With the weekend coming to an end and the sun starting to set, the last rays of sunlight streaming through a nearby window, there sat a little boy with his eyes glued to the family’s television set in his parent’s bedroom. Not worrying about anything else around him, he watched as the Los Angeles Lakers battled the Boston Celtics on national TV. His focus shifted from what was transpiring on the court between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and the sideline; this fifth grader watched as the coaches drew up plays and stomped around the floor in disbelief of foul calls.
He had always dreamed of playing in the NBA, but in that moment Josh Pastner discovered the next best thing.
Although not giving up on his own game, Pastner knew what he needed to do to become the best coach: He needed to assemble the best recruiting class out there. As a teen, in between AAU games, instead of going to the nearby mall or heading to watch a movie with his teammates, he would stay in the gym scouting players morning, noon and night. He diligently kept track of the players he envisioned being on his team.
At 13, he created a scouting report that detailed local high school basketball standouts in Houston. Sending out his reports to school all across the country, many came back to him with interest in buying it. However, his father, an AAU coach himself, didn’t let that happen, telling interested schools that his son was just doing it for fun and without compensation.
At 16, what was once a dream became reality. Pastner’s father turned over his AAU team, the Houston Hoops, to him, making him a head coach for the first time. As an AAU coach, he would instruct future NBA players such as Emeka Okafor, T.J. Ford and Daniel Gibson.
Now, roughly three decades later, that little boy, now a man with a wife and child, refuses to forget the moment that truly inspired him to pursue a coaching career. With the lights turned on, as he steps foot into McCamish Pavilion, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets’ basketball court that holds up to 8,600 people at a time, Josh Pastner proves that determination pays off.
“We’ve got some great wins, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Pastner moved to Atlanta a little under a year ago after eight seasons at the University of Memphis. One season as an assistant coach under legendary coach John Calipari, followed by a grueling seven seasons as the head coach after Calipari left for a job at the University of Kentucky.
“His last four years there, he won over 90 percent of his games. He was the winningest coach those last four years in the history of the NCAA,” Pastner said. “Used to, people would ask me, ‘What is it like working for him?’ and I would say, ‘Whoever follows this cat is one crazy guy.’ Nobody wanted the job, because nobody wanted to follow him.”
For Pastner, following in the footsteps of Calipari was not an easy sell. However, with no one else stepping up to the lofty task, Pastner said he was in the right place at the right time as the job was practically handed over to him.
“I just happened to be the last man standing,” Pastner said. “I never thought about the job for one second. No one ever approached it to me, and I never even fathomed it. I was prepared to go to Kentucky with Coach Cal,” Pastner said. “The morning that I woke up when they offered me the job, I still hadn’t even thought about it.”
Memphis, a city known as the stomping grounds of music greats like Elvis Presley, B.B. King and Johnny Cash, each recording albums at the legendary Sun Studio, had another passion. Memphis was a town that ate, breathed, and dreamed basketball. With this, Pastner felt all the pressure on his shoulders as sleeping became almost non-existent and his health started to take a turn for the worse.
“Memphis, they are so invested into the basketball program. It is the DNA of the city, and they loved Coach Cal so much. When he was deciding to take the Kentucky job, they had a helicopter circling his house,” Pastner recalled. “It wasn’t for a hostage situation; it was for whether he was going to take the Kentucky job or not. When he took the job, the city was in mourning. They were angry, and upset, and hurt because they didn’t want him to leave.”
Although Pastner tied the Tigers’ program record as the fastest to ever reach 150 victories, winning over 70 percent of their games, it was too much for him to handle. With every win came praise, but every loss resulted in scorn. On multiple occasions, Pastner refused to leave his house after a loss.
The sleepless nights and stressful evenings became a burden.
“The intensity, the scrutiny, for seven years, every game ate at me because I knew we had to win for the city,” Pastner said. “If we lost I agonized internally. The agony, the pain inside that I personally put on myself. I was really unhealthy during that time period. I was depressed.
“I don’t think people can understand it, but I had the whole city on my shoulders and a lot of that was self-inflicted wounds, but that is what basketball meant to that city.”
When the phone rang in April, a 30-minute interview altered Pastner’s path. The call came with an opportunity to be the next head coach at Georgia Tech. Pastner did not hesitate. He had never even visited the Yellow Jackets’ campus.
The opportunity for a fresh start breathed signs of hope within Pastner.
“When this job opened, I was like, ‘Man, ACC best conference in the country. They are down, and want to get back up and press the reset button. They had success in the past, but they hadn’t been to the tournament in a while. I would be able to put my own footprint on the program.'” Pastner said. “When this job opened, I jumped on it.”
He knew things wouldn’t be easy, as everyone told him the program needed to start all over and rebuild. The thing that no one realized was that Pastner has welcomed coaching challenges for nearly 30 years.
With upsets over top-25 teams such as North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame, the Yellow Jackets came storming in — much to the surprise of the conference, the city and even Pastner. A team that was once projected to go winless in ACC play and finish the season at the bottom of the league flipped the script as they narrowly missed the opportunity for a March Madness run.
Although the Yellow Jackets missed out on the NCAA Tournament this year, they will have a chance at the NIT tournament title. The NIT isn’t as glamorous as the NCAA tournament, but that doesn’t matter to Pastner. What matters to him is that his team is united as one.
When he looks back at his team’s accomplishments, Pastner realizes it is because of one thing that, in his book, sums up championship teams: Alignment. Every part of a team has to be in place; from the coaching staff to the players, everyone has to be working as one. According to Pastner, without alignment, a team will never reach its full potential.
From barely sleeping to being named the ACC Coach of the Year, Josh Pastner found a home in Atlanta. As he continues to lead his team, his enthusiasm radiates throughout his players and the Georgia Tech community. What was once a childhood dream has become all too real, but the opportunity is one he will never take for granted. As Pastner continues to preach ‘Do your job’ to his players, he has also instilled in them the importance of, as Pastner would say, “an attitude of gratitude.”
At the end of the day, although teaching his players valuable lessons, it is Pastner who has learned the most from the experience thus far.
“The greatest lesson this year has been for me. I am so grateful and appreciative of these sincere, genuine young men. When a collection of individuals come together and become a good team, it shows the power of a team,” Pastner said. “We have such a close-knit group. The power and bond of the team makes a huge difference, and what a lesson for me.”