"If you want to go back to the John Calipari years, you need to call John Calipari."
For most of his seven years as head coach of the Memphis Tigers, Josh Pastner has deferred the good nights to his players and staff. Wins are "all about the players" or the result of advanced scouting by one assistant or another.
Not tonight. After a rather routine win over a weak UCF team — a victory that improves the Tigers' record to 15-11 — Pastner commanded the microphone at his postgame press conference with a style and vigor distinct to the current atmosphere around his program, more specifically his job. Having fielded one final question about his team's performance relative to the escalated temperature of his proverbial seat, Pastner described his view of this city's most scrutinized job.
"I got the job here," he began, "because nobody wanted the job. The day I got the job, I asked my own wife, 'Who would want to follow this guy?' I was there [with Calipari in the 2008-09 season] when we went to eat pizza, went to Starbucks . . . it was a craze. It was insane. It was like being with a rock star.
"Since day one, people probably didn't think I'd make it through year one. But we've been very successful, we've won 163 games. We've run the program the right way. When you talk about conference realignment, men's basketball has to be in a great situation with the NCAA, academically, not just wins and losses. I think we've done a great job.
"But I get people being upset. I know what they remember because I was a part of it. We won 27 in a row, and when we lost to Missouri in the Sweet 16, it was devastation. When we were at Calipari's house and he was deciding whether he was going or not going, there was a helicopter flying above his house. This is a basketball coach, not a hostage situation. The media had to know if we were leaving the house or not. I understood when I took this job.
"For seven days [after Calipari left], it was mourning here. The city's over. Shut down the university. I knew what was going to happen. I knew I had a short window. If we didn't get back to the Sweet 16, it's 'I want to go back to the Calipari years.' "
It was entirely good-natured, but emphatic, a slight grin on Pastner's face as he essentially addressed the entire watching-or-listening legion of Tiger fans, at least those who remain in said legion. "There's one guy who can win at that rate . . . maybe Mike Krzyzewski. He could do that in the Sun Belt, at a MEAC school. That's just him. And we didn't get back to the Sweet 16. I'm not ducking it, I'm not hiding from it.
"I think there were 15 coaches who got double-digit raises because of Memphis [and the search to replace Calipari.] They eventually had to hire a coach. I was the only one left. I was begging C.J. Henry — who couldn't play Division III — to play for me. I had to take a kid — D.J. Stephens — after a mass email. I had to take a kid from France. That's where the program was [in 2009]. I think we've been very successful. I hope we can make a run and get there. People might think differently."
Pastner's players know the current temperature, and appear to be playing at maximum effort, whatever their collective shortcomings. Senior Shaq Goodwin
led the way with his sixth double-double of the season (12 points, 10 rebounds) and freshman Dedric Lawson
added his 12th (13 points, 11 rebounds). Trahson Burrell
came off the bench and contributed 13 points, five rebounds, and six assists without committing a turnover.
"Everything is about pride from here on out," said Burrell. "Team pride and personal pride."
Added freshman Craig Randall
, who scored 10 points in his fourth straight start, "Coach P is the only coach who took a chance on me, TB, and others. We want to win for him."
"We just keep pushing," said Burrell. "We hear [the criticism], but we try to block it out. We'd love for Coach P to keep his job. We'll fight for him every game."
The Tigers held the Knights to just 15 points in the first half as they improved to 6-7 in the American Athletic Conference. Despite the presence of 7'6" Tacko Fall for UCF, Memphis won the rebounding battle, 44-39. Avery Woodson
added 12 points for Memphis, highlighted by a dunk and three-pointer on consecutive second-half possessions.
The Tigers travel to USF for a morning tilt (10 a.m. tipoff) Saturday. They return to FedExForum on September 25th to host SMU.
NOTE: The general consensus Wednesday night had attendance at FEF around 6,000, near the figure the Tigers must average over their last three home games to receive a portion of the $800,000 owed the university as part of its arena lease agreement. In addition to the SMU game, Memphis will host Tulsa in a matinee on Sunday, February 28th.