“You’re walking through a hallway and there’s a crack of light because the window’s barely open. And the light is coming through that crack and you’re either gonna walk by it, or you see the light and you find a way to maneuver – open that window more to get through it.”
– Josh Pastner, (2/12/15)
Head Coach – University of Memphis
Josh Pastner’s Memphis Tiger basketball team is 14-10. They’ve lost 2 games in a row and 3 of their last 4. His best player is sidelined with an injury. Pastner is in the final month of his 6th season as head coach at the school and has yet to produce the kind of magical NCAA tournament run that relieves pressure on coaches at schools like Memphis.
So what was Pastner doing at 2:15pm on a Thursday in February?
Naturally, he was granting a 20-minute interview to a fledgling blogger.
That’s who Josh Pastner is.
Here’s what he had to say:
Q: Do you ever say no to a request for a favor? Or are you pretty much anything goes?
A: I do the very best I can to accommodate all. If it helps another fellow human being I try to do the very best I can.
Q: That’s one of the things I’m curious about. You’ve talked about paying it forward. It’s not a brand new concept, but you really seem to do it better than most people. Or at least it seems to be your philosophy. Where did you learn to live this way? Where did it first come to you?
A: You know Jay, first of all one of my favorite movies of all time is Pay it Forward. Secondly, I always believe how you give is what you get. If you give good energy and you give good positive thoughts and you wish people good will – usually that’s what you get in return. Not in monetary stuff or accolades, it’s not about that. Just reciprocating positive energy back your way. Or good feelings your way, or you feel better inside. So you know, I think I’ve just been that way in my life. I don’t have a motive or an intent to pay it forward. I just do it because I believe it’s the right thing to do, the principled thing to do.
Q: Is that where you learned it though, a movie?
A: No, that’s not where I learned it. I’ve always been a guy that has seen the goodness of human beings, has seen the goodness of people and tried to…I believe in treating people the right way. The whole basis of my program that we run here is an attitude of gratitude. Having an appreciation, not an entitlement and that’s the way I try to live my life.
Q: And I don’t want to dig too deep, because I respect that’s just how you are. But is that something you developed as a kid or were you born with it?
A: You know, probably as a kid growing up. I always tried to be kind to people. That’s just kind of how I was raised, but also that’s just my personal belief. It’s my fabric. You know, probably the best compliment I’ve gotten from people is I’m the same guy when I was a walk on at Arizona, or on the Freshman ‘B’ team at Kingwood High School, as video coordinator at Arizona, assistant coach at Memphis or the Head Coach at Memphis. I’m the same guy. I’m the same human being and I try to remain that way and treat people the right way throughout the entire time regardless of anything in between.
Q: Do people take advantage of it? Is there a strange request that you’ve gotten or a funny story?
A: I think one of the great things about being the head coach of the Tigers, which I recognize, is it’s not me. It’s not Josh Pastner. It’s the person in the seat. So Jay, if you were sitting in the seat, you’d be getting the same requests. Now, it’s up to you whether you want to honor the request or not, but it’s more about the passion of people loving the Tigers and whoever sits in the chair of head coach. And that’s my thing, nobody’s ever bigger than the program – including the head coach. And the second you take it for granted or think you’re bigger than that it’s going to be taken away from you at any split second. So I try to, if you have an opportunity it’s one of the great perks about the job is you do have an opportunity to make a positive difference with people by just simply being the head coach of the Memphis Tigers and by being good to people. You can make a positive difference in the community.
Q: Is that the same approach you have at home? Pay it Forward in all your relationships?
A: Yea. That’s how I am. I try to. What you see is what you get. I don’t go home and I’m a different dude. I’m the same guy at all times. I just believe in principal. I believe in doing things the right way. It doesn’t mean there’s not mistakes, or mess ups because the good Lord knows I’ve had many mistakes and many mess ups. But I try the very best I can to do things right, with principal, with integrity, and you know usually things will work itself out when you do it that way.
Q: Ok – on to basketball. What would you say your biggest strength and your biggest weakness is as a head coach? Purely basketball, all the other stuff aside.
