MEMPHIS - R.C. Johnson is well aware that University of Memphis basketball coach Josh Pastner doesn’t want to play Tennessee because he thinks it helps the Vols recruit in Memphis. In that alone, he understands.
But to Johnson, the U of M athletic director, it’s a big-picture situation.
“The coaches don’t particularly want any formidable opponent coming in here to play, but I think, and our position really has been, that the Tennessee game is an in-state rivalry that’s so big that we really want to do that,” Johnson said Tuesday.
The issue flared up Monday afternoon when Pastner, appearing on Knoxville radio station WNML-AM, said he has “no desire to play Tennessee.”
“I don’t think it does us any good,” Pastner told the station. “I’m just being honest with you. For us, it’s a game that, I don’t know why we play it, but we play it because the athletic director wants me to play it and he’s my boss and what he says goes.”
Reached later by The Commercial Appeal, Pastner stressed that he understood why fans enjoyed the game and said he simply doesn’t like giving a team exposure in his team’s natural recruiting territory. Johnson said Pastner called him Monday night and told him he understood the department’s overall approach.
Johnson said he believes there are four more games scheduled against the Vols in basketball and one more in football (in 2017). He said he and former Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton had advanced discussions about playing more football games in the next decade and extending the basketball series from its current terminus. But Hamilton resigned in June and Tennessee is searching for a new athletic director.
Johnson recalled a survey of fans he did when taking the Memphis AD job 15 years ago. An important topic? Playing Tennessee.
To that end, any discussion about playing other regional teams like Ole Miss in future football schedules is waiting until the Tigers nail down just how much their schedules in the 2020s will include the Vols. It’s an in-state rivalry that Johnson is committed to preserving.
“I agree wholeheartedly that we don’t want to help anybody in recruiting,” Johnson said, “but I think this game is an exception.”