Penny Hardaway took over as the head coach of the Memphis Tigers 11 months ago. It seems so long ago.
Last year this time, The University was sweating how to cover a payment to the Memphis Grizzlies for poor attendance at FedExForum – despite a scrappy Tigers team that overachieved under then-coach Tubby Smith.
The crowds have returned. Local recruits who turned down Smith have flocked to Hardaway and his almost “All-NBA” coaching staff. The team has received national attention throughout the season.
The Memphis vs. Tennessee rivalry was restored. And while the game was dominated by the Vols, the Tigers have been a constant thorn for local Tennessee fans. Vols fans know they may have won the game this year, but the Tigers are turning the tides.
For starters, Hardaway landed the number recruit in the nation in James Wiseman, who played for Hardaway at East High. With Wiseman, Malcolm Dandridge, DJ Jeffries and others, Memphis already has a Top-10 recruiting class – and he may not be done.
The most notable name still on Hardaway’s radar is Lester Quinones, the outside scoring threat the Tigers will need to replace graduating seniors Jeremiah Martin and Kareem Brewton Jr.
The other and most likely target is Trendon Watford. Reportedly, the Birmingham, Ala.-area prep star wants to play alongside Wiseman.
That is the other thing Hardaway has done was to restore hope with the program. Under the previous coaches, some of the best talent in the city decided to play elsewhere. Since Hardaway has been at the helm, he has built a wall around the city. Everyone local recruit that Hardaway has targeted has not left the city.
Last season, the Tigers were losing money with the drop in attendance and drop in contributions to the athletic program. President Rudd had to make the fiscally responsible decision replace Smith with Hardaway, which has paid off in game attendance and in contributions.
When Hardaway first hit the scene he admitted he was up for the challenge.
“It has been a blur,” Hardaway said. “I came in guns blazing, there is nothing I can’t do. Very confident, not cocky, but knowing that whatever we put our minds up to do we can do it.”
But his first season struggles have tempered his attitude some.
“It is very hard to win in college,” Hardaway said. “I didn’t think it would be easy. I came in (thinking) we are going to win every game. We are going to win big games. That turned into appreciating every win.”
The road win at Wichita State is among Hardaway’s proudest moments.
“I felt that was a tough feat. It is a tough place to win,” he said. “After the win, I came into the locker room the guys were playing the ‘Hardaway’ song. That shocked me. That was cool.”