Penny Hardaway’s reign as Memphis Tigers coach has turned foul and disappointing

If college basketball consisted of a long series of offseasons, Penny Hardaway could be the undisputed king of Memphis.

Well, maybe “King” is a poor choice of words given that Elvis is always present in the Mid South.

Penny would be something of a monarch, regardless, if she never had to coach a game.

Speaking of poor choice of words, Hardaway dropped a barrage of F-bombs after the Tigers’ most recent loss, Thursday night at SMU’s home, angered by a reporter’s question about whether he thought he could “make it” as the Tigers’ head coach.

“The only thing I can say to these outlets, because these outlets sometimes get a little mad when it comes to me, is that we don’t have our full list. Everyone knows we don’t have our full list. Stop asking me stupid questions about whether I feel like I can do anything.

“If I had my roster like them, then I feel like I could do whatever I want to do. I am training very hard, my boys are playing very hard. I’m not embarrassed about anything. We have four freshmen starting. You all need to act like one. Act like we have 17, 18 and 19 year olds trying to learn how to play against 22, 23 and 24 year olds. Come on man. Stop disrespecting me, brother. Like, don’t do that. I work too fucking hard. I work too hard for that. You guys write all these fucking articles about me, and all I do is work.”

The loss left Memphis 9-8 and 3-4 in the AAC. the ninth ranked league in the nation based on RPI. The odds of ending Memphis’ seven-year NCAA tournament drought are getting longer.

Somehow, Memphis’ poor performance as a program under Hardaway, this season and the three that preceded it, might be less disconcerting if he played every morning and played poker with his friends every night. If he really is putting all the energy into making the Tigers a successful varsity team, and there’s no reason not to take him at his word, then the only reasonable conclusion is that he’s not very good at being a high-level Division I leader. . basketball coach.

If doing this job was just about lining up elite recruiting classes, there might not be anyone to compete with him, especially if the strength of the traditional program was factored into the equation. Three of the five highest-ranked players in modern Memphis basketball history have been signed by Hardaway since 2019.

On National Signing Day, Hardaway lands great players and generates great excitement and sees all of that reflected in a Memphis media covering the Tigers like the New York papers covering the Yankees. On Selection Sunday, Hardaway watches as 68 other coaches watch their chosen teams compete in the NCAA Tournament.

It’s been that way every year since he arrived, almost literally to the tune of trumpets, in March 2018. The Tigers’ basketball enthusiasm had plummeted, from John Calipari’s extraordinary run to the 2008 Final Four and four consecutive trips to the second weekend of the tournament. , four consecutive appearances under successor Josh Pastner, four consecutive empty marches from 2015-18. Season ticket sales plunged to significant lows.

The hiring of Hardaway, a city boy turned Tigers All-American and NBA superstar, reinvigorated the show’s fan base. Capacity crowds became common. There were countless articles on local and national websites about how great it was for Memphis to have Hardaway as their coach.

What does Memphis have to show? More profanity and NCAA investigations (the Tigers’ recruitment of Golden State Warriors center James Wiseman led to a case facing the Independent Responsibility Resolution Process (IARP)) than appearances in the NCAA. The Tigers’ only postseason success was the 2021 NIT championship.

With the return of many of that team’s players, and the signing of top-five prospects Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates, the Tigers were widely projected as a top-20 team this season. They haven’t been close to it, because that involved games that were being played.

Hardaway’s lament about not having a full roster in Thursday’s loss is fair; the Tigers were missing dependable forward DeAndre Williams and top shooter Landers Nolley. But it is also misleading. Nolley appeared in the first 15 games of the season, during which the Tigers went 9-6 with losses to teams that now have a combined record of 62-40. Memphis went 8-4 in Williams’ dozen games, and that included losses to Georgia and Ole Miss, who own a 14-21 composite record.

It’s also worth mentioning that when those players were healthy and active, Hardaway called his veterans group in an amazing article with Seth Davis of The Athletic. Hardaway criticized them for not being more welcoming to the show’s two new elite freshmen.

It was impressive to see Hardaway turn on the people who mostly prominently celebrated his selection as Tigers coach.

The problem with the hiring was always this: Hardaway’s only preparation for the job was as a successful high school coach at Memphis East and as the operator of a club of the same name, Team Penny, in Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League. He wasn’t even the head game coach for that team; in every Team Penny game I watched in several years of Nike Peach Jam tournaments, it was former Arkansas star Todd Day who led the Team Penny bench.

Who is the latest success story to come straight from high school to a Division I head coaching job? John of Wood? In 1946?

I covered Tigers basketball in the 1990s when another one of the team’s best players, Larry Finch, struggled to meet the standard expected of him, and that was with years of preparation as an assistant at UAB and with the Tigres, after coaching the Tigres to an Elite Eight appearance in 1992 and Sweet 16 in 1995.

At the end of the 1997 season, as recruitment had tanked and the fan base had deteriorated, Finch was forced to resign. When Hardaway was hired, I was worried that another of the show’s icons would have the same result: disappointing the very people he once thrilled on a regular basis.

There is an old coaching axiom: Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

And that seems to be what happened here.