Memphis, Tenn. • League championships, the NCAA Tournament and another Final Four berth all accomplished by teams with a healthy dose of local talent — before sellout crowds.
High expectations for any college coach. For someone in their first college job, the combination easily could be just too much.
Not for Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway.
“I meet pressure head on,” Memphis’ newest coach said. “I mean I feel like I was born to do what I’m doing right now. I feel like I have a good enough staff and us as a crew and our team, I really love my team, and I feel like we can do whatever we really put our minds to that we can do. I don’t shy away from it. I know it’s there, but I’m ready for the challenge.”
Coaching his hometown Tigers seems like a perfect fit for the man known locally as just Penny. And fans desperate to reclaim past glory see the Memphis native who grew up here, played at then-Memphis State for another local legend in Larry Finch and returned to town when his All-Star career in the NBA ended as the man to restore the program to the glory that includes three Final Fours — even if only one still counts on the books.
Hardaway, who turns 47 in July, shares those same standards for the Tigers.
“That was my entire mindset coming in,” Hardaway said. “I wasn’t going to shy away from competition. I wasn’t going to shy away from saying what I really felt and what I meant. And I do want to get this team back to where it was. Getting to the Final Fours, getting to the championship games. But sealing the deal whenever we get back.”
What the charismatic Hardaway has done in less than three months on the job has cranked optimism higher than ever, and it’s paying off already.
Attendance had dropped to 4,583 per game last season, worst in nearly 50 years. By dipping so low, the university missed out on any revenue sharing from playing games at the FedExForum and the NBA’s Grizzlies. Donations to the athletic department dipped more than $1 million in the 2017 fiscal year with Memphis on the hook for nearly $10 million after firing Tubby Smith two seasons into his contract.
Now Memphis is expecting season ticket sales and donations around $4.5 million for the 2019 fiscal year with men’s basketball the big draw. Hardaway gave the university’s bottom line a big boost too by agreeing to a three-year deal paying $1.3 million this season, much less than the $3.25 million Smith was due.
That’s the result of the confidence in Hardaway whose basketball resume features 14 seasons in the NBA as a player and three straight Tennessee high school championships and an AAU program as a coach.
“I took a public high school from not being ranked to being No. 1 in the country and an AAU program that was just starting out to being No. 1 in the country, so my track record is pretty good,” Hardaway said. “When it comes to my coaching, a lot of kids and their parents have seen me coach on the EYBO circuit when I was able to coach. And then my experience in the NBA, that all just puts the icing on the cake.”
First, the coach with his own signature shoe turned over half the roster in high style, riding to visits in a customized Mercedes van featuring his own personal logo in the headrests. He added seven players including point guard Alex Lomax following him from East High to land the nation’s 19th-best recruiting class by Rivals.com . Hardaway now is competing for the No. 1 player in 2019 — Memphis native James Wiseman — against Kentucky coach John Calipari.
Hardaway convinced Mike Miller, with his two NBA championships, to join him and hired Tony Madlock away from Mississippi. Sam Mitchell, a former NBA head coach and player, also is being added to the coaching staff. Memphis just opened a new building for men’s basketball last December, and Hardaway wants to add some shooting guns to the practice court and upgrades to the lounge to bring the facility up to NBA-level.
It’s all part of Hardaway’s sales pitch for players wanting to reach the NBA.
“That message spoke loudly to these kids that we’re trying to get to our program back to where it used to be and that we wanted them to be a big part of it and if they wanted to go further, that we could help them get further to understand what it takes on and off the court to get to the NBA,” Hardaway said.
The Tigers haven’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 2014 and last played in the Sweet 16 in 2009 — just before Calipari ditched Memphis for Kentucky. Hardaway has toughened up the nonconference schedule as well with cross-state rival Tennessee among the teams added for the upcoming season.
It’s a combination Hardaway believes will test both himself as a coach and his team and make Tigers’ basketball must-see TV again for a program considered family for so many people in Memphis.
“I’m ready, I’m very eager,” Hardaway said. “I took this job knowing that I was ready for it, and I’m all in right now.”