Over four years ago, then-head coach John Calipari opted to leave the Memphis Tigers to take one of the premier head coaching jobs in all of college basketball with the Kentucky Wildcats. It did not take long for the program to hire a young, rising coach in Josh Pastner, who was just 31 years old at the time he was tabbed as Calipari’s successor.
After four seasons, Pastner has bested his legendary predecessor in his first four years with the Tigers – compared to Calipari’s first four with the program. Any time you follow in the footsteps of a legend, there is going to be criticism. But, looking at the numbers of both coaches during their first four years with Memphis, Pastner has more than upheld the tradition and winning Calipari established during his nine seasons.
Most important is winning, and Pastner has done lots of it. After four seasons, he has compiled a 106-34 (.757 winning percentage) record, 13 more wins that Calipari (93-39, .704 winning percentage) had at the same juncture in his tenure. Pastner has also won more regular season conference championships (two to one) and conference tournament championships (three to none) than Calipari did.
Despite all of this, Pastner has been subject to much criticism when it comes to winning big games, particularly in March. Calipari took his teams to a Sweet Sixteen, two Elite Eights and the national championship game in 2008. Pastner finally won his first game in the NCAA Tournament this past season, but the Tigers were beaten soundly in the Third Round by the Michigan State Spartans. The brunt of the criticism has come from him not being able to make deeper runs in the tournament, but what many don’t know is that Pastner has also bested Calipari in this category after four seasons.
Because Calipari took Memphis to the title game and raised the program to elite status, fans forget that it even took him time to build a championship contender. In fact, Calipari did not win his first tournament game with the Tigers until, you guessed it, his fourth season. In the three years before that, though his team won the NIT Championship in 2002, Calipari made just one NCAA Tournament — they lost in the first round. Pastner has led his teams to March Madness three times in four seasons.
Not only has Pastner done more winning in his first four seasons, but he has also not missed a beat on the recruiting trail, hauling in nationally ranked classes each year.
Building an elite program takes time, no matter who you are. The pressure in today’s game to win is the highest it has ever been. Though it has been over four years since Calipari left, the bitterness and anger still lingers. Pastner has helped settle that animosity by bringing high energy, keeping the winning tradition going and recruiting on a national level.
Have the fans completely forgot about the days of Calipari? No, and they shouldn’t. What he did in his time with the Tigers was a time that Memphis will always remember. But Pastner is working towards taking the Tigers back to the top and at the same time, is helping Memphis fans let go of Calipari’s bon voyage.
Calipari did not make a deep run in the tournament until his sixth season. Heading into this year, Pastner has his best team since he took over the job. Whether or not the Tigers go deep in March is yet to be seen, but one thing is for certain: Pastner is building his own legacy one day at a time.