Is it time for Memphis to reconsider its romance with Penny Hardaway?
A hometown guy, Hardaway was a superb talent at Memphis and in the NBA until injuries caught up to him.
A few years ago, when Tubby Smith proved to be a terrible fit with the Tigers, a sentiment arose to bring Hardaway back as the head coach.
No one really talked about his lack of head coaching experience, at least in college. He did have some in middle school and high school.
As things have turned out though, Hardaway hasn’t been the home run a lot of people expected.
First there was the James Wiseman mess. Hardaway helped his mother move to Memphis when Wiseman was in high school and when he took the Memphis job, that became an NCAA issue.
For some reason, Hardaway defied the NCAA and played Wiseman despite the NCAA’s suspension. Wiseman eventually left the team after he realized he was in NCAA limbo.
Then there was the dust up with Tennessee’s Rick Barnes. To be fair, Barnes has a knack for baiting people. He’s really good at it. In fact, you could say he’s - oh, never mind. Cheap humor really is the worst.
This past recruiting cycle, Hardaway managed to sneak in and get Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren, both quite late. Bates was set to attend Michigan State until he decommitted, and just about everyone thought that Duren was Kentucky-bound.
However, the older players were jealous of the hotshot recruits and team chemistry has really suffered. It doesn't help that Boogie Ellis left and now the Tigers lack a decent point guard. Bates has also struggled somewhat, like many freshmen do.
Memphis was so bad that Hardaway compared his guys to an AAU team and said he was only going to play guys who showed heart.
The Tigers lost four straight before upsetting Alabama.
And just when things started to look good, just before the Tennessee game...Covid hit.
And for better or worse, that’s normal.
But not much is normal at Hardaway’s Memphis program, and not this either.
It turns out that, despite Hardaway saying that “90 percent” of his roster was vaccinated, that, uh, wasn’t quite true.
Between injuries and the protocol, only four players could suit up vs. Tennessee and the game was canceled one hour before tip-off.
Barnes was not amused and said he won’t reschedule because Memphis is “irresponsible.”
So what now?
Hardaway can push his guys to get vaccinated but even if his entire team got vaccinated on Tuesday, it takes about two weeks for it to be effective. And this is a two-dose vaccine. So the second dose comes about three weeks later and, again, takes some time to take effect.
So let’s just spitball it at six weeks, which works out to around February 4th. And that’s without a booster.
Counting Tennessee and Alabama State, both already canceled, that’s 12 games Memphis could potentially have to miss, possibly 13.
And of course that could end up being all of us. Who knows? It’s all up in the air.
Whatever happens, a lot of people are getting fed up. Tennessee had fans in the stands for Memphis and opted to run a scrimmage just so they could see something for their trouble.
Memphis fans got nothing - and between travel, lodging and tickets, some of them spent some real money.
It may end up that Hardaway is a poor fit for the job or, possibly, any collegiate job. He wouldn’t be the first NBA guy to assume he can coach college. Sidney Lowe failed. Chris Mullin failed. Patrick Ewing is just barely over .500. Larry Krystkowiak was fired at Utah. Reggie Theus has failed his way down to Bethune-Cookman. Danny Manning was awful at Wake Forest.
What's different at Memphis is that it’s....Memphis.
Every city and every basketball program has its own culture. Even so, Memphis is utterly unique.
Not surprisingly, the city, right on the Mississippi, has always had a bit of a riverboat gambler culture.
When Fred Smith started Federal Express, now FedEx, it nearly went under. So what did he do?
He went to Vegas and gambled, making enough money to keep the company afloat.
Memphis basketball has long had a bit of that too. Look at Dana Kirk, Larry Finch, John Calipari and Hardaway himself.
And look at the guys who failed: Tic Price, Josh Pastner, Tubby Smith. Price was forced out because he had a sexual relationship with a student. Pastner’s earnest personality, seemingly a combination of Dale Carnegie and Eddie Haskell, didn’t go over well at all. And they hated Tubby Smith. He lost six of his top eight players, possibly because he was too stubborn to do things the Memphis Way.
Hilariously, Finch got the job despite asking for immunity during Kirk’s trial.
Kirk’s offenses? Tax evasion, filing false returns, mail fraud, obstruction of justice. Witnesses testified that he scalped tickets to his own games, took money from alums for his players and sought kickbacks for tournament events. Star recruit Keith Lee famously got 20,000 in a shoebox.
When Kirk got out of jail, he came back to town and hosted a sports radio show.
The greatest sin for a Memphis coach? Well, losing. Duh.
The second greatest though? Being boring.
And as much as Memphis may be a train wreck, Hardaway has not been boring. He speaks his mind, as he did about Barnes. He rips his own team. He was even pretty candid about his lies about vaccination rates.
He’s at home and they’ve always loved him. But if he doesn’t turn things around, they’ll stop loving him long enough to replace him. And then, after a decent interval, they’ll start loving him again.
When you think about that, and the complexities of this job, who would be a great fit?
Maybe Mark Gottfried.
Kidding! Sort of, anyway.
It’s such an odd job. The potential is huge. Like Maryland, you could recruit in a taxi and never have to fly out to see anyone because the local talent is superb. But you have to get the city and university, which kind of means you probably have to be a local yourself, or maybe a John Calipari.
Whatever happens next, you can count on this: it probably won’t be boring.