For Hardaway and Memphis, timing was everything
Imagine if the University of Memphis hadn’t fired Tubby Smith after just two years and hired Penny Hardaway. Imagine how different things would be.
Alex Lomax wouldn’t have received his release from Wichita State and then signed with Memphis. He’d be getting ready to play for a conference rival.
Tyler Harris wouldn’t be joining Lomax in an all-Memphis backcourt. Even if Harris had somehow signed with Memphis — and odds are he was headed to Baylor — the previous staff essentially had conceded there was no way to get both players.
Antwann Jones wouldn’t have signed with Memphis on Sunday night. That’s yet another top-150 recruit who would not be here.
Isaiah Maurice wouldn’t have signed with Memphis on Sunday, either. He’d be headed to play at New Mexico.
If Memphis hadn’t fired Smith and hired Hardaway, Memphis would not have a top-30 recruiting class on the way.
Memphis would not have sold thousands of new season tickets.
The Redbirds would not have sold
nearly 6,000 penny tickets to their opener.
Life as a Memphis sports fan might seem sad and drab. Instead? Instead, Memphis basketball fans are having as much fun as any college basketball fans in the country. Sometimes, it’s not just that you do something, it’s when you do it.
That’s the point of this column, truly. It’s not to pile on the departed Smith.
Timing matters. He who hesitates is doing it wrong. In coaching as in life.
It would have been easier for Memphis to keep Smith for a third season. It would have produced much less national criticism.
Three seasons is considered the appropriate amount of time to give a college coach to turn a program around. It’s the industry standard. It’s polite. But fire a coach after two years? That practically guarantees bad press.
Sure enough, when Memphis fired Smith, ESPN’s Jay Bilas tweeted, “Memphis should be embarrassed.”
Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News called the decision “a colossal fail.”
In his piece, DeCourcy directed much of his criticism at the decision to hire Smith in the first place.
That criticism was entirely accurate. But it points to another reason it would have been easier for Memphis to keep Smith another year. Firing him after two years was essentially admitting — and drawing attention to — a massive mistake.
Memphis made the change anyway. And that is to the credit of university President David Rudd and everyone else involved. Because another year wouldn’t have just been another year. It would have been a potentially devastating missed opportunity.
Another year would have cost Memphis Lomax, Harris, Jones, Maurice and what has somehow turned into a top-30 recruiting class.
Another year would have meant four years of Lomax suiting up for Wichita State.
Another year would have meant Mike Miller taking an assistant’s job at Florida or TCU.
Another year would have meant Memphis having no shot at Bryan Antoine, Scottie Lewis, Matthew Hurt or Trendon Watford, the four five-star recruits with close ties to Miller.
Another year almost certainly would have cost Memphis the best local recruits — including James Wiseman, the No. 1 player in the country — in 2019.
Hardaway was able to persuade Lomax and Harris to join him at Memphis, even though he just got the gig. But he couldn’t have raced in and scooped up Wiseman at the last minute like that. Now Hardaway and Miller have time to work on assembling a top-10 recruiting class in 2019. All because Memphis made the change when it did.
This lesson applies to more than basketball, of course. It applies to all of us. If we’re going to make changes in our lives, might as well get started. No reason to put off the inevitable.
It was inevitable that Smith wasn’t going to work out at Memphis. It was inevitable that Memphis would have to pay him an embarrassing amount of money to go away. But because Rudd didn’t let that embarrassment or potential criticism stand in the way of making the change, the Memphis basketball program has more momentum than it has had since the earliest days of Josh Pastner.
Another year would have continued the slide in season tickets.
Another year would have made it that much more difficult to win back disaffected fans.
Another year would have ruined this recruiting class as well as the next one.
Another year would have been no fun at all.
Instead, we’re in the midst of a civic mania. A civic mania that is both over the top and indispensable for a program that was in danger of fading into irrelevance. All because university administrators had the nerve to make a hard decision instead of putting it off for a season.
Think they’re embarrassed now?
Oak Ridge (Fla.) guard Antwann Jones (1) shoots the ball against the Roselle Catholic (N.J.) in January at Springfield, Mass. Four star recruit Jones has committed to Memphis. GREGORY J. FISHER/USA TODAY
Memphis basketball coach Penny Hardaway quickly assembled a top-30 recruiting class. MARK WEBER/THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL