Apparently intent on compounding its basketball hiring errors, Memphis is prepared to throw the ultimate hometown Hail Mary.
With Tubby Smith forced out Wednesday at great cost after an ill-conceived two-year tenure, Penny Hardaway appears to be next as coach of the Memphis Tigers. It would be a fascinating — and quite possibly foolhardy — gambit by one of America’s bedrock basketball schools. It would be an experiment that is simultaneously far outside the experience box and timidly tucked inside the parochialism box.
The 46-year-old Hardaway is a Memphis legend, a native son who has his jersey retired by the school. He was a standout NBA player for many years, an All-Star and Olympic gold medalist before injuries curtailed his career earlier this century. His celebrity has some shelf life, thanks to an enduring Nike shoe line and a memorable commercial series with a puppet version of himself.
Can he coach a high-level college basketball team? None of the above biographical details suggests it, and none of the below, either.
Hardaway’s coaching experience consists of his current dominant run at Memphis East High School, where he puts a lineup of overwhelming Division I talent on the floor. Some of that talent is culled from the Team Penny AAU outfit Hardaway has bankrolled, including a pair of transfers who were ruled ineligible earlier this season by the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association but have since played after a temporary restraining order cleared the way.
In theory, Hardaway would bring all that East High talent to the university less than two miles away. That would be a start to rebuilding a program that has plummeted to its lowest point since the late 1990s. Sustaining it beyond the next couple of recruiting classes would be the hard part.
Currently, Hardaway is not exactly being forced to outscheme the competition, not the way a Memphis coach might need to against, say, Houston’s Kelvin Sampson, Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall and Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin. Maybe he could do that if the need arises, but Memphis would be entering into this agreement with zero idea about Hardaway’s true coaching chops.
(As this Hardaway scheme gathered steam, an idea was floated that he might bring onboard Hall of Famer Larry Brown as an assistant in charge of actual coaching. While Brown is on the short list of best basketball coaches ever, he also is on the short list of the most crooked college coaches ever — three programs (UCLA, Kansas and SMU) three NCAA probations. Memphis has always been a bandit program itself, with its two most recent Final Four appearances vacated (1985 and 2008), but bringing in Larry Brown would be brazen even by bandit standards.)
A Hardaway hire would be Memphis again overreacting to the weaknesses of the last coach it didn’t like. Smith was hired as a reaction to the Josh Pastner era that yielded many recruiting successes but not enough on-court triumphs (a 2-4 NCAA tournament record in seven seasons). Tubby was the wise tactician type who would upgrade the actual coaching acumen that Memphians thought the young Pastner lacked.
But here’s what Memphis got: 64-year-old Tubby, not 50-year-old Tubby. The Tigers didn’t get the guy whose best work was between 1998-2005, when he won the ’98 national title and had overall No. 1 seeds in the 2003 and ’04 NCAA tourneys. They got the guy who, from 2006-16, never had an NCAA seed better than No. 8 and missed five Big Dances.
They got a Tubby Smith who led Memphis to its worst two seasons of the 21st century, ranking 101st in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings last season and a gruesome 160th this season. To compound that, Smith had made zero inroads on the rich local recruiting scene — the foundation upon which Memphis traditionally built its best teams.
So a school with scant conference revenue swallowed a massive buyout — a reported $9.7 million — and sent Smith packing Wednesday. And set its sights on a successor with opposite attributes.
Just as Tubby was nothing like Pastner, Hardaway would be nothing like Tubby.
Penny would have the nostalgic ties that make boosters and alums warm inside. College sports fans absolutely love the idea of hiring One Of Their Own, even in a sport where the greatest coaches of all-time routinely have been outsiders. There were no overt ties between John Wooden and UCLA, Mike Krzyzewski and Duke, Dean Smith and North Carolina, Adolph Rupp and Kentucky, Bob Knight and Indiana, Rick Pitino and Kentucky, and so on. Only 10 of the 68 coaches in the current NCAA tournament are coaching their alma maters, and five of them got head-coaching experience elsewhere first — something Hardaway lacks.
The giddy Memphis boosters and alums would fill currently empty seats at the FedEx Forum, and that matters — especially at a school that isn’t flush with football cash. But if the product on the floor resembles that of other alums who were former NBA stars with no college coaching experience — Clyde Drexler at Houston, Chris Mullin at St. John’s, Patrick Ewing at Georgetown — the seats will empty out again.
In the short term, bringing back Penny Hardaway would be a feel-good and a made-you-look hire. The latter of which seems to fit the modus operandi of university president M. David Rudd.
Rudd loves his sports and loves his social media. At the handle @UofMemphisPres, he will tweet about the Tigers’ aspirational football program cracking the College Football Playoff Top 25, and he will tweet about the basketball team’s intermittent successes. He’s not above a little grandstanding.
But about that Twitter account: As of Tuesday afternoon, Rudd had 63,800 followers. A check of Twitteraudit.com, which assesses the authenticity of an account’s followers, gave Rudd a startling score: just 2 percent, or 1,407 followers, were considered “real.” By contrast, twitteraudit.com gave West Virginia president Gordon Gee a 69 percent score in terms of “real” followers among his audience of 102,000.
The Rudd audit score is dated, saying that its data is more than two years old, but multiple social media experts told Yahoo Sports that the data is probably reliable. A second audience metric system, Sysomos, gave Rudd’s Twitter account a poor score in terms of “follower authority”: 87 percent of followers were in the “low” category; 12.7 percent were “medium;” and just 0.3 percent were “high.”
University spokesman Chuck Gallina told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday that the school will perform its own internal audit of the president’s Twitter account. Whether Rudd and Memphis are trying to create a fake social media audience is unclear. But hollow buzz would fit what the school is attempting to do with its basketball hire.
Anfernee Hardaway coaching the Memphis Tigers would get a lot of attention and rekindle a lot of nostalgia. It might also be Penny-wise and pound-foolish. He could be the latest in a line of men who were very wrong for what once was a great job.
More college basketball from Yahoo Sports:
•March Madness bracket: Tournament field of 68 revealed
•Printable bracket: Start making your picks
•Selection Sunday winners and losers: Kentucky, Duke get rough roads
•Five biggest tournament snubs
•Everything you need to know before filling out a bracket
•For beginners: Tips and tricks to filling out a bracket
•Non-traditional ways to spice up your bracket pool