Diving right into my thoughts about Tiger basketball – including why people don’t need to feel bad for Josh Pastner, the program’s complex “issues” regarding the head coach position, and where to go from here…
Not as Sad as You Think
At this point, literally everyone I talk to about Tiger Basketball agrees that it would be best if the program had new leadership.
And almost everyone agrees that’s a sad conclusion to make – because they all like Josh Pastner.
But maybe we shouldn’t feel so bad, especially in light of the circumstances. First of all, Memphis has made Pastner a very wealthy man. Whenever his reign as head of the men’s program comes to an end, Pastner will have cashed in the neighborhood of $20 million in checks. The guy has a lot of mouths to feed, but that’s a lot of cheese so the Pastners should be ok.
He’s also had a chance to build his resume – and will be highly employable.
Regardless of the condition of the Tiger program currently, Pastner has accomplished a lot in Memphis. His reputation as a relentless recruiter is still in tact, which should put him in line to land an elite assistant job if he’s willing to take a step back. This happens all the time. See Jeff Capel at Duke for example.
And lets not forget that Pastner has had exclusively winning seasons, 6 of them heading into this year, all while playing by NCAA rules. Surely some lower profile schools will have interest in hiring him if and when Memphis parts ways.
Pastner might also be attractive to an NBA franchise looking for an assistant coach. NBA benches are often occupied with former college coaches with less success under their belts than Pastner. Jeff Bzdelik, for example, is currently cashing checks from the Memphis Grizzlies and he once had 6 losing seasons in a row as a college coach.
Bottom line – a lot of employers in the industry would be satisfied with a guy like Josh Pastner.
But Memphis fans are now hoping that David Rudd (President, UofM) and Tom Bowen (Athletic Director) are employers with a different mindset.
As Memphis fans await that decision, they should understand that Rudd and Bowen don’t have the historical context that they (Memphis fans) posses.
A History of Contradictions
After all, neither Rudd nor Bowen was at Memphis when John Calipari led the program to 4 consecutive 30-win seasons (and deep NCAA runs) in a row from 2005-2009. And neither was in the Bluff City in the immediate aftermath when Memphis basketball’s decades long “character problems” were again exposed.
Neither was around when Josh Pastner’s Good Samaritan persona first took the city by storm.
And that’s really what all this is about, isn’t it? What makes this situation so difficult is that Memphis basketball is built upon some troubling contradictions that have come to define the head coaching position at the school, if not the program itself.
These contradictions, or issues, go back further than I do.
In 1973 Memphians celebrated an NCAA finalist led by a local hero, Larry Finch, who went on to lead the program as head coach. The popular story is that the 1973 team helped heal a racially divided city – but keep in mind the story didn’t actually end until 25 years later when the program turned its back on the hero in a racially divisive manner.
Finch as head coach during my childhood (1986-1997) was in some ways a precursor to Josh Pastner. Well liked, did things the right way, but didn’t have a style pleasing to a majority of the fan base and ultimately didn’t win enough.
Finch won a lot (2 Sweet 16s / 1 Elite 8 / 8, 20 win seasons in 11 years) but he never got to the Final 4 and starting losing local recruits due to pervasive negativity and a perception that the program was languishing under his leadership.
It didn’t matter that Finch had cleaned up a program that under Kirk had tattered NCAA rules, broken federal laws, and had such little interest in educating its minority players that the NAACP called for the coach’s removal. The bottom line was that the fan base eroded greatly under Finch, so he was gone – unceremoniously asked to sign his buyout at a hot dog stand after a home game.
After hiring Tic Price, which was a complete debacle, Memphis was thoroughly desperate for a winner.
Enter John Calipari.
Enter 30-win seasons, night club fights, Sweet 16 appearances, allegations of fraudulent SAT tests, Final 4 appearances, failed drug tests, #1 rankings, domestic abuse arrests.
Enter Josh Pastner, and now everything has come full circle.
So what’s the lesson here? That Memphis basketball will settle for nothing less than Final 4 level success, even if it takes criminal activity or at the very least academic fraud to achieve it?
Yes, that’s exactly the lesson. That’s why the first name that folks throw out when they dream about Pastner’s replacement is Auburn Coach and famed cheater Bruce Pearl.
Let’s go get the dirtiest guy available!
But college basketball is different these days. Cheating in recruiting has become SOP. Everyone does it systematically, including probably Pastner’s Memphis program. Assistant coaches do the dirty work and take the fall. Head coaches skate.
Every other aspect of the industry has also become standard. Academic “support staffs” make the graduation rates look pretty. Basketball programs look more like departments in a Fortune 100 company.
This isn’t the 1980’s.
In 2016, the dividing line is less about cheating and more about resources. We’re talking ‘Power 5’ vs. ‘Group of 5’ distinctions.
So Pearl probably isn’t leaving Auburn for Memphis.
And Memphis, in the aftermath of Pastner, doesn’t necessarily have a clear direction to go.
If money were no object, Memphis would go after Wichita State’s Greg Marshall or Dayton’s Archie Miller. These are the best coaches outside the “Power 5.” Everyone is going to want these guys. Both have “elite” written all over them and would almost certainly succeed at Memphis.
Would they come?
Hard to say, but probably not even though Marshall has historically preferred schools outside the limelight.
First off, the financial thing has to be figured out and I don’t have those answers. Secondly, does Memphis under Bowen and Rudd still consider itself a basketball school? Clearly football is a priority, as it should be with conference realignment in mind. Like it or not, life in the ‘Group of 5’ will probably prevent Memphis from hiring one of these guys.
Should Memphis try a proven coach who’s had success at a lower level? Guys like Brad Underwood (Stephen F. Austin), or Tim Cluess (Iona). Both are guys that got their first opportunity at an older age and might relish the Memphis job. There’s plenty of other guys out there at the mid-major level (Pearl’s former top assistant Steve Forbes is now coaching at ETSU), but hiring them is like taking a shot in the dark.
Hiring a mid-major is a shot in the dark. You could get Dana Kirk (came from VCU) or you could get Tic Price (came from New Orleans).
Or Memphis could turn within and look to guys with deep knowledge of the program. Some have suggested Penny Hardaway. Derek Kellogg at UMass would be a possibility and Damon Stoudamire is already on the payroll. The Pastner experiment has suppressed everyone’s appetite for guys with zero track record in the main chair.
Then there’s the retread option. Larry Eustachy, Tim Floyd. Maybe Mike Anderson, who has basically failed at Arkansas, could be persuaded to finally take the Memphis job. A dozen more guys like that are out there that would be intrigued by Memphis, but none of them get the blood pumping.
Here’s an idea that checks a lot of boxes: Hire Manhattan’s Steve Masiello.
He’s won some games, learned under Rick Pitino, and already has an ethics fiasco under his belt. He lied on his resume a few years back – which cost him the South Florida job.
That seems to be the perfect mixture for the Memphis job at this point, and at any point over the past 40 years.