Memphis hired Tubby Smith in 2016 to be its head men's basketball coach. Tubby Smith arrived in the city and gave the program the full Tubby Smith experience. There were no surprises regarding his performance. He was the exact same coach and exact same person he’d been at Tulsa and Georgia and Kentucky and Minnesota and Texas Tech.
Now, less than two years later, Memphis has fired Tubby Smith.
This might be the single most glaring example of administrative incoherence in modern college basketball history, and that’s saying a lot given the whole Pitt/Scott Barnes/Kevin Stallings fiasco is so fresh in our memories.
“A historic hire for the University of Memphis,” university president M. David Rudd said at the time, and that was the last thing he got right in that monologue.
“Tubby Smith is simply the right guy at the right time.”
So, um, yeah.
Now, Memphis is expected to sell that Tigers legend Penny Hardaway is the right guy.
What didn’t Memphis know about Tubby Smith on 4/16/16?
That his recruiting was mostly indifferent, in part because he never has been an eloquent salesperson and also because he stubbornly refused to hire subordinates who excelled where he did not? That was glaringly clear at least as far back as his time at Kentucky, when the Wildcats annually survived by scooping up the high-end springtime leftovers after North Carolina and Duke and the other heavyweights picked off the McDonald’s All-Americans they desired.
That he is not a dynamic promoter? Attendance has fallen to record-low levels at the FedEx Forum, in part because the team was only marginally successful in the American Athletic Conference, but also in part because Smith does not have a Calipariesque personality to drive people into the building. This, again, was obvious to anyone owning a passing acquaintance with Smith’s career, which one would hope the people investing millions of dollars in hiring him would have recognized.
That the players he did attract, whomever they might be, would eventually form a cohesive team that often played above its talent level and with the level of passion and commitment that would be a credit to the program? This always has been the essence of Tubby Smith. He coached Shea Seals at Tulsa, Chuck Hayes at Kentucky, Andre Hollins at Minnesota, Keenan Evans at Texas Tech. He won an NCAA championship in 1998 with a Kentucky team owning just a fraction of the star-level talent Rick Pitino guided to the title at that same school.
His tenure began to unravel at Memphis almost immediately after he arrived, when he chose to reassign assistant coach Keelon Lawson Sr. to a supporting role. Lawson had been hired as an assistant coach by Josh Pastner, and subsequently Lawson’s talented sons Dedric and K.J. signed to join the Tigers.
An NCAA rule change that previously demanded any such relationship require the “person associated with a prospect” to remain in an assistant coaching role was changed to allow that person to stay on staff but not occupy one of the three coaching slots. Smith chose to make that change. Dedric and K.J. transferred to Kansas at the end of last season.
It remains astonishing that either Smith had not made his plan for this circumstance clear in advance of his arrival, or that Memphis did not require some understanding of how the staff would be formulated.
Memphis reacted to the declining attendance at Tigers games by firing a good man and an excellent coach, less than a week after he finished a 21-13 season that included a 10-8 league record and a run of seven victories in the final nine games. There is nothing unfair or unjust about this, so long as Smith is paid most or all of the estimated $9 million owed to him in his contract.
But there’s a lot that is ridiculous about firing a succesful coach for doing his job as he always had.
There will be plenty of enthusiasm about hiring Hardaway, although whether it will be enough to fill the vast number of empty seats at home games remains to be seen. He has been a tremendous success in recent years as a high school coach in the Memphis area, and he has overseen a summer team, so he is connected to the city’s impressive talent base.
He also must know translating this talent to success at the college level can be problematic. Memphis remains the most complicated job in college coaching because the very resource that makes excellence possible has the tendency also to poison it.
Star point guard Joe Jackson acknowledged to Sporting News earlier this decade he struggled with the pressure attempting to develop into a successful collegian in the same area code that he’d been a high school star. From his experience as a player, Hardaway is aware how challenging it can be for players who’ve been superstars in the city at the high school level to sacrifice for the team once they assemble in Tigers uniforms. It wasn’t a problem for him, because Hardaway was a tremendous teammate, one of the greatest passers in college basketball history. But it was there in the Memphis locker room.
Perhaps Penny will be the person who can calm those rough waters. Perhaps he will join the very short list of coaches who’ve excelled in Division I after accepting a head coaching job with nothing other than playing experience at that level.
What I fear is that Hardaway’s legendary status will be quickly forgotten should the Tigers struggle during his tenure, in the way the city turned on the great Larry Finch even as his teams reached four NCAA Tournaments in a five-year period.
Larry was a lovely man who had weaknesses as a coach, among them loyalty to people who didn’t always push hard to help him achieve, but he did have success getting players to play hard and play together. Or play together enough, away.
Just two years after the Tigers reached the Sweet 16, though, he was dismissed. The end of his coaching career was not pretty. He was fired, more or less, for being Larry Finch. That’s not how this ought to work.