Josh Pastner, the university of Memphis Men’s Basketball coach, is one of the most promising young coaches in the NCAA. Since he became head coach of the Tigers in 2009, the program has made the past four NCAA tournaments and has won two Conference USA regular season titles. The 37-year-old is also an active member of the Jewish Coaches’ Association, and won the JCA’s annual prize, the Red Auerbach Award, in 2011 at the group’s annual Final Four bagel brunch.
Pastner is also known as one of the best recruiters in college basketball—alongside Yanni Hufnagel at the University of California, Berkeley—and in 2013, ESPN ranked his recruiting class as the third-best in the entire nation.
During the 2013-2014 season, Pastner successfully led the Tigers through a tough transition as they entered the new American Athletic Conference. At the end of the season, the Tigers finished in a respectable fifth place behind eventual NCAA Champion the University of Connecticut.
The Tigers begin their season November 18, taking on last season’s Cinderella story, Wichita State. I spoke with Pastner about the Tigers’ upcoming season, Jews and basketball, and whether he’d ever coach in Israel.
What is it like being in the American Athletic Conference? How much it has developed since it was created?
The American is really good. There are a lot of good coaches, players, and teams. If you don’t bring it every night you have a really good chance to get beat. There are 11 really good teams in this conference.
You’re entering your sixth year as head coach of Memphis. Do you feel you’ve matured as a coach?
When I got the job, I was at the right place at the right time. No one wanted to follow John Calapari (laughs), and I happened to be the last man standing. Thank goodness this all worked out. I recognized being the head coach here is a gift and a privilege and I love what I am doing. I’m excited about this year’s team.
Jewish basketball coach Brad Greenberg went to Israel to coach Maccabi Haifa and won a title. Do you see yourself coaching in Israel or abroad at any point in your career?
I would never close the door on this. I would love to coach professionally at some point, whether it’s in the NBA or in Israel or anywhere else. Being able to coach here at Memphis, is really high level and I have really enjoyed that. I will keep all doors open for the future but right now I am very happy at Memphis.
College basketball, and coaching in particular, is one place where Jews excel when it comes to sports. Why do you think that is?
We weren’t good enough to play at all (laughs). No I don’t know, it’s just the way things unfolded. I think Jason Belzer has done tremendous job with the Jewish Coaches Association and has really helped the organization grow. I love meeting all the Jewish coaches at the Final Four. The game is growing from all religions and walks of life. The Spurs just hired the league’s first female assistant coach. The game is growing and there no walls when it comes to coaching.
Raphael Gellar is a freelance football and basketball journalist covering Israeli sports and international football. He tweets at @raphael_gellar.