New UA basketball hire brings lesson of adversity

Asst. coach Pasternack led his previous team through Katrina hardships
2011-11-06T00:00:00Z 2014-07-24T10:20:14Z New UA basketball hire brings lesson of adversityBruce Pascoe Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
November 06, 2011 12:00 am  • 

By signing on as the Arizona Wildcats' new assistant basketball coach, Joe Pasternack ditched any notion of a work-life balance.

Even in the offseason at elite programs like the University of Arizona's, there are camps to conduct, players to keep in line and recruiting targets to nail down.

But he's OK with that. It's a relatively stable existence compared with what Pasternack went through as head coach of the University of New Orleans.

Over four years, he watched his budget shrink as the school's enrollment plummeted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. His program teetered between varying levels of funding and complete extinction.

By last season, UNO could not offer any athletic scholarships - just playing time and some hope. So Pasternack spent the summer of 2010 scrounging the country, trying to fill an entire roster with players willing to pay their own way.

"We went to an unsigned-senior event and put together a team with whoever would come," said Pasternack, 34. "We told them, 'Look, you can come for a year and then transfer out, and it will give you a chance to play college basketball.' They didn't have any other options. Nobody else wanted them."

Pasternack's new, hungry Privateers went 16-6 as an independent last season in Division I, college basketball's highest level, but played teams such as Champion Baptist, Pensacola Christian College and Webber International because few big schools wanted to bother playing them.

Still, in some ways, it was Pasternack's best coaching effort yet.

"It was just being able to respond to the adversity," he said, "and keep plugging along each year with a new curveball being thrown at us."

Return to Hometown

It was not what Pasternack had signed on for when he left an assistant coaching gig at the University of California-Berkeley to take over his hometown program.

As a kid in New Orleans, Pasternack had watched veteran NBA and college coach Tim Floyd guide the Privateers to success. He intended to do the same, and in the process boost the pride of a city just about wiped out by Katrina nearly two years earlier. Even his parents lost their home in the hurricane and moved to suburban Metairie.

Initially, at least, there was promise.

Pasternack had a successful rookie season with the Privateers, who won nine of their first 11 games. They finished that season 20-13 overall and 8-10 in the Sun Belt Conference.

UNO lost six seniors after Pasternack's first year but had strong recruits coming in and finished with an 11-19 record in 2008-09.

Then the wheel was yanked out of Pasternack's hands.

UNO had supported its shoestring athletic department budget (now less than $4 million) with the help of $100-per-semester student fees. But with enrollment down from 17,300 before Katrina to about 11,700 in the fall of 2009, a deficit was mounting.

So the university held a vote in 2009, asking students whether they would pay double the student fees to save athletics.

The students voted no.

UNO's then-chancellor Tim Ryan told coaches the athletic department would likely be abolished, Pasternack said. Athletes were allowed to transfer and be eligible elsewhere immediately, and Pasternack lost most of his 2008-09 starters.

That was the beginning of a seesaw existence for the Privateers.

In May 2009, not long after the vote, George Shinn, owner of the NBA's New Orleans Hornets, pledged to help with finances and marketing, keeping the athletic department alive and giving coaches hope of staying in Division I. But just before the November 2009 signing date for recruits, UNO decided to step down to Division III, where there are no scholarships. Pasternack lost a second group of recruits.

The lame-duck Privateers went 8-22 in 2009-10, announcing a withdrawal from the Sun Belt Conference in midseason.

"It is unfortunate that UNO finds itself in financial constraints that have necessitated such drastic measures," Ryan said then. "But there is a time when tough decisions must be made."

After the 2009-10 season, all but one player left.

Yet, Pasternack stayed.

"I was from New Orleans. I really felt there was hope," he said. "And I had signed a four-year contract; I wanted to live out the contract."

California coach Ben Braun, by then the coach at Rice University, wasn't surprised.

"He's a real loyal guy, and he stayed at UNO when he didn't have to," Braun said.

Even Roxy Bernstein, Cal's play-by-play announcer and now Pasternack's brother-in-law, couldn't tell him to get out.

"Even if we did tell him that, he is so loyal that it wouldn't have mattered," Bernstein said. "He won't break his trust to whatever gave him an opportunity."

