memphis might be able to pay Pastner and a less expensive new staff the combined amount of money they’re paying Pastner and his.
Perhaps Pastner could then end up at a place like Nevada or Stanford – or some other less high profile program in the Mountain West or PAC 12 – or even a place in the AAC like UCF. There are good jobs available at schools with less basketball tradition than Memphis. AD’s and fan bases of such schools might be thrilled to get a recruiter of Pastner’s caliber who took 4 straight teams to the NCAA tournament.
3. Fire Pastner. I don’t see this as an option because (a) $13.65m seems like way too much money – even for folks with very deep pockets – and (b) you just don’t fire a guy who has taken his program to 4 consecutive NCAA tournaments while compiling a record of 138-50, unless there are some major ethical or behavioral problems going on. Despite the frustration of the fan base, such a move is basically unprecedented – though UT once fired Jerry Green after 4 straight NCAA tournaments when the environment around his program became so toxic he went on the radio and told fans to “Go to K-Mart” if they didn’t want to watch his product. He could have at least had the respect to suggest Target.
Without the benefit of being around the Memphis program on a day to day basis, I can’t say whether the dysfunction of the current internal situation rises to the level where a change of this nature is being contemplated. Obviously Pastner vigorously denies that he has lost control of the program, and I’m inclined to believe him, for now.