Memphis introduces Penny Hardaway, flips entire program in less than 24 hours

MEMPHIS -- University of Memphis president Dr. M. David Rudd stood on a stage and stared out into the lobby of his school's new and gorgeous $20 million practice facility, making eye contact with so many of the influential boosters and people who had, after basically being ignored by the previous staff, returned to campus on a rainy Tuesday morning to celebrate the hiring of local icon Penny Hardaway.

"We will not lower the expectations of this program," Rudd said to a round of applause, which was tantamount to screaming that simply winning 21 games against mostly mediocre or bad opponents, and not even sniffing the NIT, doesn't qualify as success for a program that paid its former coach, Tubby Smith, $3 million annually and invests seriously in so many other tangible ways.

Yes, Memphis was picked ninth in the American Athletic Conference this season.

Yes, Memphis finished fifth.

But only the delusional celebrated it because the fifth-place finish was, more or less, the byproduct of an unbalanced and favorable league schedule. The fifth-place finish was and is misleading -- evidence being that Memphis finished 161st at KenPom, which placed the Tigers eighth in the AAC. Beyond that, Memphis should never be picked ninth in the AAC or pleased with a fifth-place finish regardless of the circumstances. And when you combine that reality with the fact that recruiting was at a modern-era low, and attendance is at a 48-year low, and that Rudd said Tuesday he estimates the program lost $4.7 million this season largely because season-ticket sales dropped to 4,115, well, I'll just repeat what I wrote last week: The only thing more expensive than buying out Tubby Smith at the cost of nearly $10 million would've been not buying out Tubby Smith at the cost of nearly $10 million.

The move had to be made.

Only the uninformed, or folks who struggle with basic math, can't understand why. And the lone sensible option for Memphis in these very specific times was to do exactly what Memphis actually did Tuesday: Hire Penny Hardaway.

"This is truly a blessing," Hardaway said after being formally introduced as the the Tigers' new coach. "To be able to come back and coach your alma mater, in your hometown, it's a dream come true."

To be clear, there's no guarantee this will work.

Everybody acknowledges as much.

There are skeptics, even Hardaway knows, who insist it's insane to turn a high-major program over to somebody who has never coached college basketball at any level. Because for every Fred Hoiberg who succeeded without any prior college-coaching experience, there's a Clyde Drexler or Isaiah Thomas who floundered. The track record of doing something like this is not great or even good. Again, everybody acknowledges as much.

But this is still Memphis' best move.

Simply put, Hardaway will help fix the school's financial issues quickly because donations and season-ticket sales will jump based on his hiring alone. In fact, Rudd said the school was already experiencing the positive ramifications from this development even before Hardaway was publicly introduced. And the scene inside the jam-packed Laurie Walton Basketball Center on Tuesday suggested Memphians are prepared to reattach to the program in meaningful ways to ensure Hardaway has every opportunity to succeed.

And then there's recruiting.

Tubby Smith inherited a program from Josh Pastner featuring four consensus top-100 prospects -- among them Dedric and K.J. Lawson -- but lost them all inside of a year. He replaced them with sub-150 recruits and junior college players, which led to a bad roster that lacked the talent necessary to achieve anything close to what good Memphis teams are supposed to achieve. Penny Hardaway promised to change that. And when asked Tuesday about the idea that Memphis fans expect him to secure commitments from basically every player he's previously coached at East High or with Team Penny on the Nike EYBL circuit, the former NBA All-Star did nothing to temper those expectations.

"It's a realistic expectation because I hope I've left a lasting impression on every kid I've coached in the past [and that they] want to continue their careers with me," Hardaway said. "I think I've shown them that I can take them to another level as a coach. And I just hope they trust me enough to come here."

Less than seven hours after saying those words, East High point guard Alex Lomax received his release from a signed national letter of intent with Wichita State. He'll publicly commit to Memphis soon, at which point Hardaway will have essentially done something in a matter hours that Smith and his staff couldn't do in two years, i.e., secure a commitment from a heralded local prospect. And considering the No. 1 player in the Class of 2019 (James Wiseman), the No. 26 player in the Class of 2019 (D.J. Jeffries) and the No. 40 player in the Class of 2019 (Chandler Lawson) have all played for Hardaway, who knows what's next?

"I'm not going to force a kid to come to the University of Memphis if he doesn't want to," Hardaway told me Tuesday. "But I just hope that what I've done for those kids -- coaching or being a mentor or doing the things that I've done with those kids -- that they would want to come and play [for me]. So those expectations are right. I have those expectations as well. I really do. I feel like I've left a lasting impression on those kids that they're going to want to follow me because they know what I'm about."

As always, we'll see.

Either way, it was an amazing day in Memphis.

The program has been engulfed in negativity for roughly four years -- and especially since Smith lost six of his top eight players to transfer after last season. But on Tuesday, everything flipped. Just like that, people are excited again. Just like that, Memphis is recruiting again. Just like that, fans have something to believe in again.

Penny Hardaway did that.

Whatever he will do next is up for debate.

But he did that.

He provided hope.

And that's worth a lot.

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Gary Parrish is an award-winning college basketball columnist and television analyst for CBS Sports who also hosts the highest-rated afternoon drive radio show in Memphis, where he lives with his wife... Full Bio

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