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VOL. 128 | NO. 62 | Friday, March 29, 2013

 

Hugs All Around After Tigers Season

DON WADE | Special to The Daily News

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Only Josh Pastner could utter the word “Lamborghini” on the occasion of his contract extension and a pay raise that likely pushed his annual salary north of $2 million and come across as grateful, gleeful and humble.

“I’m very proud to call him my head coach,” University of Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen said at the Wednesday, March 27, press conference inside the Penny Hardaway Hall of Fame building.

The short list of reasons for this pride: The Tigers just won 31 games and reached the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament; 10 of Pastner’s players are on pace to graduate before the end of the year; and the nation’s No. 2-ranked recruiting class is on the way.

Memphis head coach Josh Pastner is all smiles now that he has received a contract extension. Pastner will now try to capitalize on this season’s success, which included 31 wins and an NCAA tournament win, and next season’s No. 2-ranked recruiting class. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Oh, and in case you haven’t noticed, Pastner lives out the motto that, as he likes to say, “Memphis isn’t a handshake city, it’s a hug city.”

Quick history lesson: The way the Josh Pastner Era started here four years ago did not promise any of this. Or to use another one of the coach’s pet phrases, success is not a “birthright.” In fact, with John Calipari in the wind to Kentucky, then-athletic director R.C. Johnson was desperate. He offered the Tigers’ basketball job to just about everyone who had ever worn a whistle around his neck. Everyone turned him down.

So Johnson called the young assistant who was packing up to join Calipari in Lexington. Pastner not only wasn’t driving a Lamborghini, he was driving a borrowed Toyota Corolla when Johnson called to basically make Pastner the winner of the college basketball version of “American Idol.”

“Nobody wanted the job and it kind of fell in my lap just by chance,” Pastner said. “You have a 31-year-old taking the car keys to a Lamborghini, a 31-year-old that’s never driven before.”

Yes, there has been and will continue to be spirited debate among the members of Tiger Nation over whether Pastner has overachieved or underachieved or landed somewhere in between. But at least everyone ought to be able to agree that the coach has not taken the program to either extreme. He didn’t run the Lamborghini off the road by getting in trouble with the NCAA or leave it to rust on the side of the road.

“I give you my word,” he said. “We will always have good players.”

Of course, to borrow from the coach’s own favorite family of metaphors, the Tigers have not won the Daytona 500 (the NCAA National Championship). But he is clear on that possibility too.

“That’s the one thing that hasn’t been done,” he said. “That is a goal. That can be done here.”

Details of Pastner’s new contract probably won’t be known for two to six weeks, according to U of M associate athletic director Bob Winn. Pastner was making $1.7 million annually and presumably the new contract moves him at least five years forward from now and at minimum raises his annual pay to $2 million.

The Tigers had barely stopped smarting from the beat-down administered by Michigan State in the Round of 32 when Pastner’s name began to surface in connection to the USC job (quite believable) and the UCLA job after Ben Howland was fired (less plausible, but not impossible).

Without specifically referring to either of the aforementioned jobs, Pastner made a point to repeatedly thank media for front-and-center coverage and to note that it’s not like this everywhere. Consider, for example, the USC basketball program. It would barely hit the radar in Los Angeles, trailing the two NBA teams, two MLB teams, the USC football program, and both the UCLA basketball and football programs.

Pastner overreached, as he still has a tendency to do, when he called U of M basketball one of the nation’s “blue bloods, one of the five best in the country.” Pressed later to name the other four, Pastner backed off and settled for calling Memphis an “elite” program. That, too, might be an overstatement.

But, like Pastner’s assertion that a national championship is possible here, sustained elite status is also possible. It’s also not – wait for it – a birthright just because the coach is a swell guy and has a new contract extension.

The road ahead, in a new and tougher conference, has more twists and turns and the desired destination points – Elite Eight, Final Four, National Championship – are more easily found on a map than in reality.

“Of course, there are higher expectations,” the coach said with a grin. “I embrace them.”

He is, after all, a hugger.

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