By Mychal Hunter
As many of you are aware, I am a Georgia Tech fan. Most people believe us to be unicorns at this point, they don’t believe we still exist. In reality, we are similar to the Black Rhino, there are a few of us around, but the numbers are dwindling due to very poor decisions made by others.
One of those questionable decisions according to some, was the hiring of men’s basketball coach Josh Pastner prior to the 2016-17 season. On GT message boards Pastner was part of what was called the “Hell No” list. Yellow Jacket fans simply didn’t want to provide another landing spot for a coach whose current fan base and administration no longer wanted him. In his introductory press conference Pastner was very honest about the state of the Georgia Tech program, calling it a “5 year rebuild.”
It is reported that Pastner actually contacted then Athletic Director Mike Bobinski expressing interest in the position. This occurred after Bobinski reportedly offered the position to Bryce Drew and told then Duke assistant Jeff Capel the Jackets were going a different way. Drew then reneged when Vanderbilt showed up with more cash and Capel was no longer interested. It is also believed that Chris Mack was the first phone call, but was not interested. Bobinksi was already on thin ice with GT fans for bungling the Brian Gregory firing, which happened a year late due to M-Bob inexplicably resetting Gregory’s buyout. Failing to fire Gregory a year earlier likely cost Tech a shot at now Iowa State coach and Atlanta native Steve Prohm. To make a long story slightly shorter, Pastner was the only guy who wanted the job.
In his first season, Josh was able to win over some of his doubters, guiding the Jackets to a 21-16 record and an appearance in the post season NIT championship game. That season was highlighted by victories at home over #9 North Carolina, #6 Florida State and #14 Notre Dame. Yellow Jacket fans were cautiously optimistic that they could dance before losing three of their final 4 games and a first round exit in the ACCT.
That first season has seemingly worked against Pastner, as fan’s expectations became elevated after the season one success. Many will point to the fact that the coaching staff failed to take advantage on the recruiting trail. I believe that criticism is unfounded as Mike Devoe committed the following fall and was the highest rated recruit since Robert Carter Jr. in the 2012 class to commit to GT. Pastner also landed gritty NYC point guard Jose Alvarado in September of 2016, beating out Seton Hall and Rutgers.
Season two kicked off in typical Georgia Tech fashion. Expectations were high as the Jackets returned their top three players in Josh Okogie, Tadric Jackson and Ben Lammers, who were to be joined by Alvarado.
In a benefit/exhibition game against Georgia State, Okogie suffered a compound fracture on a finger on his shooting hand. The Ron Bell story surfaced shortly after, where an acquaintance of Pastner alleged he provided impermissible to Okogie and Jackson. Jackson was suspended three games and Okogie was suspended six. Shortly after that story broke, assistant coach Darryl Labarrie was placed on administrative leave for transgressions during the recruitment of then Duke forward Wendell Carter. Labarrie later resigned.
Season two never got going as the Jackets finished up 13-19 with losses to Grambling, Wofford, Wright State and Georgia (Pastner has gone 0-3 against Georgia, all losses by double digits). The Jackets also suffered through a horrendous stretch in ACC play where they went 1-11.
This past season actually went about as expected. I think Georgia Tech fans lost touch with that along the way. Everyone knew Josh Okogie could go pro, but that wasn’t a definite. When you lose players of his caliber along with Lammers and Jackson, it’s going to hurt. Alvarado is a good player. Devoe is a good, yet young player. Pastner was able to reel in Georgia native James Banks as a transfer when he left Texas, but the Jackets just didn’t have enough guns on offense take advantage of a stout defense this season.
The defense has been the biggest positive during the Josh Pastner years. In three seasons the Jackets have never ranked outside the top 61 in adjusted defensive efficiency. The flip side to that coin is that they have never placed better than 296th in points per game scored.
Now that three full seasons have been completed, it is safe to say that the time for Pastner to show progress is right now. He is 48-53 overall and 20-34 in ACC play. In five seasons under Brian Gregory, Georgia Tech won 27 ACC games. This is of note because some Tech fans unapologetically defended him because “he graduated players” or “was a great representative of the University.”
Many fans are now knee-jerkily calling for Pastner’s head, but I don’t think those fans understand the current college basketball landscape, nor the current state of Georgia Tech basketball. In an article published by USA Today, it shows that Pastner’s current buyout is $7.1MM. Understand that the Georgia Tech athletic department just paid off Brian Gregory in 2018 and will make its final payment to Paul Hewitt, who last coached Georgia Tech in 2010-11, this month. Georgia Tech also just committed $6MM to its new football staff. All those numbers equal that Josh Pastner isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The majority of fans will point to the fact that Pastner came to Atlanta with the reputation of a great recruiter. Some may even tell you that he assembled the greatest recruiting class in the history of Memphis Basketball. That is 100% correct. In 2010, Pastner put a class together comprised of Will (10) and Antonio Barton (269), Joe Jackson (16), Tariq Black (59) and Chris Crawford (109). Pretty impressive. It should be noted that everyone not named Barton in that class, is from Memphis. Memphis is a Memphis University town, supported by Memphis residents and a destination for Memphis talent.
Georgia Tech ain’t Memphis.
So let’s make a list. I have argued with a great many of you on twitter about why Georgia Tech is such a hard job and why you can’t just dump Pastner. You can choose to call me ill informed, but I assure you I am not, these are the reasons.
