VOL. 133 | NO. 53 | Wednesday, March 14, 2018
Smith Out as Tigers Basketball Coach, No Word on Replacement
By Don Wade
As expected, the University of Memphis and head men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith parted ways on Wednesday, March 14.
The University of Memphis issued a brief statement Wednesday, but provided no information on Smith’s possible replacement.
“After considerable deliberations and in the best financial interest of the University of Memphis, an agreement of separation with Head Men’s Basketball Coach Tubby Smith has been reached. Details are to be finalized, and no further comment will be offered,” the statement reads.
It was issued after a Wednesday morning meeting between Smith and university officials.
Smith, 66, is just three wins shy of 600 for his career as a Division 1 college head coach.
He just completed his second season on a five-year contract worth more than $15 million. In his second year, the Tigers went 21-13, finished fifth in the American Athletic Conference, and won two AAC Tournament games before falling to top-seeded Cincinnati in the semifinals. Memphis was not offered an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament nor the NIT.
University president M. David Rudd had said near the end of the season that the basketball program would be evaluated after the season.
The presumed successor to Smith is former Tiger great Penny Hardaway, who has a successful summer team called Team Penny, and coaches East High School’s boys’ basketball team. East High is in the state tournament and if able to reach the championship game would play its last game this Saturday.
The timing means that Rudd and athletic director Tom Bowen probably will be waiting until early next week to announce Hardaway as the next Memphis coach. Hardaway is coveted for the buzz he immediately creates among fans and his connections to a number of highly prized local recruits. Smith’s critics especially had taken aim at his tepid recruiting.
Speculation had ramped up in the last two weeks about the university moving on from Smith, who still has $9.75 million left on his contract over three years; the administration, however, can pay Smith off over six years. Any other financial arrangements that may have taken place during Wednesday’s meeting between Smith and the administration were not immediately available.
A decline in ticket sales and donations that began under Josh Pastner, who failed to reach the postseason in his last two years, had only worsened under Smith. Attendance at FedExForum this season fell below 7,000 per game, to an almost 50-year low. It means the university is at risk for not receiving an $800,000 payment from the Memphis Grizzlies as part of its lease at FedExForum.
According to media reports, donations to the athletic department dropped by $1.1 million in fiscal 2016-17. Attendance was higher during the 2016-17 season, so it’s reasonable to expect that donations have remained off and perhaps fallen even further because of money tied to season ticket sales for men’s basketball games.
Memphis won seven of its last nine games this season. The signature victory was an upset at home of then-No. 23 Houston even after the conference’s leading scorer, Jeremiah Martin, broke his foot during the first half.
But a 24-point loss at home to South Florida on March 1, at the time 1-15 in the AAC, turned up the heat on the call for a coaching change.
Smith arrived here with a pretty full resume: He had taken five different schools to the NCAAs, reached nine Sweet 16s, and won a national title at Kentucky.
But in an exclusive interview with The Daily News late in December, he acknowledged the college athletic landscape had undergone radical change.
“As long as I’m doing it the right way, that’s what matters,” Smith said when asked about the criticism he was receiving on sports talk radio and via social media. “People don’t know (what’s true). People believe because of the social media. I remember when reporters used to go on the plane with us, your beat writer was there with you all the time. But now, social media, radio, people are making a living off sports and that’s what it boils down to – money.
“Coaches … there’s a lot of pressure on coaches. Not just to win, but you gotta sell your program to the public, you gotta put people in the stands. That’s the measure. How do you entertain people? That’s what college sports has become – entertainment. Used to be student-athletes, getting an education. But the line is so blurred now it’s out of control.”
Pressed further on how he deals with criticism, Smith said: “Well, the minute they start paying my salary then I’ll be concerned. Yeah, it’s disappointing. But I’ve been the same person everywhere. I’ve been very cordial. I’m polite. I’m gracious. I’m humble. I mean, what do you want? I don’t know what they want. I just do my job, that’s all I do. I don’t have to worry about what others’ expectations are. I have enough expectations.”
Smith had a two-year record of 40-26 at Memphis. His career mark at Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, Texas Tech and Memphis is 597-302 for a winning percentage of .664.