MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Paradise was already miserable for Josh Pastner, and it was about to get worse.
Unable to get reception on his 520-area-code cell phone in the Bahamas during a Memphis Tigers exhibition tour last month, the habitually connected Pastner left his disabled lifeline in his hotel room and strolled dejectedly down to the pool.
Upon arriving, the 32-year-old former Arizona Wildcats basketball player and assistant coach noticed forward Wesley Witherspoon dart suspiciously out of the pool. Then he turned around and saw bruising forwards Will Coleman and Tarik Black coming toward him.
"He knew something was up," Witherspoon said. "So he tried to back up and he backed up into a corner."
Coleman was kind enough to check Pastner's pockets for cell phones and other non-waterproof items. He also took the coach's shoes off.
Then, he, Witherspoon and Black tossed Pastner in the hotel pool with hardly a struggle.
"Will's 6-9 and 250. I wasn't going to win that battle," Pastner said. "They picked me up and I was like, 'Let's go.' "
Figuratively speaking, the water was nothing, really. Just over a year earlier, Pastner was thrown into arguably college basketball's most tempestuous situation, taking over for John Calipari, who left for Kentucky and eventually took several would-be Tigers with him, all while an ongoing NCAA investigation eventually caused the Tigers' 2008 NCAA title game appearance to be vacated.
So far, Pastner remains unscarred, his omnipresent smile as bright as ever. Entering his second season as the Tigers' headman, Pastner pulled in the No. 2-ranked 2010 recruiting class in the country, has a team that could wind up in the Top 10 during the upcoming season and is enjoying the adoration of a basketball-crazed community still reeling from an ugly divorce with Calipari.
He is overtly accessible and friendly in a city that needed a group hug.
"This is the most amazing thing I've ever seen," said Memphis financier Rick Spell, an initial skeptic of Pastner's hiring who owns the sports-themed Brookhaven Pub and Grill. "Let me tell you, I've never seen a love affair like this. I remain close friends with John. He was the best ambassador for a city I've seen. John was great with people but Josh goes to another level."
This wasn't supposed to happen, of course. Pastner had been a coach-in-waiting well before he was a freshman walk-on for Lute Olson's 1997 NCAA champions, but he was still just an assistant to Calipari in 2008-09. Elite head coaching jobs are rarely offered to assistants, and Pastner knew it.
Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson had been talking to head coaches such as Missouri's Mike Anderson, Florida State's Leonard Hamilton, USC's Tim Floyd, and Baylor's Scott Drew.
So Pastner had already returned his university-provided car, and was packing another for a one-way trip to Kentucky, when Johnson telephoned to summon Pastner to his home.
They talked, awkwardly at first.
"He asked if I wanted the job. I thought he wanted me to be an assistant (for a new coach) to keep the continuity going," Pastner said, relaying the story last month at a speaking engagement. "He said, 'No. Do you want the head job?' I was thinking, 'Where does Ashton Kutcher step in here?' It doesn't happen that way."
There was no Kutcher, host of the former practical-joke show "Punk'd."
This was real. And Johnson offered Pastner $800,000 to do it.
"I said, 'I'm talking about you,' " Johnson said. "It's the only time I've seen him a little bit off guard."
Johnson's sudden move to hire the young assistant coach was seen by some as a panic hire. But Johnson said he always had Pastner in mind, knowing that despite his age Pastner actually had well over a decade of coaching experience, a point that veteran former Rice coach Willis Wilson also argues now as Pastner's assistant.
Johnson's thinking accelerated, he said, once Arizona's coaching search continued and Johnson began to worry that his longtime friend, then-UA athletic director Jim Livengood, might offer Pastner a head-coaching job first.
But at UA, Livengood had made it clear he wanted an established head coach and hired Sean Miller the same day Johnson hired Pastner.
Today, both Pastner and Miller say they support each other; and Pastner said the two even exchanged advice when they settled into their new jobs.
"Let me say that Arizona made the right choice," Pastner said. "Sean Miller is a very good friend. He's won a lot more games than I have. He did a wonderful job last year and they're going to dominate the Pac-10 in the very near future. That's just a fact.
"And how things worked out here? I also think it worked out because a lot of people didn't want to follow Coach Calipari. Where can you go? What can you do that he hasn't done?"
The Tigers didn't make the NCAA tournament last season. They went 24-10, and reached only to the second round of the NIT.
But Memphis' record didn't matter much. What really mattered is that the bleeding appeared to stop.
It stopped the day Pastner was formally introduced as head coach, smiling and confident as ever. He impressed fans, media and players alike.
He couldn't lose.
"People had a need to believe, whether it was rational or not, that things were going to be fine," said Geoff Calkins, columnist for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "Josh was the perfect hire to follow Cal in image but in reality as well. People were so injured. (Josh is) cuddly warm, and some of that's just image, but at their core, they are very different. John believes in the worst of people and Josh believes in the best."
