NORTH AUGUSTA — There are plenty of veteran basketball coaches who have been coming annually to the Peach Jam since it started two decades ago. But the list of coaches who can say they were on the bench at the very first one can be boiled down to Josh Pastner.
The new Georgia Tech head coach was only 18 years old when he coached for Houston Hoops in the 1996 Peach Jam at Riverview Park.
“I’ve seen it from the start-up stage to where it is now,” said Pastner, now 38 and already approaching his eighth season as a Division I head coach. “I coached the first two years of the event when it started and have been coming ever since.”
Those two years Pastner stalked the bench coaching players nearly his own age. It was a learning experience that still proves valuable from the other side of the floor.
“It was a delicate balance of understanding I was their coach but I was also similar to their age,” he said. “I made sure I kept that separation. I was able to coach both boys and girls in summer basketball and that experience helped me so much because I made many, many mistakes. I can look back at certain examples of the mistakes I made during my summertime period coaching that I would not make the same mistake as a head coach either at Memphis or now at Georgia Tech.”
Pastner’s teenage Peach Jam coaching experience – wrapped around his 1997 NCAA championship as a player at Arizona – illustrates how driven he was to get into the business.
“I wanted to be a coach since I was in fifth grade,” Pastner said Thursday in between evaluating players and two different summer tournaments. “I was watching a Celtics-Lakers series on a national network and remember telling my father if I can’t play in the NBA I want to stay in the game of basketball somehow. The next best thing to playing was coaching. That allowed me to put my energies and focus towards that.”
There is no doubting Pastner’s energy and focus. He wrote every head coach in America seeking a walk-on spot where he could help serve as an extra coach from the bench. Lute Olson brought him to Arizona.
Pastner was so driven, he earned his bachelor’s degree in only two and a half years without the benefit of summer school or advance placement credits. He took another year to earn a master’s degree.
“I’m a big believer in energy,” said the man who has never had a sip of alcohol, coffee or carbonated soda in his life. “All about energy and being a positive energy giver. I believe in guys who are self-motivated and driven and want it as bad as I do.”
Pastner’s fast track got him the head coaching job at Memphis when he was only 31. He was handed the keys of a Tiger program that had just produced the most wins (137) of any four-year run in the history of NCAA basketball under John Calipari. That run included a run to the NCAA title game in 2008 (later vacated because of NCAA violations).
“I was in the right place, right time,” Pastner said. “Nobody wanted the job because nobody wanted to follow him. I just happened to be the crazy guy who did.”
How intense was that experience?
“I was in Calipari’s house when the (TV) helicopters flew over as he mulled whether or not to take the Kentucky job,” said Pastner, who spent two years on Calipari’s staff as an assistant. “Usually they do that for hostage situations, not whether the coach is going to go to Kentucky or stay at Memphis. That’s what I was following.”
Despite losing a top recruiting class that followed Calipari to Kentucky, Pastner was able to keep the Tigers competitive, going to four consecutive NCAA Tournaments from 2011-14.
Now he takes over a Georgia Tech program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2010 and lost players who accounted for 85 percent of its statistical leaders from last year’s 21-15 team that reached the NIT quarterfinals.
“Taking over (at Memphis), it wasn’t a rebuild – it was a straight maintain,” Pastner said. “I didn’t have a lot of scholarship guys at the time, but the expectation was still the same. ... This year is something different, where I have an opportunity to rebuild from the bottom and bring it up and move the needle in the right direction. I’ve been able to see it at two different ends of the spectrum.”
Pastner understands the Yellow Jackets will likely be picked to finish last in the ACC this year. But he also realizes that Georgia Tech has a proud basketball tradition and new facilities that bring an expectation to restore its status among the conference elite.
“I’ve had more people come up to me and say, ‘Coach, we’ve got to get Georgia Tech basketball back,’ ” he said. “I’ve tried telling them it’s not going to be easy ... you’ve got to be patient. But there’s a major thirst and major appetite for Georgia Tech basketball to get back to the vision they want to get back to.”
Pastner has been planning for this his whole life. He has a blueprint for rebuilding, starting with an experienced staff with high-end academic backgrounds and a realistic scheduling plan. But it will take athletes to make it work, and Pastner has a reputation for being an excellent evaluator of talent and recruiter.
“We’re involved with great guys and off to a good start,” he said, “but we’ve got to get it done.”
All the challenges only reaffirm his tireless focus. He certainly didn’t come to Augusta to play golf. He famously declared his staff would not be playing golf, though he admits it’s nothing against the game.
“I was trying to make a point that because it’s a rebuild, we don’t have days to give away,” he said. “This will be a 7-days-a-week, 24-hour, 365-day job until we can get it back to where everyone wants it back. I feel like my staff and I owe that to the bosses that hired me, to the alumni at Georgia Tech, to the faculty and fans and former student-athletes at Georgia Tech. We owe them that. So it’s going to be an every day deal and we don’t have five hours to give away. That’s where the work ethic and mind set has got to be.”
So 20 years since coaching in the first Peach Jam as a teenager. Pastner is living the life he mapped out long ago. He will not take it for granted.
“I’ve been goals-oriented to be able to be a head coach, but I’ve been very fortunate and grateful that some doors opened. I recognize there are far more people who deserved to be the head coach at Memphis and the head coach at Georgia Tech than Josh Pastner. I get that. I got a break and have to take advantage of an opportunity.”