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

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Penny Hardaway's reign as Memphis Tigers coach has turned foul and disappointing
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If only college basketball consisted of an enduring series of offseasons, Penny Hardaway could be the undisputed king of Memphis.

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OK, so maybe “King” is a poor word choice given that Elvis always is present in the Mid-South.

Penny would be some sort of monarch, regardless, if he never had to coach a game.

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Speaking of poor choice of words, Hardaway dropped a barrage of F-bombs following the Tigers’ most recent loss, Thursday night at home to SMU, angry at a reporter’s question regarding whether he believed he could “get it done” as Tigers head coach.

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“The one thing I can say to this media – because this media gets kind of f—ed up sometimes when it comes to me – we don’t have our full roster. Y’all know we don’t have our full roster. Stop asking me stupid f—ing questions about if I feel like I can do something.

“If I had my roster like they did, then I feel like I could do whatever I want to do. I’m coaching really hard, my boys are playing really hard. I’m not embarrassed about nothing. We have four freshmen starting. Y’all need to act like it. Act like we got 17- and 18- and 19-year-olds out here trying to learn how to play against 22-, 23- and 24-year-old guys. Come on, man. Stop disrespecting me, bro. Like, don’t do that. I work too f—ing hard. I work way too hard for that. Y’all write all these f—ing articles about me, and all I do is work.”

The loss dropped Memphis to 9-8 and 3-4 in the AAC, the nation’s 9th-rated league based on RPI. The odds of him ending Memphis’ seven-year NCAA tournament drought are growing longer and longer.

In some ways, Memphis’ meager performance as a program under Hardaway, in this season and the three that preceded it, might be less disconcerting if he were teeing it up every morning and playing poker with his buddies each night. If he truly is putting all the energy necessary into making the Tigers a successful college team — and there’s no reason not to take him at his word – then the only reasonable conclusion is he’s not very good at being a high-major Division I head basketball coach.

If doing this job were only were about lining up elite recruiting classes, there might be no one to compete with him, especially if traditional program strength were factored into the equation. Three of the five highest-ranked players in the modern history of Memphis basketball were signed by Hardaway since 2019.

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

That’s how it’s been every year since he arrived, almost literally to the sound of trumpets, in March 2018. Enthusiasm for Tigers basketball had plummeted, from the extraordinary run under John Calipari to the 2008 Final Four and four consecutive trips to the tournament’s second weekend, to four straight appearances under successor Josh Pastner, to four consecutive empty Marches from 2015-18. Season ticket sales plunged to low-major levels.

The hiring of Hardaway – a city kid who became a Tigers All-American and NBA superstar – reinvigorated the program’s fan base. Capacity crowds became common. There were myriad articles on local and national web sites about how fantastic it was for Memphis to have Hardaway as its coach.

What does Memphis have to show for it? More curse words and NCAA investigations – the Tigers’ recruitment of Golden State Warriors center James Wiseman led to a case that’s in front of the Independent Accountability Resolution Process (IARP) – than NCAA Tournament appearances. The Tigers’ lone postseason success was the championship of the 2021 NIT.

With many of the players from that squad returning, and with top-five prospects Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates enrolling, the Tigers were widely projected as a top-20 team this season. They’ve been nowhere near it, because that involved games 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’s also misleading. Nolley appeared in the season’s first 15 games, during which the Tigers were 9-6 with losses to teams that now own a combined record of 62-40. Memphis was 8-4 in Williams’ dozen games, and that included losses to Georgia and Ole Miss, who own a composite record of 14-21.

It’s worth mentioning, as well, that when those players were healthy and active, Hardaway called out his group of veterans in a startling article with Seth Davis of The Athletic. Hardaway excoriated them for not being more welcoming to the program’s two new elite freshmen.

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

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

Who’s the last success story who came directly from high school to a Division I head coaching position? John Wooden? In 1946?

I covered Tigers basketball in the 1990s when another of the team’s greatest 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 Tigers, after coaching the Tigers to an Elite Eight appearance in 1992 and a Sweet 16 in 1995.

By the end of the 1997 season, because recruiting had collapsed and the fan base had soured, Finch was forced to resign. I worried when Hardaway was hired that another of the program’s icons would encounter 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 appears to be what happened here.

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