At the same time, it became clear that not everyone was bolting around him. When Pastner was asked about the possibility of transfers at the news conference, Witherspoon answered for him from the back of the room.
"We ain't going nowhere," Witherspoon said.
The Tigers won 24 games last season, and they weren't surprised.
"We always knew he knew what he was doing," Witherspoon said. "A lot of people just doubted if he was going to be able to transform what was in his mind to the players on the court."
Good match for job
"There's no other place in the country that's so interested in their team," Pastner says, and his energy matches the intensity. At his office, as one late summer afternoon fades and his army of staff members and players has largely disappeared, Pastner makes a point of returning phone calls and e-mails to anyone who contacts him - fans, media, players, other coaches, anyone.
One return call goes to Eleanor, a devoted fan who has sent multiple notes. Pastner expresses thanks over his speakerphone and her reply is tinged with nervous excitement.
It is Sept. 1, still more than six weeks away from the start of full practices.
"I'm so excited about this season, I just don't know what to do," she says.
Pastner smiles. He's partly to blame for the fever. His 2010 recruiting class wound up ranked No. 2 in the nation - behind only Calipari's haul at Kentucky - and he corralled not only the top local players but also Top 10 guard Will Barton of Baltimore, who turned down, of all places, Kentucky.
Life adds wrinkles
Sometimes, though, the phones can get Pastner in trouble. He's been known to blow off movie dates for phone calls.
Pastner's two phones - his bare-bones Tucson-based cell phone and an out-of-date smart phone he uses for e-mail - were silenced only twice recently, when he married the former Kerri Lamas of Sierra Vista in May 2009, and when the two had their first child a year later, Payten Sidney.
Whether Kerri has extracted any other concessions is a bit of a mystery. Pastner has shielded her from interviews, though he did pass along one media inquiry, which was, basically, asking how she puts up with him.
"Lots of patience," she replied, according to Pastner.
He still sleeps only four hours a day, but the difference in Pastner's life is now the other 20 are not all devoted to work. During one recent weekday, Pastner even left campus to sit in a dentist office waiting room with his kids, Payten and Kerri's 11-year-old son, Ethen, while Kerri went inside for a checkup.
"He's a little more centered, a little more balanced," says Pastner's father, Hal. "Sure he's driven, but at the same time he loves his little baby, Ethen and Kerri. He doesn't miss a beat. The time management is critical."
Grateful for everything
Pastner guards his family life, but his personality is available for anyone to see. He tools around the city in a standard-size Hyundai Genesis sedan, having insisted the school replace a Porsche SUV that he says simply "wasn't me." He doesn't hide when frequenting local haunts such as the 60-year-old Pete & Sam's Italian restaurant near campus.
"Calipari would come in, and if he was busy he would kind of sit in the backroom and tuck himself in a corner," said Michael Bomarito, a restaurant's manager. "Coach Pastner is a little bit more open."
At Memphis' athletic administration building, where Johnson's office downstairs is a veritable Elvis shrine, Pastner's clutter-free office reveals only a modest spread of memorabilia.
Among the items on hand is a plaster tiger lunging out at his desk, an autographed photo of Priscilla Presley - "Good Luck Head Coach," she wrote - and a model airplane of FedEx, which is headquartered in Memphis.
There are also nods to his Tucson ties. In one photo, Pastner is grinning, fists up, next to boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard and Tucson boxer Nito Bravo. There's an autographed photo of Richard Carmona, the former surgeon general from Tucson, and a photo of Pastner sitting in the McKale Center stands next to John Wooden.
Then there's the Pastner touch. Inches from the ceiling, well above the multiple Tiger posters that brag of Memphis' Elite Eight runs under Calipari, are four words painted on the white walls:
"Commitment. Discipline. Loyalty. Gratefulness."
It's the last word, posted just above the entryway, that Pastner finds most appropriate now.
"You see that? Gratefulness," Pastner said. "I know this job can be taken away in a split second. I'm grateful. I live it. Every day."
10 youngest coaches in Division I basketball entering 2010-11 season:
1. Andy Toole, Robert Morris, 30 (Sept. 11, 1980)
2. Jason Capel, Appalachian St., 30 (Jan. 15, 1980)
3. Brian Wardle, Wisconsin-Green Bay, 30 (Oct. 10, 1979)
4. Dane Fife, IPFW, 31 (July 26, 1979)
5. Adam Walsh, Centenary, 31 (May 7, 1979)
6. Jason James, Tennessee-Martin, 32 (Oct. 10, 1977)
7. Josh Pastner, Memphis, 32 (Sept. 26, 1977)
8. Bobby Washington, Grambling, 33 (June 1, 1977)
9. John Gallagher, Hartford, 33 (May 27, 1977)
10. Joe Pastnernack, New Orleans, 33 (April 15, 1977)