With the dust settled after a multi-week coaching search, a few members of our staff are going to spend the next few days providing their takes on how everything went down and how AD Mike Bobinski ultimately did with the hiring of Josh Pastner.
A Frustrating Coaching Search...
On Friday afternoon, two weeks (almost down to the minute) after the firing of Brian Gregory had been announced, AD Mike Bobinski sat down in front of TV cameras for an introductory press conference with his newly-hired head basketball coach Josh Pastner.
The reactions to Pastner's hiring were mixed to say the least, but I want to look back on the search before digging into what he brings to the program -- both skill- and limitation-wise.
I feel comfortable speaking for the masses when I say that the coaching search was a very frustrating one for Georgia Tech's fans. When it began, Bobinski stated that his goal and plan for the coaching search was for it to take "a week, ten days, not a whole lot longer than that." (In the end, it took fourteen days -- likely the very edge of what Yellow Jacket fans were willing to accept.) Throughout the process, we heard names connected with the job like Valparaiso HC Bryce Drew (who elected to take the job at Vanderbilt), former Oklahoma HC and Duke assistant Jeff Capel, Boston Celtics assistant Jay Larrañaga, California HC Cuonzo Martin, and many more who were at least said to have been "contacted".
The thing about coaching searches is that the longer that they take and the more drawn-out they are, more names will be "connected" to the job and will eventually "turn down" the position. Ultimately, we'll likely never know exactly who was actually targeted, how far discussions went, who was actually offered the position, and so on. For all we know, Mike Bobinski may have spent two weeks interviewing and negotiating only with Pastner and Memphis.
Regardless of what actually happened, though, the media having more time to speculate and check with "sources" on what is going on will only lead to the ongoing search looking worse. The name that was heavily connected with Georgia Tech in the middle of the search was Drew's -- with heavy speculation that he had agreed to a deal and that his announcement was imminent. When he wasn't announced, and instead ended up as the official head coach at Vanderbilt, it made a lot of Georgia Tech fans raise their eyebrows and question whether Bobinski knew what he was doing with this search. That discomfort only grew in the following days, as even more names were brought to the table and discarded -- again, whether they were legitimate or not.
The point is this -- the coaching search went on for far too long. It's pretty apparent that Bobinski had a full year to plan out how he would replace Brian Gregory, and it still took almost two weeks to get to a point where he could announce a hiring. Ultimately, there are few hires that could be made that would seem to "validate" the process taking that long, and it's hard to say that the ends justify the means here.
...Ended in a Head-Scratching Hire...
Initial fan reactions to the hiring were were filled with frustration and despair, and plenty of national media members looked at the hire with skepticism and ridicule. Truth be told, this is the second straight basketball coach that Georgia Tech has hired at a time when the fans of his previous team were fully prepared to be rid of him. The past three seasons at Memphis, since the Tigers made the move from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference, have seen Pastner's teams see diminishing results on the court. His first four years with the Tigers, his teams went 106-34 (52-12) with a pair of conference championships and three NCAA Tournament appearances in the direct wake of John Calipari's tenure and departure. Since moving to the AAC, the Tigers have been 61-39 (30-24) with a single NCAA Tournament appearance, and have missed out on postseason play altogether over the last two years. Their frustration is understandable -- it wasn't long ago that Memphis won conference championships seven of eight years, made the Sweet Sixteen (or better) in four straight years, and was even a national runner-up in 2007-2008. That's a steep fall from grace in less than a decade.
The major criticisms of Pastner have been both of the strategic and administrative variety. His teams at Memphis were notably weak from an X's and O's standpoint, which was the reason many felt that the Tigers were unable to live up to their potential most years, even with rosters full of talent. In addition, there were lots of questions about Pastner's ability to manage the locker room and earn players' respect. (During the team's 2014 NCAA Tournament run, one of his players openly defied him on the court, later saying "When teams make shots, he just goes crazy. We try to block that out and keep focusing on the game.")
Yet, while I understand the frustration that Tigers fans hold towards Pastner, and the skepticism harbored by many Yellow Jacket fans, this hire has plenty of potential. There are several reasons that I say that.
Perhaps the biggest reason that this hire has potential for improved results over what he accomplished at Memphis, as I see it, is that he's not having to fill the shoes of John Calipari. After several years of serving as an assistant to Lute Olson at Arizona, Pastner was brought on as one of Calipari's assistants for one season back in 2008-2009. After that year, Calipari left Memphis for Kentucky, and Pastner was promoted to head coach of the program, only around six months after his 31st birthday. He later spoke about his approach, saying he "didn't try to change and fix things", and that he "tried to piggyback off the momentum [Calipari] created." It's pretty easy to see and understand how trying to replicate one of the sport's winningest coaches after only one year of observation and involvement would be setting oneself up for failure. In starting fresh with Georgia Tech, there's no expectation or pressure to keep up the methodologies or success of the prior tenure. Fans and administrators alike are ready for change and will welcome it. Pastner now has the opportunity to set up and operate how he'd like, hire the assistants of his choosing, and hopefully learn from the mistakes that he made at Memphis.
The single most attractive thing about Pastner as a coach is that he's an excellent recruiter. During his time at Memphis, and even during his time as an assistant between Memphis and Arizona, Pastner has been lauded for his recruiting ability, and his teams have sported recruiting rankings to match. He's now beginning his tenure in Atlanta, one of the most talent-rich areas in the entire country, and has the opportunity to return the program's talent levels to the ones we got used to during the tenures of Bobby Cremins and Paul Hewitt. With Pastner, Georgia Tech should be much better-equipped to compete with other ACC programs from a talent perspective than they were at any point under Brian Gregory.
Finally, something that came through in his introductory press conference on Friday is that Pastner will unquestionably market the program well around Atlanta and beyond. He's a very personable, likable man who expressed every intention of engaging the campus and city, emphasizing the importance of the community's engagement in the program he's aiming to build. It's no secret that, when coaching at Georgia Tech, it's a relatively constant battle when trying to gain positive media attention. On Friday, Pastner expressed that his team and tenure will have a culture full of "positive energy", and a desire to put himself out into the media to market the program. That's a sorely-needed quality for any head coach at Georgia Tech, and it should be one of Pastner's strengths during his tenure.
...Dependent on His Surroundings
I thought one of the FTRS commenters made an excellent comparison the other day, relating Pastner to Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney. Although it's a different sport, there are a lot of parallels between the two. Both are relatively young (Swinney is only 46), both are strong recruiters, and both have been generally regarded as lacking in the strategic parts of coaching.
That said, even with his limitations, Swinney has been able to build a successful program at Clemson -- most recently taking his team all the way to the national championship game. While not a perfect coach by himself, Swinney has brought his program to success by bringing in assistants that complement his abilities well. Guys like former offensive coordinator Chad Morris and defensive coordinator Brent Venables have been known to be some of the best minds in the country individually, much less as a tandem. Swinney has found a way to complement his recruiting and program marketing abilities with some of the best minds in the business, and it's resulted in Clemson ascending to the very peak of the sport.
Were Pastner to follow the same model at Georgia Tech, the sky could be the limit for the program. It's clear that he needs support on the strategic end of things, and it seems that he could use guidance on handling the locker room as well. Thus, surrounding himself with good assistants will be paramount to the program reaching its potential during his tenure.
If he's able to accomplish that, Pastner could be regarded as another one of the program's great coaches when things are all said and done. If not, things in Atlanta could very easily end up where they did in Memphis.
The Josh Pastner era is upon us at Georgia Tech. Hopefully the second time's the charm.