The term “rebuilding” doesn’t do justice to what Coach Joe Pasternack had to do this season at the University of New Orleans. Faced with the loss of all his scholarship players except for one, he had to completely rebuild a team that nevertheless finished the season 16-6, and earned him a nomination as finalist for the Red Auerbach College Coach of the Year Award.
The Auerbach Award is presented annually by the Jewish Coaches Association and is named for the legendary Boston Celtics coach who won nine NBA championships as coach and seven as general manager. The winner was to be announced at the Final Four in Houston, the weekend of April 1 to 3.
A coach in Tennessee was also named a finalist, and his name isn’t Bruce Pearl — it’s Josh Pastner, who guided the University of Memphis to a 25-9 record in his second season, winning the Conference USA tournament and narrowly losing to Arizona in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
Memphis was one of the beneficiaries of New Orleans’ turmoil, with Charles Carmouche transferring there. It was part of an exodus of UNO players following the announcement that the school was dropping from Division I to Division III, where there are no athletic scholarships. Current players already under scholarship were then able to transfer to schools that offer scholarships without having to sit out for one year, as is generally required for transfers.
The drop in division came due to a large deficit in the athletic budget, and the failure of a vote in 2009 to raise student athletic fees. Enrollment at UNO had also dropped sharply since Hurricane Katrina, and the school was on a waiver allowing it to field fewer teams than necessary for Division I eligibility.
In early March, UNO decided instead to go to Division II, joining the Gulf South Conference.
Last summer, Pasternack found himself on the road looking for players, but without scholarships to offer. He managed to assemble a roster, and “we really didn’t know what to expect.”
On a mission, “the kids came together and played as a team when there was nothing to play for.” The team finished first among Division I independents, having lost its Sun Belt Conference affiliation as part of the transition.
The only similar move recently was when Birmingham-Southern dropped from Division I to Division III. Pasternack noted that BSC decided to put their basketball program on a one-year hiatus, while “we had to play the games.”
A New Orleans native, Pasternack became the UNO coach in 2007, with his squad defeating then-No. 21 North Carolina State that season, the first UNO victory against a Top 25 team since 1993.
This was the final season of his contract, and a renewal is currently on the table. Before coming to UNO, he was student manager at Indiana under Bobby Knight, then was assistant coach at the University of California.
He is “very appreciative” of the recognition by the Jewish Coaches Association, but noted his players “are the ones that deserve all the credit.”