Memphis officials seriously considering Penny Hardaway to replace Tubby Smith

Memphis legend Penny Hardaway is "actively preparing to be a college coach" and has already started identifying possible future staff members, multiple sources have told CBS Sports. Meantime, Memphis president Dr. David Rudd told the Commercial Appeal on Tuesday that his administration is "going to evaluate the program at the end of the year," which effectively confirms what CBS Sports has learned: Memphis is seriously considering firing Tubby Smith and replacing him with Hardaway.

An attempt to reach Hardaway for comment was not immediately successful.

The former NBA All-Star currently runs the Team Penny Nike EYBL program and serves as the coach at East High in Memphis, Tennessee -- where he has assembled an incredible roster favored to soon win a state championship. Between Team Penny and East High, Hardaway has ties to three top-40 players in the Class of 2019 -- No. 1 James Wiseman, No. 26 D.J. Jeffries and No. 40 Chandler Lawson.

A source told CBS Sports one person Hardaway would likely target for a position on staff is Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Brown was on 92.9 FM ESPN in Memphis on Feb. 26 and spoke glowingly about Hardaway.

"Penny is one of my favorite guys of all time," Brown said last week. "He was all about winning and team. When I got into college coaching and started going around watching AAU and high schools, I'd see the effect he has on kids in such a positive way. Before Tubby got the job, he was the guy I was hoping would get the Memphis job. I just thought that he came back to his community, which a lot of guys don't always do. He grew up in Memphis. He's doing an amazing job in AAU and now in high school.

"There's gonna be a lot of college jobs open, unfortunately, and I can't think of many guys more qualified than Penny," Brown added. "At the end of the day, it's how you teach the game, how you care about the kids, how you make the kids accountable and grow up the right way. I think Penny Hardaway is as good a role model as you can possibly have."

Smith is only in his second season at Memphis. So buying him out this quickly would be unusual and expensive. In fact, it would cost $9.75 million. But the administration has determined that keeping Smith might cost more in multiple ways, a source told CBS Sports. 

Four years ago under Josh Pastner, Memphis averaged an announced attendance of more than 16,000 for games at FedExForum. This season under Smith, that number has dipped to around 6,000 -- which is the lowest in nearly 50 years. And it's likely to lead to the Memphis Grizzlies paying the school zero percent of a possible $800,000 that the NBA franchise -- which operates the arena -- is required to pay when certain attendance marks are hit. Beyond that, season-ticket sales are significantly down, which means donations connected to season-ticket sales are also down. And considering recruiting is at a modern-era low, and that Memphis' current team is ranked 164th at KenPom, 74 spots worse than any of Pastner's seven Memphis teams, there's little enthusiasm connected to the program and no real reason to believe these troubling and costly trends will be reversed.

Hardaway changes that, though.

He is Memphis' most famous alum and someone whose popularity has grown in recent years thanks to his involvement with youth basketball. One source told CBS Sports that Hardaway believes he could add impactful recruits immediately and secure commitments from some of the 2019 prospects with whom he's connected. That alone would change the narrative around Memphis and remove the negativity that has engulfed the program since Smith lost six players to transfer after last season.

"Memphis fans just want something to believe in," one source said. "Penny gives them something to believe in."

CBS Sports Insider

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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