Why Penny Hardaway Can Find CBB Coaching Success Where Past NBA Stars Failed

Tom Weir@@tomweirsportsFeatured ColumnistMarch 21, 2018

Penny Hardaway is already a hometown hero in Memphis.
Penny Hardaway is already a hometown hero in Memphis.John Raoux/Associated Press

If you had a dollar for every NBA star who went on to become a great college basketball coach, you might be able to afford lunch...but only at a cheap diner.

That's the national skepticism Penny Hardaway faces as he steps into the head coaching position at his alma mater, the University of Memphis. The city, however, couldn't be more optimistic or ecstatic.

Hardaway is a prodigal son and then some. He grew up in Memphis, one of the rare cities in the South where basketball trumps football in terms of popularity.

He knows the turmoil his hometown has faced, with brutal crime and triple-digit homicides every year. Despite his stardom, he was once on the receiving end of a bullet during an armed robbery.

Hardaway was a two-time All-American, but he's also well-aware of the difficulties his city's kids sometimes have while making the transition to college. He was academically ineligible as a freshman at Memphis, but he dug his way out of that hole and went on to make the dean's list.

Memphis' decision to hire him isn't a case of a once-proud program on the decline snapping up the biggest available name. After all, Hardaway has paid his coaching dues, starting at the middle school level. Last weekend, he won a third consecutive Tennessee state championship at East High School. 

The Memphis faithful will be thrilled to see their prodigal son suited up on the sideline.
The Memphis faithful will be thrilled to see their prodigal son suited up on the sideline.Joe Murphy/Getty Images

The top player on Hardaway's East High team this year, 6'11" center James Wiseman, also happens to be the No. 1 recruit in the 2019 class, per 247 SportsAnother East player, 6'8" forward Chandler Lawson, ranks 40th in the class.

Think those two might provide Hardaway with some instant building blocks as he launches his rebuild at Memphis?

Hardaway's other coaching project since 2012 has been with an AAU team, Team Penny, which competes on the Nike EYBL circuit, one of the nation's best leagues. Recent players have included McDonald's All-Americans such as Kentucky's P.J. Washington, Alabama's John Petty and Florida's Isaiah Stokes.

If any prep players wonder whether Hardaway can get them ready for prime time, they don't have to do much research to discover the answer is a resounding yes.

Being the face of Nike's "Lil Penny" ad campaign in the '90s gave him a taste of big-time marketing. Winning Olympic gold in 1996 gave him permanent hoops prestige.

He earned $120 million during his career, but he never lost sight of where he came from. In 2008, he donated $1 million to the University of Memphis for a sports hall of fame.

Hardaway and Shaquille O'Neal had some memorable years together in Orlando.
Hardaway and Shaquille O'Neal had some memorable years together in Orlando.Fernando Medina/Getty Images

As for the national pessimism about Hardaway because of the lengthy record of NBA stars failing when they enter the collegiate coaching ranks: Yes, that's legit.

Florida International grabbed headlines by hiring Isiah Thomas in 2009, but the Hall of Famer stumbled to a 26-65 mark across three seasons. Houston tried to revive its present by hiring a name from its gloried Phi Slama Jama past, but Clyde Drexler produced only a 19-39 run. Danny Manning took Wake Forest to the 2017 NCAA tourney, but the Demon Deacons backslid to 11-20 this season. 

The list goes on and on.

The Portland Pilots are 21-44 in Terry Porter's two years, including a seven-game losing streak to end this season's 10-22 campaign. Damon Stoudamire is 25-40 in two seasons at Pacific. Mark Price was 30-42 at Charlotte when he was fired in December.

However, that dismal trend might be on the verge of changing thanks to two members of the 1992 Dream Team.

Patrick Ewing got off to a .500 start at Georgetown this season, and his Hoyas finished on a 2-9 slide. But it was only his first year at his alma mater, so he deserves the benefit of the doubt for now.

Chris Mullin is 38-60 three years into his return to St. John's, but this season's passable 16-17 mark included hope-inspiring victories against Duke and Villanova.

More important than what's happening elsewhere in college basketball is that Hardaway knows what's happening in Memphis.

He never really left town, always maintaining an offseason presence there. And he's well-aware of the highs and lows that have accompanied Memphis basketball. The 26 NCAA tournament teams and the Elite Eight appearance he engineered in 1992. The two vacated Final Four appearances in 1985 and 2008, mistakes by others he is undoubtedly determined not to repeat.

And he's seen the decline in his city's love for Memphis basketball, as attendance dipped to about 6,000 per game this season, according to Mark Giannotto of the Commercial Appeal, despite a 21-13 record under Tubby Smith.

"It was emotional and passionate because I feel the city's pain; I feel the school's pain; and I feel like I can do something about it and I want to do something about it," Hardaway said after being named the school's new coach.

Having been in the game for so long, he also knows the history buffs who study coaching failure won't believe in him anytime soon. That's okay with him.

"That's their opinion," Hardaway said Tuesday. "It's not just going to happen because I'm Anfernee Hardaway and I'm going to go be a college coach and kids are going to fall into my lap. I have to grind. I have to go work. But I'm willing to put that all in, put the work in and prove the critics wrong."

Given the successes he's already worked for, it's easy to believe more are on the way.  

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