A: You know Jay, I’ll start off with weakness. I think, and I don’t have time nor do you to have the space to cover all the weaknesses I have. But I would say that one or two that I know that I have – and something that I also recognize – I’m a better coach today in my 6th year than I was in my first year. And I hope to be a better coach in my 12th year that I am today. So I hope to continue to improve and be better, which I still have a lot of room for growth and I recognize that.
I do think some of my areas of weaknesses can also be used as strengths. I think it can be used in both directions. I’m extremely transparent – very very up front and leave zero grey area. And again, these are both weaknesses and strengths. Because I don’t play mind games. I don’t beat around the bush. I tell it very like it is, without ever demeaning or putting someone down or embarrassing, but telling it like it is so they know where they stand. Now, I believe that’s a weakness and a strength. You might say, Well how can it be both? It’s both because sometimes in this day and age different people need to be handled differently. Sometimes you’ve got to massage (the players) a little more. Or you’ve got to play some mind games a little bit just to get them to where you want to get them. But I’m not that type of guy and I don’t like having grey area. And I don’t feel comfortable, if I feel something, not being directly honest. I don’t like playing card games.
Q: (I interrupt) No – I totally get it. So a guy like Shaq Goodwin – maybe another coach would be up in his face, doing things that you’re not comfortable doing because it doesn’t speak to who you are as a person, right?
A: Or, for example, I might tell a player on our team:
Hey – man you got a chance to play in the NBA, you’ve gotta do this, you’ve gotta do that, you’ve got a chance to make it, you have a chance to be a lottery pick.
And to play mind games with them, to try to get em to say:
Man you know you’re right.
But being myself, I’d say:
You’re not good enough to play in the NBA, you’re not good enough to be a lottery pick. That’s the truth.
Q: You’ll say that to guys?
A: Very much so. I might say:
If you want to get to have an opportunity, here’s what you need to do: x, y, and z.
And I believe that. I believe in being very honest, straightforward, not playing any mind games. That’s just me personally. And as much as they’re strengths, those can also be weaknesses.
Q: With that kind of approach which, you have to admit, is probably different from most college basketball coaches – for better or for worse – wouldn’t that require a recruiting strategy to find guys that can thrive in that system? (A system) where they’re going to have to be in some ways self motivated, because you’re not going to play mind games and manipulate and get in their face and M.F. them?
A: Yea, and that’s an area of growth of mine moving forward. Of seeing, OK these are certain guys with my style that can thrive and some certain guys maybe it’s not the right fit. Maybe I’m not the right fit for them or they’re not the right fit for me. But I do believe that the very best – because I’m a self driven – self motivated, very intense, very positive, have a drive. I want others to have that too. And so I believe that you can motivate. I believe that motivating is important, which I do. I do believe in motivating.
Q: Does this team have a floor general?
A: That’s an area that we’ve got to continue to get better. And the floor general is not just at the point guard spot. Someone has to take the reins on the floor. I’ve always believed that if the head coach is your floor general at all times, (then) I think you have a ceiling on the team. I would like, and I do believe, Austin Nichols has that ability as he continues to grow to be that floor general on the floor.
Q: You’ve been in Memphis for 7 years, how long were you in Tucson?
A: 12 or 13.
Q: Do you feel like a full fledged Memphian?
A: Full fledged Memphian – without question.
Q: Jim Boeheim and Coach K have been at their schools for 30+ years. But you also have Hall Of Fame guys like Calipari and Pitino who have moved around strategically. For the sake of this question just assume that you’re every bit the coach as these guys are and you have the career that they have. So without comparing yourself as a coach, do you fit philosophically more as a guy that would stay at one place for 30 or 40 years, having nothing to do with Memphis, or do you see the benefit of maybe every 10 years saying, you know what, it’s time for a new challenge?
