VOL. 133 | NO. 60 | Friday, March 23, 2018
Right Call: Hiring Penny Hardaway Already Paying Dividends for U of M
By Don Wade
Penny Hardaway appeared and fans cheered, hooted and hollered. Their deliverer, formerly a Memphis State star and All-American wearing No. 25, had come home in a gray suit and blue tie to rescue their beloved Tigers.
Penny Hardaway addresses a crowd of Tigers’ fans inside the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center on Tuesday, March 20, after being announced as the new head basketball coach.
(Daily News/Houston Cofield)
He spoke of restoring the glory, filling FedExForum, and winning. He talked a lot about winning. And not at all about overachieving by finishing in the middle of the American Athletic Conference standings.
Afterward, University of Memphis president M. David Rudd released the details of the school’s dire financial situation as it related to the men’s basketball program: a projected $4.7 million loss this season, in large part because donations fell off and season ticket sales dropped to 4,115, a figure Rudd called the “lowest in modern history in Tiger basketball.”
So here’s a question: Even though Penny Hardaway has never coached one college basketball game, is there anyone left who doesn’t believe this is a risk worth taking?
Honestly, risk isn’t even the right word. On this day at the shiny new Laurie-Walton practice facility (price tag $20 million-plus), good old Tubby Smith and the nearly $10 million he is still owed almost seemed like a distant memory.
Rudd and the big boosters played the only card they had to play in hiring Penny. After one hour, it felt like a backboard-shattering slam-dunk.
That quickly, Penny had rekindled hope and pride.
“Tiger basketball, no disrespect to the Grizzlies, is No. 1 in the city,” Penny said after speaking to the crowd that jammed the practice facility for the press conference. “It was here before the Grizzlies came. When the Tigers won back in the day, everybody was happy. When the Tigers lost, everybody was sad.”
Too much? A little presumptuous? No, just right. Exactly what Tiger Nation wants and needs to hear.
Like the last two years of the Josh Pastner regime, the two seasons under Tubby Smith were absent any postseason play. Worse, the ennui that started under Pastner solidified under Smith. People who used to schedule their lives around Tiger basketball no longer knew nor cared when the games were.
That’s costly at multiple levels.
Fact is, there was never any genuine anticipation or sustained excitement. No real belief that the Tigers were going to make the NCAA Tournament or again be visible on the national radar.
The latter has changed with Penny’s hiring. Through his elite summer team and three-time state champion East High School team, Hardaway has built relationships with top-tier recruits. Hours after Hardaway was formally introduced as the new Memphis coach, East High point guard Alex Lomax received his release from a signed letter of intent from Wichita State.
Which means for Lomax the next stop is Memphis. He should be just the first of several high-profile recruits from the Memphis area to join the program. Penny won’t get everyone, of course, and there’s still a decent chance the No. 1 player in the 2019 class, James Wiseman, sticks to his earlier decision to commit to John Calipari and Kentucky.
But getting Wiseman is now possible. So is getting D.J. Jeffries, a Top-30 recruit in the 2019 class, and Chandler Lawson, a Top-40 prospect in that class.
So I asked Penny if he was planning to, as the saying goes, “throw a fence up around Memphis.”
His answer: “Absolutely. You’re talking to a guy that’s born and raised here. My team was 99 percent Memphis when I played here, so I definitely want to have a fence around the city and get the top talent out of the city. I’m not a guy that opposes going out and grabbing the hometown talent because we have enough talent here that can win.
“You still want to go nationally, sure, but hometown talent you have to keep at home.”
He also has plans for upgrading the schedule, saying he’ll be calling Cal at Kentucky, Michigan State and Duke and trying to put together home-and-home series. That might prove tougher than he imagines, but you have to love the spirit.
“The city wants that, I want that,” said the former NBA All-Star. “Never run away from competition.”
And that’s what he told the current players when he met with them. Guard Jeremiah Martin relayed that Penny said they should be thinking conference championship for starters, but also aiming toward the ultimate championship.
I asked Rudd what he thought Memphis fans should expect in terms of going to the NCAAs over a five-year period.
“I don’t know that that’s fair for me to project that,” he said. “Look, I would tell you that if you look historically, this program every four years or so makes a deep run into the tournament. I think that’s a reasonable thing.”
You know what’s even more reasonable? Getting to the tournament more years than not. Ending this four-year slide into oblivion.
As Rudd noted more than once, there is Top-25 level investment in the program. The results should mirror that investment.
“It’s tough to say (making the NCAAs) should happen every year,” Penny said, “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 the way it once was. That’s the way it can be again.
Even before Penny has started to deliver on that goal, the healing has begun.
Tiger fans are coming back and they’re bringing their hope, and their checkbooks, with them.