Lost in national conversations involving blue-blood programs or the next hot mid-major coach is the importance of fit between a coach and the community he’s meant to belong to. After years of “outsiders” not comprehending the gravity of the program’s communal touch, the Memphis Tigers brought in one of their own to rebuild an entire culture.
Penny Hardaway isn’t yet another former NBA all-everything to try his hand at coaching at the collegiate ranks. He is Memphis. One of their own. The prodigal son returning to his former stomping grounds, after those before him failed to respect it, to recreate an atmosphere last felt when John Calipari was luring some of the nation’s best high school players to campus.
Memphis didn’t solely bring Hardaway into the fold to win the press conference. It was also due to Hadaway’s (then) presumed ability to keep highly rated local players from leaving the area, donning the program’s uniforms instead.
On the surface, it made sense to believe it would happen. Hardaway could not only use his appeal as a former NBA player to attract the best recruits in the country, but he had strong grassroots connections in the area thanks to his AAU affiliations. While he had no major coaching experience outside of that, room for optimism was provided.
The appeal was clear. Begin the rebuild through Hardaway’s magical recruiting touch. A starting point of acquiring all the talent seems like an obvious one, although few could actually pull it off, but Hardaway has.
Despite some hiccups during the 2018-19 college basketball campaign, those who envisioned Hardaway dominating the recruiting trail are witnessing it come to fruition in real-time. Depending on what reputable recruiting service outlet you prefer, the Tigers are bringing in the best 2019 recruiting class in the entire country.
Six players have committed to play for the program in the upcoming season. Between the six, three of those calling Tennessee home, there’s 25 stars attached to their names. To build a super team in Memphis is something Hardaway is literally trying to speak into existence. It appears to be happening, and most of the media is buying the program’s stock.
Hardaway’s 2019 class is without a doubt a pivotal turning point in his coaching career, even if it’s only happening as he enters his second season overseeing a college basketball program.
Nevertheless, victories on the recruiting trail won’t be enough. Before Hardaway, Calipari was able to parlay those offseason wins into regular season dominance. After Calipari, Josh Pastner had relative success bringing top-tier talent to the program, but mismanaged everything else to the point he got out of dodge before dodge decided to get him.
Redundancy be hurled into an ocean. The importance of Memphis being and feeling Memphis can’t be overstated. People involved at every level of basketball in the area want the Tigers to succeed, to keep it within the community, but with an attached caveat — the man leading the program has to realize he will travel only as far as everyone else around him will allow it.
Be good to them. They’ll be good to you. Respect everything and everyone Memphis.
Unlike Pastner, Hardaway already understands the importance of representing Memphis. It’s not just enough to land local talent, though. Following that already difficult ask, the coach tasked with overseeing the Tigers also has to keep those players pleased while balancing an absolute need to show good faith to those who already helped.
For the moment, everything is gravy. Penny Hardaway fundamentally grasps all the unwritten rules that come with the job.
Still, the allegiance he’s received, which he’s earned, will only last if he can be closer to Calipari than to Pastner. Landing the talent is one condition of the gig. An insanely important facet of the job, yet only a single aspect of it. Another, vastly superior area, is to win games. Something he’ll be forced to do immediately.
Hardaway will enter the upcoming season with some of the best talent in the nation at his disposal. Future NBA players abound, there will be little room for excuses if the Tigers fail to reach a high level of success by the time March hits in 2020.
Expectations are relative. The majority of rebuilding programs, even those operating in leagues considered stronger than the AAC, are simply hoping for a step in the right direction in year-two. Maybe a few of the more demanding would like a trip to the NCAA Tournament. For the Memphis Tigers, earning a pair of dancing slippers might not be enough.
No. Of course not. Penny Hardaway doesn’t need to win a national title to justify his position or showcase his ability as a coach to demand localized hoops to respect him moving forward. He must, however, at least highlight he knows how to handle the talent when he has it — not only in terms relative to wins and losses, but by balancing the ego, need and desires of his gifted roster, as well as those who helped in landing them.
Coaching college basketball isn’t an easy job. It’s increasingly difficult for a program that comes built with inherent needs like the Memphis Tigers. Though it might sound like a negative for this specific program, it’s actually an endearing quality, making it all the more special when it all comes together.
Regardless of the stage of the game, Penny Hardaway has already appeared to master almost all of it. In a few months, he’ll be compelled to show he can grow into the fully formed role of well-rounded head coach, using everything else he’s already excellent at, then turning it into tangible success.
No pressure or anything.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared on Forbes, but has been republished under the original author’s name at CBBToday thanks to the publisher-contributor agreement.
Joseph Nardone has covered college basketball for nearly a decade at various outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephNardone.
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