When the heart-throbbingly popular local basketball legend “comes home” to coach his college team, it’s a no-brainer bet that his first appearance in that role would be a thriller, no matter how brief.
One of the worst-kept secrets ever is now a cat – OK, Tiger – out of the bag. Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway has taken over as the University of Memphis men’s basketball coach.
With the designated area at the UofM’s Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center packed and buzzing, Hardaway was announced as the new coach during a brief press conference Tuesday morning. And with all the courtesy one can muster and direct toward now ex-coach Tubby Smith, the future is here.
Tom Bowen, Tigers’ athletic director, introduced Hardaway to the energized crowd and gave him a blue Memphis jersey with Hardaway’s name on the back.
“It wasn’t easy to bring me here because of my experience with college basketball, but I told everyone all I need is to have the Memphis blood in me and heart and passion to win basketball,” Hardaway said. “That is all we need. I am not a luck hire.”
Hardaway met with the team before the press conference and told the players it was unfair that so few showed up to watch them play. The turnout for the day’s event spoke loudly to the likelihood that those days are gone.
“I am here to win,” Hardaway said.
The former NBA All-Star, Olympic gold medalist and product of Treadwell High returns to coach a basketball program whose team made an Elite Eight appearance with Hardaway as the main man on the court in 1992. He’s 46. His name is on the university’s Hall of Fame building and his picture is noticeably visible upon entering the practice facility.
Bringing his career forward as a point of reference, Hardaway played in the NBA from 1993 to 2008. He was drafted by the Golden State Warriors as the third overall pick, and was traded on draft night to the Orlando Magic in exchange for Chris Webber. Hardaway also played for the Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks and finished his career with the Miami Heat.
The new coach has some big challenges ahead: winning games, winning donors and most importantly, winning people back in the seats at FedExForum. Low attendance at games was a major factor for Memphis replacing Smith, a basketball legend himself. In two years at Memphis, Smith’s teams had a 40-26 record. The record of his short stay also reflects that attendance for this past season was the lowest since the 1968-69 campaign.
Noting the bulging crowd, Hardaway quipped, “What’s the occasion?”
Hardaway knows he has a big job ahead of him and seems ready for the task.
“I know what comes along with the job. I am excited for it,” he said. “This is a part of win, lose or draw.”
Being the coach of the hometown team certainly makes the challenge seem more worthwhile.
“This is truly a dream come true. I look at this as a blessing,” Hardaway said. “I look at this as a part of God’s plan to be the seventh coach here. The number seven is the number of completion; it feels like all of this is going in order. I am ready to get the team back to the glory days of when the building was packed and the student section was packed and winning basketball games.”
Hardaway was not shy about the pressure of wanting to win a national championship.
“That means you are going to be in a position of excellence. I will tell the team when people put pressure on you, then that is greatness. You can make greatness out of that; you don’t have to fold.”
On some of the things he learned from Larry Finch, his former head coach at Memphis, Hardaway said, “Never take anything for granted.
“Seize the moment and put everything we have in our bodies out on the line. Let’s go win games and let’s do it together. That is one thing Coach Finch always said, ‘Let’s do it together.’”
Hardaway talked about the importance of a family atmosphere to team culture, making reference to Larry Brown, the only coach to win titles at the college and NBA levels, and whose name has been whispered as one that might be called as Hardaway fills out his coach staff.
“The NBA is a business but Brown cared about people and the players,” Hardaway said.
A building block for that type of atmosphere is Tony Madlock, Hardaway’s former backcourt mate. Madlock, who recently served as interim head coach for Ole Miss, has agreed to join the Hardaway staff.
And so here we go with Penny, whose “coming home” clearly has magnetic power. On hand Tuesday were basketball names such as Andre Turner, Todd Day, Ernest Smith, Marcus Moody and Keelon Lawson. Current and former NBA players have reached out to congratulate Hardaway, including LeBron James, Gary Payton, Baron Davis and Isaiah Thomas.