- It really was a five year rebuild: Some of you don’t seem to recall the level of misery during the Brian Gregory years. The program lived year to year on transfers as Gregory could not close high school kids on the recruiting trail outside of year one. Even then, Big Bob Carter (BBC) transferred due to shoe reasons, Chris Bolden never panned out and Solomon Poole was a locker room cancer who had a year of eligibility burned when Gregory brought him in early (second semester) and then it turned out he was HURT! Marcus Georges-Hunt was the only guy in that class that amounted to anything. Gregory often receives praise for “recognizing” Josh Okogie’s and Ben Lammer’s talent, when in reality it was a product of a kids drive (Okogie) and current GT assistant Eric Reveno (Lammers) that led to those success stories. Even then, the cupboard was pretty bare and that first year was the product of smart players such as the aforementioned two, as well as a really nice coaching staff, Tavaras Hardy in particular.
- Academics play a role: Anyone who tells you academics don’t play a part in Georgia Tech recruiting doesn’t know rat shit from rice krispies. Why be a one and done at one of the most difficult schools in the country when you can take Sociology at Duke? Why take calculus for at least three years when you can take AFAM at UNC? Georgia Tech is an Engineering school. You won’t find Anthropology on their list of majors. Georgia Tech also has the lowest acceptance rate in the ACC among its public universities. Before you scream and point at Duke and Notre Dame, remember I said “public.” Those are private institutions who are able to grant exceptions whenever they please. Exceptions are something that each coach asks about when hired. Word around the way is that GT brass was not happy with Stephon Marbury’s lack of academic commitment back in the day and made, “an adjustment”, to their academic standards. At the conclusion of Paul Hewitt’s tenure, when Georgia Tech was in danger of being sanctioned by the NCAA due to their APR standing, another adjustment was made. To make a long story short, Georgia Tech is one of the last few remaining schools loyal to the student-athlete model, where student comes first.
- The Budget: Simply put, Georgia Tech doesn’t pay. In the same USA Today article referenced above, you will see that Josh Pastner is the third lowest paid coach in the ACC in total pay at $1.8MM. The average salary in the ACC is roughly $2.2MM, (I put in $2.4MM for Capel). Look at the top 6 in the ACC standings this year. Compare that to the salary report. The top 5 paid coaches in the ACC finished in the top 6 in the conference. Florida State was the outlier, why? Easy, they pay a bunch of money (roughly $236K with $90K in bonuses as of 2016-17) to assistant coach Charlton Young who is one of, if not the best recruiter in the Southeast. While you may find that Georgia Tech assistants make a comparable amount, remember, Florida State has an acceptance rate more than double Georgia Tech’s and Leonard Hamilton is 70 years old. That FSU job may be Young’s one day. There are some that believe it would take upwards of $500K to get Young out of Tallahassee. There is also no “discretionary fund” at Georgia Tech.
- The “Look”: This is probably the biggest reason you can’t fire Pastner right now. How would it look? How does Vanderbilt look right now? They just fired Bryce Drew, who they threw a bunch of money at 35 months ago. How do they look? They are about to hire a guy in Jerry Stackhouse who has zero head coaching experience. Is that optimal? If you were to fire Pastner right now you are signaling to potential replacements that you need to come here for bottom 3 ACC money, recruit Atlanta, perform at a high academic rate, do it clean, with few exceptions. All within the first three years. Is Steve Prohm going to leave Iowa State for that? Are donors even going to step up to fit the bill for a program that has bungled hiring after extension after hiring after extension? If you’re confused by my rhetoric, the answer is NO!
Now, there is good news. The news is that in year four, Josh Pastner is going to have his most complete roster since he has been at Georgia Tech. Eric Reveno, the big man whisperer, will have an entire off-season to work with James Banks. Julian Swartz will have time to work with talented sniper Kristian Sjolund on his defense. Anthony Wilkins will continue his development of Moses Wright.
The recruiting? Well, it has been less than desirable. While success stories with Alvarado and Devoe are great, there were considerable misses in the fall that don’t need to be brought back to the light and this spring has seen top targets Tre’ Mitchell and Damion Baugh head elsewhere. Some folks (including myself) have lamented the signing of JUCO David Didenko as well. In a recent article by Kelly Quinlan, it looks as if that issue is going to resolve itself. Yes, Curtis Haywood is also transferring out, but Jordan Usher is transferring in. Usher is more athletic and at the collegiate level has proven to be a comparable shooter.
Pastner has not relented after recent failings on the recruiting trail either. It would appear that his top targets are graduate transfers Derrik Smits of Valparaiso (son for former NBA player Rik Smits), James “Beetle” Bolden of West Virginia, who has been on campus recently and rising South Carolina wing sniper Asanti Price who was on campus for an official visit last weekend. Of course, there are other interests out there, but these three players all fill a need for what may be the most promising Georgia Tech roster in years.
This is not an article saying that I, Mychal Hunter, am happy with the state of Georgia Tech basketball. I’m not. I’m not even really a huge Josh Pastner fan, though I think he is likable. Hopefully, it illustrates that not every program can be Duke, Arizona, UCLA or Kentucky. Money is an issue. Public image is an issue. Academics are an issue. Administrative philosophy is an issue.
Josh Pastner is going to be in Atlanta for two more seasons, if you don’t like it, I suggest you stroke a hefty check.