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VOL. 133 | NO. 55 | Friday, March 16, 2018
Don Wade

Don Wade

U of M Going for the Gold with Penny Hardaway

By Don Wade

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Finally, it was official. The University of Memphis had fired Tubby Smith. His presumptive successor, Penny Hardaway, was coaching his East High School team at the state tournament in Murfreesboro, blowing through a previously undefeated opponent in the quarterfinals.

So in the interview room, Penny was asked about the open job at Memphis that pretty much everyone in the free world is sure will become his. Penny said he couldn’t address that, and then the former Tiger great started talking about the team and tournament still in front of him.

Hardaway said they were all aware of the “noise,” meaning the rumors that long ago morphed into facts-in-waiting. He also said his players had no doubts about his focus: “This third gold ball.”

Nice imagery, isn’t it?

Penny Hardaway and going for the gold carries just a little bit more juice than Tubby Smith and claiming some quasi-victory for finishing fifth in the American Athletic Conference after being predicted to come in ninth.

Memphis is, or at least should consistently be, a Top-35 program in the country. In the Top 25 some years, not that far outside of it in others. Instead, the Tigers check in at No. 106 in the RPI and at No. 159 in the kenpom.com ratings. They were worse than their 21-13 record.

True, some factions in the Memphis fan base have a grossly inflated idea about what Memphis should be. Memphis is not a blue-blood, not on the same level as Duke, Kansas, North Carolina and, hate to say it, Kentucky.

But it’s closer to those programs than East Carolina or South Florida. Or at least it should be, and this season Tubby’s Tigers took losses to both of those AAC bottom-feeders.

Smith, it should be noted, left here the way he arrived. With dignity and class. He arrived with a pristine reputation, known for doing things the “right way.” It’s still intact.

As expected, no financial details were released after Smith’s firing became official. But presumably the university still owes him $9.75 million on the three years left on his contract and will pay that out over six years or Smith agreed to a happy lump sum up front.

In that way, Tubby got the gold even though in two seasons his teams didn’t even sniff the NIT.

University president M. David Rudd was quite proud of hiring Tubby Smith at the time. But two seasons in with season-ticket sales, donations and attendance at FedExForum all way down, and recruiting offering no hope, the pressure to make a bold move to reawaken the fan base escalated.

Will Penny Hardaway prove to be a magic bullet for what ails the program?

In the short-term, it’s clear he will restore enthusiasm and with it will come more revenue via season-ticket sales, donations and attendance. He already has good relationships with local elite players in the Class of 2019. No, he won’t get them all. But if he gets even one, that puts Memphis ahead of where they would have been under Tubby.

Will Penny succeed as CEO of a Division I college basketball program?

Let’s be blunt here: Being a former NBA star with commercials and a shoe line doesn’t guarantee anything. But early signs are that Penny has been planning for this day and realizes he needs a top staff around him to help him identity what he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know.

So this could work. Perhaps amazingly well.

Will Penny run afoul of the NCAA?

What we know for sure is that he has been working in the shadowy world of summer basketball and that two of his East players – including No. 1-ranked 2019 recruit James Wiseman – transferred to East after playing for Team Penny. The TSSAA views this as a violation of the prior coaching link rule and while a temporary restraining order was granted that allowed the players to play for East, the legal battle is not over.

This doesn’t mean Penny would get in trouble with the NCAA, just that it doesn’t seem impossible. The best of the John Calipari years included an NCAA championship game trip later vacated. But at the time, what an exhilarating ride it was.

So if we’ve learned anything since Calipari left for Kentucky and the Tigers stopped going to the Sweet 16 and then the NCAA Tournament altogether, it’s that the administration and the fan base are not on the fence about trades they are willing to make.

Better to win, have fun and bring in more money, better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Don Wade’s column appears in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.

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