Devoted to Basketball

A basketball nut since childhood, Pasternack knew by high school that his best chance to make a living in the sport was not in a uniform.

"I knew I wasn't going to play in the NBA for a lack of size, so the next best thing was to learn the game and coach," he said.

He spent four years as a student under famously militaristic but loyal coach Bob Knight. Then Knight phoned California coach Braun to recommend his young protégé.

Braun hired Pasternack as a video coordinator and then, two years later, made Pasternack a full-time assistant coach at age 24.

"His work ethic is second to none," Braun said. "He's going to outwork you, and he's very thorough, very detailed in his approach. That not only manifests itself in game preparation and scouting but also in recruiting, because he was tireless."

Somehow during those hectic years in Berkeley, Pasternack managed to court the woman who is now his wife.

With conditions, of course.

"When we'd go out on dates, the cellphone went wherever we went," Pasternack said. "You have to pick it up when a recruit calls. You can't call them back because of the (NCAA) rules. And when I came home, I'd come back with tapes and DVDs to watch."

The basketball-first attitude wasn't new to Pasternack's new love. Her brother Roxy Bernstein jumped into sports broadcasting fresh out of college, just as Pasternack did in coaching. Roxy and Joe shared a love of the game, and a tolerance for the long hours it demands.

"She kind of knew," Roxy Bernstein said. "Joe and I keep the same lifestyle; she knew the odd hours were normal, and she understood. She was always very supportive of Joe."

Except for one thing.

One day while coaching at New Orleans, Pasternack heard his toddler son singing Arizona's fight song.

Lindsay Pasternack, it happens, used to be UA student Lindsay Bernstein.

"She taught our son the words to 'Bear Down' a long time before I wanted her to," Pasternack said, smiling.

Bear Down has a much different meaning for Pasternack now. It represents a new livelihood, and a new chance.

Faced big Pay Cut

Pasternack wound up at the University of Arizona last spring after UA associate head coach Archie Miller left to become head coach at the University of Dayton.

Needing to replace his brother, UA head coach Sean Miller moved assistant James Whitford to associate head coach.

Miller spoke to California coach Braun about Pasternack and considered several other candidates, including former UA guard Damon Stoudamire.

By May, UNO had decided that instead of going to Division III, it would drop to Division II, where scholarships can be offered. But because of downsizing, Pasternack's pay would be about half of the $156,000 he made last season.

Finally, he was ready to jump.

Miller offered him $190,000 to be a UA assistant, and the school bumped him up to $204,000 for this season.

In return, Miller said, Arizona gets a coach with valuable head-coaching experience and West Coast recruiting contacts.

"When you replace someone like Archie, who did so many good things for us, it's tough to find that well-roundedness. And to me we really found that in Joe," Miller said.

Pasternack's quick-thinking skills also could aid Miller.

"He can take a situation and synthesize it immediately and come up with a solution," former UNO athletic director Jim Miller said. "My history is 30 years in this business, and I've seen coaches make great preparation, but after the first quarter they were lost in the weeds if the opponent didn't do what they expected."

Arizona may well be a waystation for Pasternack to get back to head coaching, a place to gain visibility in a program that is showing signs of returning to perennial prominence.

But, for now, for Joe Pasternack, Arizona is a place to dig in and get to work.

"I feel very very fortunate that coach Miller gave me this opportunity," Pasternack said. "I believe being on the Arizona basketball staff is one of the top four or five jobs in America. To be able to learn from him even more and compete for championships, to me, is an incredible opportunity."

Special section inside

As the most anticipated UA basketball season in recent history gears up, get 48 pages of news and insight. Find Greg Hansen's fan guide, get up to date on the new Pac-12 and learn how coach Sean Miller plans to rebuild a desert dynasty.

Joe Pasternack

• Title: Assistant coach, UA men's basketball

• Age: 34

• Hometown: New Orleans

• School: Indiana University (bachelor's degree in marketing, 1999)

• Family: Wife, Lindsay; son, Joe IV, 5; daughter, Lilly, 9 months

• Outside interests: Between work and family, he's tapped out

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