VOL. 133 | NO. 57 | Tuesday, March 20, 2018
New Memphis Coach Penny Hardaway Vows Return to Glory Days
By Don Wade
They came in large numbers and they came early. The University of Memphis opened Tuesday’s press conference to the public and the basketball program’s staunchest supporters showed up at the gleaming new Laurie-Walton practice facility for the tip-off of the Penny Hardaway Era.
Penny Hardaway meets with fans Tuesday, March 20, after being named head coach of the Memphis Tigers men's basketball team. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)
The worst-kept secret in town became an official reality as university president M. David Rudd stepped to the microphone and said: “It’s a pleasure to see all of you here and to welcome Penny Hardaway as our new men’s basketball coach.”
That cued wild cheers, hoots and hollers.
Before Hardaway came up for his turn, Rudd spoke to the past two years under Tubby Smith without ever using the coach’s name. Smith went 40-26 in those two seasons and failed to get the team to the postseason amid plummeting attendance, declining donations, and growing apathy about the program.
After the formal press conference in a meeting with media, Rudd revealed just how dire the situation had become, saying season ticket sales dropped to 4,115 this past season.
“From a financial standpoint,” Rudd said, “we need our fans back and we need them back now.”
Even at the public press conference, Rudd made clear where the university stood by saying that the school and boosters have invested at a Top-25 program level.
“We simply will not lower our expectations,” Rudd told the crowd.
Athletic director Tom Bowen presented Hardaway with a blue and gray No. 25 Memphis jersey – the number he wore as a Tiger.
Hardaway, 46, dressed in a gray suit and blue tie, spoke to the crowd for only about three minutes. But those minutes were filled with energy and passion. After having an All-Star career in the NBA, Hardaway came back to Memphis and eventually started coaching – middle school, an elite summer ball team, and guiding East High School to three straight state championships.
He looked around the packed lobby of the practice facility and said he felt like he was at a “family reunion.” He spoke of taking Memphis basketball back to the “old-school days” and said the style of play would be fast and fun – “running, jumping, pressing.”
“Losing,” he told his fans, “is not an option in my mind.”
When he was done, the crowd sent up a chant: “Penny, Penny, Penny!”
Guard Jeremiah Martin thanked Smith for all he had done for him, but also gave his endorsement to the hiring of Hardaway and the immediate impact it could have: “It’s great for the city, bringing a Memphis guy on the sideline.”
Later, Hardaway also met with media. He confirmed that former Tiger teammate Tony Madlock, who most recently served as interim head coach at Ole Miss, would be joining his staff. He said he would fill the other spots with “guys who will go out there and hit the pavement and grind.”
Asked about the current roster, Hardaway said he it was probably not realistic that all of the players on the roster would return, given they were all recruited by Smith. Hardaway implied some players might want to leave, but he is also expected to make an immediate impact on recruiting and to get some top-tier players. If that happens, Hardaway well might need a spot or two to open up.
The Tigers didn’t make the NCAA Tournament in Josh Pastner’s last two years and have now been absent from the postseason for four straight years. Asked if he believed the Tigers could return to the NCAAs next season and what he thought the program should be able to accomplish within a five-year window, Hardaway said: “It’s tough to say it should happen every year, but that’s my goal. We want to know what seed we’re gonna have, not if we’re gonna make it at all. That’s my vision.”
He also said he is eager to see the fans fill FedExForum the way they packed The Pyramid in his playing days. He wants the Tigers to again be the talk of the town.
“I feel the city’s pain,” Hardaway said. “I feel the school’s pain. And I feel like I can do something about it.”