MEMPHIS -- Twenty years ago this month, a baby-faced Josh Pastner stared at the world from the pages of Sport magazine, under the headline "Boy Scout."
"He was just a tremendous kid," Jim Calhoun recalled. "He loved the game. He got into high-level talent evaluation real early."Pastner, at 18, was pursuing his own playing career, but was looking ahead to a career of coaching, evaluating, recruiting. His father, Hal, was a major figure in AAU basketball in the Houston area and Josh was also coaching, working one summer with Emeka Okafor.
By age 13, Pastner was taking notes on his teammates and opponents, and compiling "Josh Pastner's Scouting Service," sending it to coaches, eventually putting him in contact with the most prominent coaches in the country.
"He was a kid that I just really liked," Calhoun said.
Pastner, as Sport reported, was precocious enough to apply for the JV coaching job at his high school while he was a student there. He eventually played as a walk-on for Lute Olson at Arizona, earning a degree in 2 1/2 years, and becoming an assistant coach there. Now, at 38, he is in his seventh year as coach at Memphis, where the scrutiny and pressure might give him a gray hair or two before his time, but have knocked none of the passion for coaching and evaluating out of him.
"After being the head coach at Memphis for seven years, I look at myself as a grizzled veteran," he said. "I don't know that I've ever coached a game here that wasn't a crucial game."
The Tigers (13-8, 4-4 in the American Athletic Conference) play UConn at the FedEx Forum Thursday at 9 p.m.
Pastner well remembers his chats with Calhoun.
"Loved him," Pastner said. "He was always good to me, and he didn't have to be good to me. He had no reason to be good to me. But he would always give me the time of day, gave me great advice and as a younger guy, a younger coach, I looked up to him.
"I remember he would talk about working hard and be a sponge. He loved Lute Olson, too, and he would tell me, 'Be a sponge, be a sponge, be a sponge.' So I always took that, that's why I tried to go to clinics and take notes and watch tapes and things like that, things he told me I should do."
Memphis hired him at age 31 to replace John Calipari, an unenviable task.
"Look, it can all be taken away," Pastner said as practice was about to begin Wednesday, "I'm the head coach at Memphis, I got the job at 31. I tried to get Texas Southern, tried to get Prairie View A&M and they wouldn't give me an interview. So here I got an opportunity and I was at the right place at the right time. I lucked into it, because nobody wanted the job, nobody wanted to follow Calipari. Here I am, so it's a blessing, a dream come true and I don't take it for granted."
Despite his optimism and approachability, Pastner has been firm in running a program consistent with his beliefs, never hesitating to suspend a player. Last Saturday, he held one of the best players, Trahson Burrell, out of the second half against Southern Methodist for an undisclosed violation. Pastner called it "internal discipline." While the Tigers' postseason hopes could ride on the next two games, against UConn and Cincinnati, Pastner gave no guarantees about Burrell's return.
"I've always believed this: No one's bigger than the program," Pastner told the Memphis media. "That goes for myself or anybody else."
And, Pastner went on, he would hold true to that whether his tenure at Memphis ended today, or many years from now.
"He does a nice job coaching," Calhoun said, "and that's a very high-pressure situation, as we know."
In Memphis, post-Calipari, the bar might be out of reach for any coach. Pastner gained the reputation as a tireless recruiter under Olson and Calipari, and his teams at Memphis, including the current one, have never lacked for talent. He is 161-66, a 70.9 winning percentage, including an 18-0 season in Conference USA play the year before the move to the AAC.
But in Memphis, where they are used to filling the 20,000-seat Forum and want to keep it that way, it never seems to be good enough, and Pastner accepts that, lives with it, keep his composure no matter how hot his seat.
"I'm a very clear thinker," he said. "I don't make any rash decisions or rush to judgment. Even in the midst of chaos, I'm able to see this through. Any decision I make, it's based on clear thinking. If you told me as an 18-year-old I would be the head coach at Memphis, and to coach in the NCAA Tournament, win 160 games, man, when I took the job I was happy to get one win. So no matter what happens, I'm living out a dream."
This article was written by Dom Amore from The Hartford Courant and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.