The helicopter that once swirled overhead had gone back to roost, and the reporters and fans camped outside had given up their vigil when Josh Pastner took a pen and inked his name on a contract. It was 1 o’clock in the morning on March 31, 2009, and John Calipari finally had made up his mind. After nine seasons, one championship game appearance, three Elite Eights and four Sweet 16s, he was leaving Memphis to become the head coach at the University of Kentucky. He’d just signed the deal making him the highest paid coach in college basketball.
There was just one hiccup: He needed a witness to make it official. “I signed it,” Pastner says. “If you look at his contract, it’s my name on there. I remember thinking, ‘Whoever follows him (at Memphis), he’s got to be cuckoo.
“I was the cuckoo.”
He says this now with the incredulity of 13 years of water passing under the bridge. It is funny to look back and consider how it all shook out; how the young assistant who just happened to be in the right place at the right time signed into existence not just his boss’ future that night, but his own. It wasn’t so funny then. “More like a hostage situation,” Pastner says. “No one could go anywhere. It was crazy.”
There had been plenty of painful divorces in men’s college basketball before Calipari and plenty since, but none held a city under its spell quite like this one. It became about more than a coaching change, Calipari’s rejection picking at both the scab of the city’s complicated inferiority complex and its desperate want to compete with basketball’s elite. Calipari slunk out of town like the Grinch slithering around a denuded Christmas tree.