In his first year coaching a Georgia Tech men’s basketball team predicted to finish last and probably winless in the ACC, Josh Pastner won eight league games, set a school record for most home wins with 17, led the team to the NIT final for the second time in school history and was named the ACC Coach of the Year.
He kept alive a stunning record of never losing three games in a row as a college player, assistant coach or head coach.
Supplementing that success with gimmicks such as motorcycle and TV giveaways and free doughnuts, he revived student enthusiasm and alumni excitement about a program that had been moribund on and off the court for at least a decade.
But he told the Aug. 16 meeting of the Jewish Breakfast Club that all those accomplishments are secondary.
“My No. 1 thing that I think I’ve accomplished to this point at Georgia Tech,” he said, was getting his email address changed from a lengthy, confusing address that took him five minutes to tell people, then at least as much additional time to verify the address.
Pastner said he made a public comment that he couldn’t believe all the smart people working and studying at Georgia Tech couldn’t make his email simpler. The next morning, he had an email from university President Bud Peterson with the coach’s new email address: email@example.com.
It’s worth memorizing because the nice Jewish boy from Houston who became the youngest head coach in NCAA Division I basketball when the University of Memphis hired him at 31 makes a point of answering every email, from fans looking for tickets to other fans criticizing his offense to Syracuse fans complaining that the Georgia Tech home crowd was too mean when the Orange lost at McCamish Pavilion in the spring.
“If you email me and don’t get a response, you sent it to the wrong person,” Pastner said.
Maybe part of that dedication to answering email is related to what happened when he mailed out more than 1,000 handwritten, personalized letters to every college basketball program in NCAA Division I, II and III and NAIA Division I and II.
He received exactly one response, from Lute Olson at the University of Arizona. Pastner walked on as a player at Arizona, and his first year there, the Wildcats won the national title.
He certainly has been responsive to the Jewish community since leaving Memphis for Georgia Tech in the spring of 2016. He spoke at a Chabad Intown business networking breakfast in the spring, for example, and he’s scheduled to speak at the Atlanta Scholars Kollel’s annual networking event Wednesday, Sept. 6.
He’s a man in demand. He said he felt what it was like to be a five-star recruit as Atlanta synagogues recruited him to join. He had been involved with Hillel at the University of Arizona and a member of Temple Israel in Memphis, where he said some of the synagogue board members were also among the big Memphis basketball boosters who bashed him in the media and wanted him fired for not winning as much as John Calipari had before leaving Memphis for the University of Kentucky.
Pastner left Memphis for Georgia Tech in part because of the opportunity to build a program without crushing expectations. To the contrary, he was warned that he could lose 15 to 18 games in a row and told he would deserve the ACC Coach of the Year award if he won even one conference game. So Pastner added a healthy bonus to his contract for winning Coach of the Year his first season at Georgia Tech.
“But when I saw our first workout, I said, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ I told our guys we need to schedule a game in the middle of ACC play because I said we might literally not win a game,” Pastner said, explaining why Georgia Tech played Tusculum in the middle of the season.
But the coach instilled a team approach based on gratitude and high energy, and Georgia Tech won its first ACC game of last season at home against North Carolina, which went on to win the national championship.
“The power of team. We played so well as a team, and they played as individuals. … Any time a team plays someone that plays as individuals, the team will always win.”
Who: Josh Pastner with questions from author Brian Curtis Mand
What: “Hoops, Judaism & Life,” the Atlanta Scholars Kollel annual networking event
Where: Congregation Or VeShalom, 1681 North Druid Hills Road, Brookhaven
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 6
Tickets: $30 in advance, $36 at the door; www.atlantakollel.org