A: Well if you look at my past history I’m not a jumper. I grew up in Houston, TX and lived 18 years there. I was in Tucson, AZ for 12 or 13 years and I’m here for 7. So I’m not a jumper. That being said, I don’t see why you can’t coach at Memphis for as long as – for 30 years. That being said, also, you have to be successful for a lot of those years otherwise you’re not going to be welcomed back. So yes, would I like to be at Memphis for a long time? Of course I would cause it is a great job. I believe in the job. But also to be able to stay for that type of longevity, in this day and age, you need the administration and the fans have got to want you back for all those years. And so the best way to be able to do that is obviously you’ve got to win, but you’ve got to win right. You’ve got to win at a high level, but you’ve got to win at a high level the right way. Both on and off the floor.
Q: We recently put forth a blog entry about fan expectations and what the Memphis program really is. We all have an opinion of what it is and what it should be. At your introductory press conference you talked about how you wanted “no slippage” from where John Calipari had it. But on the other hand everybody knew that was almost impossible – to duplicate that success. So, how do you balance that? How do you balance having the highest goals with ‘what Memphis is as a program?’ – and saying things like, winning is hard and trying to educate the fan base about what the expectations should be? How do you balance that – and do you have any regrets?
A: It was going to be impossible to follow, to do duplicate Coach Calipari’s success in those last 4 years. That was the greatest run in the history of NCAA division I basketball. Ever. John Wooden didn’t do it. Neither did Dean Smith….
Q: Wait, I thought John Wooden won like 10 titles in a row? (Note: It was 7 consecutive – and 10 in 12 seasons) Or do you mean from a winning percentage standpoint?
A: Yea – not in a 4 year span has anyone won as many games as John Calipari did in those 4 years. That was the greatest 4 year span, most wins anyone has ever had in the history of college basketball. In the history. So that’s what I was following….
Q: They didn’t play as many games back then, but I see what you’re saying….on pure numbers.
A: This is the greatest 4 year run in the history of college basketball. So in the history of the game, this 4 year run – by the number of wins in a 4 year period – nobody has ever matched it. Coach Calipari and Memphis did it. Now, that’s what I was following. And so, it is not reality to be able to follow that and to duplicate that. So, have we been very successful? I believe we have been very successful. We’ve done a lot of good. We have been really good in so many areas. Our reputation in all areas, is at as high a level as it’s ever been. We’ve won on the court. We’ve won off the court. We’ve been great in the community, and there’s a lot to be said for that. And we’ve won. I mean, we’ve won a lot of games. I know people say, well we haven’t gotten to the sweet 16. Listen, I want to go 40-0 and win the national championship. The last two years, we fell a game short of the Sweet 16. That’s no fun for anybody.
Q: It’s a fine line?
A: It’s a fine line. But when you look at the overall picture we’ve done a really good job in not an easy situation. But we’ve done a very good job and part of being the head coach at Memphis and following John Calipari – there was going to be criticism, negativity, doubters, and that’s part of it.
Q: So you’re real clear headed on that, and I respect that…..
A: But Jay, here’s what makes this program intense: the emotional investment. Since my first year people have – when I lost a game – they wanted me fired. So this isn’t like the first year. Every year I’ve been here there’s been a crisis basically. And the crisis, you’re just talking about – is not anything off the court, or a scandal. It’s extremely debated. The crisis is whether I should be the coach or not. That’s the debate since the first (day) I was head coach here at Memphis.
Q: What was your best moment and your worst moment as Head Coach at Memphis?
A: It’s funny how things work. The best moment was – there’s no question – when we beat UTEP in the championship in El Paso in the C-USA tournament.
Q: I completely agree by the way.
A: There’s no doubt about it. It was the first time Memphis had won a tournament away from home in 20 or 30 years and what made it the best was two weeks prior we might have had the worst moment losing to the same team (UTEP) by 35 points on national television. And two weeks later we beat them to go to the NCAA tournament and it’s funny how things work. I believe in this – you’re walking through a hallway and there’s a crack of light because the window’s barely open. And the light is coming through that crack, and you’re either gonna walk by it or you see the light and you find a way to maneuver – open that window more to get through it. And that’s what happened – and it was exactly two weeks to the day. And we were able to win what we had to win and get to the tournament.