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VOL. 11 | NO. 11 | Saturday, March 17, 2018

Editorial: Tubby Smith Meant Well But Memphis Needed More

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In two seasons as head basketball coach at the University of Memphis, Tubby Smith served the institution, the sport, and most importantly the players, with integrity.

He talked about real issues in college athletics that have made him an outlier in many ways. He’s widely regarded as the coach who does everything the right way, who values the educational attainment and personal development of student-athletes more than the wins.

As admirable as that is – and though a good case could be made for giving him one more season to move the needle more – Smith was not a good fit in Memphis.

He leaves the $21 million Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center – named after former Tigers guard Bill Laurie and his wife, Nancy Walton Laurie – with a university contract that still owes him $9.75 million.

Smith talked vaguely about building a winning program but never talked about winning championships. Often he seemed to shy away from talking altogether; he didn’t give many speeches or mingle much with Tigers fans, leaving one to wonder whether he truly embraced Memphis.

Recruiting was another weakness. The days of student-athletes being happy to get a scholarship to play ball and get a free education are gone. Better players want a ticket to the pros.

In an exclusive interview with The Daily News midseason, Smith talked about “doing it the right way” in building the Memphis program, but admitted the college game has changed a lot in recent years, and not for the better – at least for the athletes.

As much as he put a ceiling on how far the Tigers could go, the fan base put a floor on how much it was willing to tolerate a coach who didn’t appear too upset about losing – and losing to inferior opponents at that. Smith might be able to justify such losses under the guise of it taking time to build a winning program, but fans couldn’t and wouldn’t.

You clearly saw that play out in the stands. Attendance fell under 7,000 a game, which would have made the Mid-South Coliseum look patchy. It made FedExForum look barren.

Smith recognized the need to reach new fans, telling The Daily News, “At every program there’s a period of time where the fans get older and you have to bring in fresh new blood. Just like with coaches. You can’t coach forever.”

While Smith wasn’t hired to be entertainer-in-chief, a little more engagement could have gone a long way toward getting the community’s backing.

If, as expected, Penny Hardaway is announced as the new head coach, he's likely to reignite a passion for Memphis basketball, just as Larry Finch – another Tiger turned coach – was able to do. In the end, Finch was treated poorly and unjustly. Let’s hope a different administration doesn’t repeat that with the next former player to return as coach.

Penny knows Memphis and will bring back the passion that Tubby Smith just couldn’t muster in a city with a unique story and a unique fan base to match.

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