Tubby Smith is one of the best coaches in college basketball history. He won a national championship at Kentucky, has been to nine Sweet 16’s and is one of only two men to take five separate schools to the NCAA Tournament. He’s had 25 winning seasons in his 27 years as a head coach at Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, Texas Tech and Memphis.
He was hired at Memphis less than two years ago to resurrect what has been a sagging program since John Calipari and point guard Derrick Rose led the Tigers on a magical ride to the 2008 national championship game.
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Memphis was picked to finish ninth in the American Athletic Conference this year. And with 21 wins, they exceeded expectations to finish behind Tulsa and NCAA Tournament teams Houston, Wichita State and Cincinnati in fifth place.
But Smith, a certain future Hall of Famer, was fired after only two seasons. Memphis paid him $9.75 million to go away. The question that begs to be asked is why.
Athletic department donations are down by $1.1 million, which is a direct correlation to woeful season-ticket sales and a fan base that has shown little enthusiasm. Attendance at their FedExForum home games reached a 48-year-low this year. And since taking the job, Smith has been unable to recruit a single high school prospect out of Memphis, a city whose basketball scene is dripping with elite prep ballers.
Four years ago under then-head coach Josh Pastner, who now runs the show at Georgia Tech, the Tigers averaged more than 16,000 fans at home games. This year, that number plummeted to the vicinity of 6,000.
Despite the 21 win season, Tubby Smith has been fired as Memphis men’s basketball coach after two seasons amid dropping attendance and donations to the athletic department. Smith told reporters he was no longer coach as he left a meeting Wednesday with Memphis President M. David Rudd and athletic director Tom Bowen.
Smith became just the second Memphis coach since 1951 to not reach a postseason tournament in either of his first two years.
Had you been paying attention, you knew that this wasn’t going to have a happy ending.
Once Smith made the short-sighted and stubborn decision to demote and alienate assistant coach Keelon Lawson, who was also the father of the program’s most talented players Dedric and K.J. Lawson, it was obvious that Tubby shot himself in the foot before the race had hardly begun.
Keelon should have been a strategic asset. His younger sons play for Memphis East High School and Team Penny, both of which are headed by Penny Hardaway, the local prep, college and NBA legend considered to be the greatest and most gifted player the city has ever produced.
Penny Hardaway Ultimate Memphis State Highlights Montage 1991 1993 Phenomenal Plays! RARE!
So instead of having enviable access to some of the best prospects in the country that lived in his own backyard, Smith severed his own basketball lifeline, at least as it related to the city’s grassroots community.
It made him the first coach at the university to never sign a player from Memphis. He’d poisoned the program’s relationship with the city from the jump.
The Lawson brothers, Dedric and K.J., transferred to Kansas, where they’ll shine on the national stage next year. And Tubby won’t be anywhere near that spotlight, unless he’s doing college hoops studio coverage on network television.
It might have worked out if Tubby fielded a team that was strong enough to secure an NCAA Tournament bid, but Memphis beat only one of the eight top-80 KenPom teams they played this year. They also had six losses to teams ranked 105th or worse. Six of the Tigers’ top players transferred after last season as well. The writing was on the wall.
Smith’s inability to field a good team created apathy among the programs long-time fans. And his failure, as Calipari advised him to do when Smith took the job, to create meaningful relationships with influential Memphians and wealthy alums left him sitting in the lions den wearing nothing but pork chop underwears in the end.
Enter Hardaway and the rampant speculation that he will soon be named the university’s next head coach.
Lisa Salters catches up with former NBA star Penny Hardaway, who now helps coach a youth basketball team to help a cancer-stricken friend.
As mentioned previously, Penny runs the elite Team Penny Nike EYBL AAU program while also currently serving as the head coach at Memphis East. His prep roster is 12 months pregnant with talent and favored to win the state championship this weekend.
Between his high school job and Team Penny program, he has ties to three top-40 players in the Class of 2019 , including the country’s No. 1 prospect James Wiseman. Then there’s D.J. Jeffries, Chandler Lawson and a stocked stable of other high-major prospects.
His hiring would create a paradigm shift of epic proportions around the program, opening up the floodgates to welcome in a steady stream of the area’s best players in ways that will have fans conjuring up visions of Keith Lee’s jheri curl and the 1985 Final Four team that was comprised primarily of local talent.
Many are wondering if he can coach a major D-I college basketball team. They seem to ignore the fact that he was always a coach on the floor during his playing career. And more than anything, more than X’s and O’s, you need elite talent to win. And don’t underestimate the pull he still enjoys with young players due to him still being a legend in the shoe game as well.
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And it’s been rumored that if he does accept the job, he’ll bring Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown onboard as his top assistant.
Those empty seats at home games will be filled to the brim once again. And for those folks ready to pounce on the fact that famous alums like Houston Cougars legend Clyde Drexler’s previous tenure on the college sidelines, or Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing‘s recent struggles at St. John’s and Georgetown, none of them were plugged into the local grassroots scene of their respective cities in the way that Penny is.
In the short term, hiring Penny would offer some hope and make the city feel good about itself and its college hoops future. It would make a national splash and create an outpouring of positive vibes and happy nostalgia.
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And despite other candidates that might have more accomplished resumes, the University of Memphis job is a unique one. Right about now, given the depths they’ve slowly sunken to since Coach Cal was working his magic, Penny is uniquely situated to step in and work some magic of his own.
Ben Franklin once said that a penny saved is a penny earned.
Under the current circumstances, Penny seems like a great choice to be given the opportunity to save his hometown Memphis program.