Memphis paid nearly $10 million to fire Tubby Smith with three years remaining on his contract in the spring of 2018. The situation was just that dire. Smith had replaced Josh Pastner two years earlier to provide stability to a program that was starting to lose its shine. Instead, Tigers basketball hit rock bottom: attendance plummeted to all-time lows, the two best players on the team transferred out after Smith demoted their father from the coaching staff, and a streak of missing the NCAA tournament continued.
Blessed with a rabid fanbase and an NBA arena, Memphis has always felt like a sleeping giant since John Calipari departed for Kentucky in 2009. The program knew it needed to hit a home run with its next hire. The only man for the job was Penny Hardaway.
Hardaway had never held a coaching position above the high school level at any point in his career. He promised a team that would play fast, but his acumen for X’s and O’s acumen largely remained a mystery. This could have been considered a major gamble on a number of levels, but Hardaway himself carried a unimpeachable confidence that his success was already preordained.
One year after his hire, no one questioning Hardaway anymore. Suddenly, Memphis is the coolest school in college basketball.
The Tigers missed the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight year in Hardaway’s first season, but they did show team-wide improvement to finish 22-14 and make a jump in KenPom’s rankings from No. 161 to No. 59 overall under Penny. The real test was always going to be the 2019 recruiting class, and that is where Hardaway has fully delivered.
Memphis has the No. 1 recruiting class in the country
Not Duke. Not Kentucky. Not North Carolina, Arizona, or Kansas. Penny Hardaway just out-recruited Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski and everyone else in his first full year on the job.
For Hardaway, this was always the plan. He came to Memphis from Memphis East High School and the Team Penny grassroots program on Nike’s EYBL circuit with deep connections to many of the top athletes in the class of 2019 already in place. Hardaway showed his ability to close by beating out Kentucky for James Wiseman, ranked as the No. 1 overall player in the class by most services, after he helped Penny win a state championship at Memphis East.