Tubby Smith might still have Memphis job if he'd taken John Calipari's advice
Smith's inability to connect with the community and put out a quality product led to his firing
John Calipari had already formally accepted the Kentucky job and even been introduced. His time at Memphis was done. But the Hall of Fame coach still wanted to speak to the fans that adored him for most of nine years one last time. So he scheduled a press conference and held it in front of his home.
At one point, he got emotional and left.
But Calipari eventually returned. And, toward the end, the greatest Memphis coach in history was asked what advice he'd give the future Memphis coach.
"The only thing you tell that person is that we need you to hug back," Calipari said. "We need you to hug back. We need you to get involved and understand that this is a different job."
Hug back. Get involved. This is a different job.
Those nine words are as true today as they were when Calipari said them in April 2009. And the fact that Tubby Smith and his staff never understood as much or seemed to care is among the reasons they're no longer employed.
Memphis made it official Wednesday.
The school announced it will exercise a clause in Smith's contract that allows it to remove him as its men's basketball coach at the cost of $9.75 million. That's expensive, obviously. But what Memphis officials concluded in recent weeks is that the only thing more costly than buying Smith out would be keeping him considering attendance had plummeted on his watch. 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 dropped to around 6,000 -- which is the lowest in nearly 50 years. And it's a development that's likely to lead to the Memphis Grizzlies paying the school zero percent of a possible $800,000 that the NBA franchise -- which operates FedExForum -- 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 more than $1 million. And considering recruiting is at a modern-era low, there was little enthusiasm connected to the program -- a program, by the way, that finished 161st at KenPom and didn't even sniff the NIT -- and thus no reason to believe these troubling and costly trends would be reversed under Smith.
So for all of those reasons and more, Memphis pulled the trigger.
The Tubby Smith era is over after just two seasons.
It was a bad fit from the jump and destined to fail once Smith demoted Kelon Lawson, who doubled as the father of his two best players. That short-sighted decision led to Dedric and K.J. Lawson transferring to Kansas, where they're expected to next season help the Jayhawks win another Big 12 title. And it also severely damaged Smith's ability to recruit locally because Keelon Lawson was always going to be doing one of two things. He was either going to be working for Smith and recruiting the top talent in the area while his two youngest sons, both of whom are also high-major prospects, star for East High and Team Penny, which would've provided Lawson with access to prospects and their families literally no other college coach would've had. Or he was going to not be working for Smith, helping in no way and possibly, if not probably, poisoning the program with those same prospects and families.
The latter became a reality. Smith will leave, far as I know, as the first Memphis coach to never enroll a player from Memphis. His decision to demote Lawson undeniably played a role. And though that might seem strange to some outsiders, to understand you need only to remember what Calipari said nine years ago.
This is a different job.
Simply put, Smith never understood that or cared enough to adjust. He's a man who has forever believed being a college basketball coach requires only that he coach college basketball. And while that might be true at a place like Texas Tech, where Smith previously worked, it's not true at a place like Memphis. Calipari understood this. It's why he made friends with most influential Memphians quickly and spent 365 days a year promoting and selling the program -- going so far as to personally secure a marketing deal that gave away one big-screen television each game to a fan in the upper deck as a way to help fill FedExForum's worst seats.
Calipari felt a responsibility to make sure every aspect of the program flourished. His successor, Josh Pastner, took a similar approach. And then there's Smith -- whose attorney just last week told The Commercial Appeal it is not his client's job to put people in the seats, which is a tone-deaf opinion always and especially when the school is paying the coach $3 million per year. Smith's inability to put a quality product on the floor contributed to his inability to put people in the seats. And his failure to create meaningful relationships with influential Memphians Calipari still calls friends left him with too few allies in the end.
On that note, here's a story: Shortly after Smith was hired, I'm told, he was on the phone with Calipari, who was providing a brief lay of the land. He specifically told Smith he needed to reach out to a certain big-money booster with whom Calipari was close because, at Memphis, there are a handful of people you need in your corner, and this person is one of those people. So Calipari passed the booster's number along. Smith said thank you.
Then Smith never made the call.
And there are countless stories just like that story -- stories of Smith and his staff failing to develop meaningful relationships around the city that could've helped them succeed. Rather than go about it the way Calipari suggested -- rather than hug back and get involved -- Smith and his staff mostly just put their heads down and kept to themselves. Perhaps that's something you can do at Texas Tech. I don't know. But what I do know is that it's difficult to succeed at Memphis unless you successfully tap into all of the things that make Memphis a good job.
It's just like Calipari said.
This is a different job.
Tubby Smith and his staff are no longer employed because, for whatever reason, they never understood that and adjusted properly. They never hugged back. They never got involved. Calipari tried to tell them. But they didn't listen. Others tried to tell them. But they didn't listen. They just never understood what running the Memphis Basketball program requires.
Here's hoping Penny Hardaway does.
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