The Josh Pastner Era in Memphis started with such promise. After taking over for John Calipari, the longtime Lute Olson assistant was expected to maintain a high level of play for a program used to deep NCAA Tournament runs. He did just that in his first four seasons with the school, going 24-10, 25-10, 26-9, and 31-5, which included three trips to the NCAA Tournament.
Since joining the AAC three years ago, however, Pastner’s program has been trending in the wrong direction. One more NCAA Tournament season was followed by a disappointing 18-14 finish last year and now the Tigers are in the midst of a 14-11 campaign and drawing attention for sloppy play, unnecessary showboating and a bevy of bad losses.
It’s not just a case of wins and losses either. There’s a lot of money at stake at the team stumbles. Memphis’s FedEx Forum agreement with the NBA’s Grizzlies calls for the Tigers to meet certain attendance criteria in order to received an $800,000 annual payment. Right now, it doesn’t look as though the school will meet that criteria (an average of 10,000).
Memphis Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins wrote on February 13 about one way the school could goose those numbers. Fire Pastner.
There is one way the University of Memphis basketball program could draw the fans necessary over the next three home games to average 6,000 in attendance. There is one way Memphis could still hit the 6,000 number and thereby earn a percentage of that $800,000 payment from the Grizzlies.
Memphis could tell Josh Pastner his services are no longer necessary. Athletic director Tom Bowen could tell Pastner to stop putting himself through the agony.
…Let assistant coach Damon Stoudamire finish the season as interim head coach.
Do that, and I suspect Memphis fans would return to support the program these last few home games.
Stay the course, and kiss what remains of the $800,000 Griz payment goodbye.
Calkins also wrote on Monday that if the school where to fire Pastner, alum Penny Hardaway might make a good replacement.
Despite the fact that he’s said on occasion that he does not take criticism personally, it seems as though Pastner is a loyal reader of the Commercial Appeal and decided to vent his frustrations during his weekly radio program on Monday evening.
Pastner: "I would like to Freedom of Information Act The CA and see since Calkins has been columnist how much their numbers have gone down."
— L. Jason Smith (@JasonSmith929) February 16, 2016
To his credit, Calkins responded immediately with a column explaining how he felt about Pastner’s comments, specifically noting that he totally understands the frustration.
I’m fine with it. Seriously. I’ve had to write some difficult things about Pastner these last two years. I understand that he is emotional and frustrated. So I had no problem at all with Pastner going on his show and saying, “I would like to Freedom of Information Act The CA and see since Calkins has been columnist how much their numbers have gone down.”
…The question I ask myself all the time is, “Have I been fair?” I think I’ve been more than fair. For the first five years of Pastner’s tenure, I vigorously defended him. No, he couldn’t beat Top 25 teams or get to the second weekend of the tournament, but he was maintaining Memphis as a relevant program, he was filling the arena, he was recruiting at a high level, and he was doing it all with honor and decency.
…Then, the bottom dropped out. We don’t have go through it all again. The team started losing to teams like East Carolina, Tulane and Christian Brothers. Attendance was cut in half. That high-level recruiting ended. Players transferred out in droves.
Having said all that, there is no pleasure in this for anyone. I understand why people are emotional. I would vastly prefer it if Pastner were accomplishing all the things fans dreamed he would accomplish. There’s nothing better than covering a good guy who finishes first. And I will always think of Pastner as a good guy, a man of extraordinary decency who happens to be a basketball coach.
Pastner is meeting with the media today at 3:15 p.m. locally. It sounds like Calkins will be there. Will cooler heads prevail or will the circus get louder as Pastner’s program crumbles? Grab your popcorn just in case…