TO: Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway
FROM: your hometown
RE: the new gig
It will never get better than right now, Penny. Soak it in. Absorb the energy of a region still astounded by the breathtaking basketball skills of a player who mixed Magic, Bird, and Michael into one spindly package of All-America sunshine over two winters in Memphis and a few more professionally as an All-NBA guard. That spontaneous outburst of affection at your opening press conference? Just wait for opening night of the 2018-19 Memphis Tiger season.
Some of us still like to consider the Pyramid "the House that Penny Built," as your two seasons there remain the pointy building's most memorable attraction, no matter the height of America's "tallest freestanding elevator." By that definition, you literally helped shape the Bluff City skyline. And you've been doing so, by other measures, long since Tiger basketball — and our NBA Grizzlies — moved into FedExForum.
Soak it in, Penny, because here come the expectations. And the more prominent a new college basketball coach's standing in a community, the higher those expectations tend to be. And this is Memphis, Penny.
There were times you could look down at the rim as you dunked a basketball. Well, the bar just got higher.
A college basketball coach must do three things well to keep his job: recruit, win games, and sell tickets. Not that long ago, Josh Pastner was hired to coach the Tigers precisely because of his precocious recruiting talent. And man, did he recruit. Remember when Austin Nichols and Nick King were both destined to join you as All-America Tigers? (Well, King became one. At Middle Tennessee.) Attracting highly ranked talent got Pastner only so far, though. He didn't win enough games over his last two seasons and, worse, people stopped buying season tickets, quit showing up for Tiger games at FedExForum.
Your predecessor, Tubby Smith, won 60 percent of his games as the Tiger coach, but sold even fewer tickets than Pastner. The man has a national championship on his resume, but he seems to have lost whatever touch he had as a recruiter, and Memphis is no juco basketball town. Now Smith will be paid by the University of Memphis not
to coach the Tigers.
You can handle this, Mr. Hardaway. Surely you can. Pennies may be made of zinc, but you have the Midas touch anywhere near the hardwood. Team Penny. The East High Mustangs. You win games, in part, because the best players want to play for you. They want to feel some of the magic still in your veins all these years after your trip to the NBA Finals with that team in Orlando. They will come to the Tiger program to feel that magic. Oh yes, they will come.
Now about those standards, that elevated bar mentioned earlier. It's the Final Four, Penny. You must take us back to the Final Four. (And please, let us keep the banner this time.) A trip to the Sweet Sixteen would be an acceptable warm-up. (Next season, please.) But it's the Final Four or even a Penny will get devalued in Memphis. Surely you recall Larry Finch's send-off. One of two or three basketball figures who could approximate your popularity here — and the man who convinced you to stay home and become a Tiger — Finch signed his termination papers on the Pyramid concourse not quite two years after taking Memphis to the Sweet Sixteen. Only five years after coaching your first Tiger team all the way to the Elite Eight.
It's the Final Four, Penny. Nothing short.
In your 46-year lifetime, exactly two Tiger coaches have left for what can be called greener basketball pastures: Gene Bartow in 1974 and John Calipari amid scandal in 2009. And neither Bartow nor Calipari grew up in Memphis, starred in both high school and college here, then returned to help make his hometown a better place for generations to come. Pardon us for being dramatic — no this is Memphis Tiger basketball
, so let's get dramatic — but welcome to your birthright. It will never get better than right now, Penny.
Or will it?