Long before he became head coach of the men’s basketball program at the University of Memphis, former NBA star Penny Hardaway was generous to his hometown — especially if it meant lifting young people out of poverty and tough circumstances.
And that’s why an independent panel has concluded that Hardaway did not violate NCAA regulations when he provided benefits to three prospective student-athletes before he was hired as coach.
“We have finally arrived at the end of an extremely challenging period, and I could not be more grateful,” Hardaway said in a statement. “Brighter days are ahead, and we cannot wait to share in future successes as one Memphis.”
The Tigers did not escape unscathed, however. The U of M is now on a three-year probation through Sept. 26, 2025. The Tigers were fined $5,000, plus 0.25 percent of their men’s basketball budget, after the Independent Accountability Resolution Process (IARP) concluded Memphis committed four Level II violations and five Level III violations.
“This investigation has been a cloud over the men’s basketball program for three years, and we are happy to have the process concluded,” said U of M President Bill Hardgrave, who also thanked the IARP for “attentively listening to (the) facts and thoughtfully rendering its decision. We respect and will fully comply with the IARP’s decision.”
In short, because of his philanthropy both before and after his $1 million donation to his alma mater in 2008, The Independent Accountability Review Process considered Hardaway as a booster. That means the gifts he provided were just that — gifts, not recruiting inducements.
However, the IARP also found that the University of Memphis “failed to monitor” Hardaway’s activities and did not ask him about contributions to prospective student-athletes or his relationships with players he had coached in high school or AAU.
The most high-profile of those players, and the one at the center of the controversy, is James Wiseman. Wiseman was playing AAU ball with Team Penny when Hardaway gave Wiseman’s family $11,500 to help relocate to Memphis.
Eventually, after Hardaway became head coach at East High, he and Wiseman led East to a TSAAA state championship.
In 2019, the Tigers tapped Hardaway to replace Tubby Smith. It was a foregone conclusion that Wiseman would follow his coach to U of M after graduating from East in 2019.
When he did, that’s when red flags went up.
Just before Wiseman’s debut in Tiger Blue, the NCAA declared he and two other players ineligible to play, blaming Hardaway’s gifts as a booster. Backed by the university, a defiant Hardaway played Wiseman in the game anyway. And it was that choice that ultimately launched the 18-month investigation.
But the IARP investigation held Hardaway blameless for initially playing Wiseman, saying the university failed to inform the coach the NCAA had declared Wiseman ineligible and that Wiseman had won a court injunction against the NCAA, resulting in his playing two more games.
Given that Hardaway and the University were facing four Level 1 and two Level 2 violations, Tiger Nation breathed a collective sigh of relief that the consequences weren’t more severe.
Penalties for those violations would likely have included a postseason ban and reduction in scholarships.
Instead, the IARP found the U of M had committed four Level 2 and five Level 3 violations.
In addition to the fines and probation, the NCAA will vacate the Tigers’ wins that Wiseman played in, and Hardaway’s coaching record will reflect those vacated games.
The Tigers also are required to inform prospects of the university’s probation.
“There has been a weight of uncertainty on the shoulders of our men’s basketball program relating to this case, which we recognize was extremely challenging for everyone to bear,” said Athletic Director Laird Veatch in a statement. “Now that the IARP has arrived at its final decision, we are ready to turn the page and continue supporting our coaches and student-athletes on the court and in the classroom.”
Veatch also praised Hardaway and other staffers for cooperating with the investigation.
“I would like to make it clear that Coach Hardaway, his staff and our student-athletes represented our University with class and dignity throughout this entire process,” Veatch added. “As we prepare for a new season, we are all excited and ready to move forward, together.”
At the height of the controversy, Wiseman withdrew from the Tigers to prepare for the 2020 NBA Draft. Golden State made him the No. 2 pick, and while injuries have plagued his professional career, he will still receive a ring when the Warriors celebrate their 2022 NBA Championship on opening night next month.
Meanwhile, earlier this month during Southern Heritage Classic festivities, Hardaway addressed the then-unresolved controversy, explaining in his own words how his childhood friend recruited him to inspire his team and steer them toward a better path.
“We got a group of people who are judging me as if I (helped players) for monetary purposes, not from the heart,” Hardaway said during the SHC Coaches Luncheon.
“I did all that from the heart.”
(This story reflects a report by Terry Davis.)