It's hard to imagine a greater contrast within a 24-hour window for University of Memphis athletics.
Friday night at FedExForum, 17,584 fans turned out to greet 32-year-old rookie basketball coach Josh Pastner for the Tigers' regular-season opener against Jackson State. Then at noon Saturday, an announced 18,031 fans sat in the Liberty Bowl to say goodbye to 55-year-old football coach Tommy West, whose dismissal after nine years at the Tiger helm was announced five days earlier.
As tends to happen with greetings and sendoffs, one was positive (Pastner is undefeated as a head coach), the other not so much (West remains a victory shy of 50 wins with the Tigers). Sports are transient, particularly the college variety. Last weekend will stick, though, for Pastner and West.
"After the game, Mr. R.C. Johnson came and gave me the game ball," said Pastner to a contingent of media after the Tigers beat Jackson State, 82-53. As if the coach needed to enhance his innocent-as-a-choir-boy image, he actually referred to the U of M athletic director as "Mr. R.C. Johnson."
"I took the ball and I told him — and I mean it — this has nothing to do with me. It's about the players. The players win the games. This will never be me. Credit goes to the guys. They stepped up, gutted it out, and found a way." He may be new to the gig, but Pastner has his victory cliches polished and packaged.
What he's missing, to this point, is that the 2009-10 basketball season is very much about him. The first legitimate roar in FedExForum this season came during the pregame video, when a gleaming face above a white shirt — that would be Pastner's — appeared behind a rotating basketball-as-globe as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey blasted from the arena's sound system. He will not score a point this winter, or dish out an assist, or grab a rebound. But don't doubt that Josh Pastner is the star of his team. (The news Saturday that yet another recruiting gem — Atlanta's Jelan Kendrick — is on his way to Memphis only cements this region's devotion to the Pastner Way.)
The atmosphere was considerably more subdued when West met the Memphis media one final time Saturday afternoon after his Tigers fell to UAB, 31-21. (On the list of things West will not miss about his career as Memphis coach: press conferences in the back of what was once the visitors' locker room at the Liberty Bowl.) Unlike his emotional statement on November 9th, though, West had a firm grip on his comments and his sense of humor.
"I've got strong emotions," he said. "But I'm not going to go into a tirade today. If that's what you're waiting for, I'm not going to do it. I took four Xanax before I came in here.
"Nine years is a long time. I'm going to miss being here, I really will. This is a good place, and there are good people here. This happens. It's our business. You hate it for the seniors that you're having this kind of year. A sour year. I'm not worried about myself. But most of those players won't play again. I'm gonna coach some more, so it's not about me. I hate it for them. I'd like to have seen them go out at home the right way."
West described the calls he's received from his peers in Conference USA and managed a chuckle in recollecting the chats. "Everybody likes you this year, because they beat you," he said.
On an idyllic, 70-degree afternoon for football, I counted a solitary sign in the Liberty Bowl that acknowledged West's pending departure. Not exactly poetic, it read "W the Coach." The letter stood for "West," of course. Sadly this year, it can't stand for "win."