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Penny Hardaway reveals his plans for the team as University of Memphis head coach

‘Everything I do, I do it for the city’

Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway wants to see fans back in the stands at basketball games to cheer on his alma mater, the University of Memphis. And that’s one of his goals as the new head coach of the team, as he explained after addressing hundreds of attendees at Tuesday’s news conference in Memphis, Tennessee.

“The city raised me,” Hardaway told The Undefeated. “I’ve been very successful at basketball, and everything I do, I do it for the city, and I’m just excited to be in this position. I look forward to the fans coming back to the FedExForum, packing the house like we did in the Coliseum and in the Pyramid. I’m looking forward to those days coming back. I’m excited. I hope that everybody’s riding the waves, and I hope that I can put Memphis back on the map.”

The Mid-South Coliseum was home to the Tigers from 1966-91. The team moved to The Memphis Pyramid once it was built. It remained the home of Tigers basketball from 1991 until 2004, when the FedExForum opened.

Hardaway assumed the position vacated by Tubby Smith on the cusp of a three-peat victory with his East High School Mustangs. As the high school’s head coach, the NBA legend and local Memphis icon won his third straight state title (2016, 2017 and 2018) in Murfreesboro on March 17 at the Class AAA State Championship game. Hardaway focused on his team’s competition, never confirming plans to take on a new role until the school’s announcement on Monday.

Memphis Tigers cheerleaders handed out souvenirs celebrating their new head coach at a news conference and rally announcing Penny Hardaway’s new role for the University of Memphis men’s basketball team.

For many fans, Hardaway has returned home — a place he holds dear to his heart. It’s the same place where his hoop dreams became a reality that thrust him into NBA stardom, a place where fans cheered him on, teammates urged him to play harder and his former coach, the late Larry Finch, who was also once a player at the then-Memphis State University, believed that he would do great things in life.

For Hardaway, his job as Memphis’ new head coach is divine intervention.

“God ordained this whole process into being what it is today …,” Hardaway said. “I believe in all of that. The timing is perfect right now. The city needs it, and the city is responding. I feel great.”

Hardaway has a high level of respect for Smith and his coaching history. Smith’s two-season stint ended in his firing after closing out the 2017-18 season with a declining attendance for the sixth straight year, ultimately contributing to the need for a new plan. The announced average was 6,211 fans through 18 home games toward the close of the 2017-18 season at the FedExForum, which holds 18,119.

According to The Commercial Appeal, the school averaged more than 16,000 fans and ranked among the top 10 in the country in average attendance just four years ago. During former coach Josh Pastner’s final season, the announced team average was 12,028 (2015-16).

Hardaway’s success with Team Penny, his AAU program, gives him exemplary knowledge of new recruits and their talents. Although he has no college coaching experience, his passion for basketball lends a level of confidence for a hopeful resurgence of the Memphis basketball program.

Penny Hardaway hugs Vickie Finch, the widow of former University of Memphis player and head coach Larry Finch, after a news conference and rally announcing Hardaway’s new role as head coach for the University of Memphis men’s basketball team.

Hardaway said the hardest part of his upcoming journey is learning the NCAA rules and regulations.

“I have to make sure I don’t have any infractions or break any rules,” Hardaway said. “I have my compliance people on speed dial to make sure. I think that will be the hardest part. I’m focused, and there are so many rules and regulations.”

Hardaway is the university’s 19th coach and the third Tiger alum named head coach for the program, after Wayne Yates (1974-79) and Finch (1986-97).

Elliot Perry, Hardaway’s friend and former Tigers player and director of player support for the Memphis Grizzlies, thinks this is one of the biggest hires the program has made in its history.

“I’m in love with the hire,” Perry said. “I played for Coach Finch, one of the best players to ever play there. And the impact that he made and how much he poured into my life he’s poured into Penny’s life as well, and Penny will do the same thing for his players. You’re talking about a guy who played high school here and played in college at Memphis. [He’s] certainly one of the best players to ever play in our program, and now he’s the head coach. He will run the program, orchestrate the program, curate the program like it’s his own child. That’s why it’s so significant.”

Hardaway told the crowd of more than 100 at the news conference that his passion for Memphis basketball is what encouraged him to accept the position.

“You know it wasn’t easy to bring me here because of my experience with college basketball,” he said. “But I told everyone all I had to do was have the Memphis blood in me and the heart and the passion for winning basketball. As a coach, my style, we’re going to get after them. I know that’s what we love. We’re going to play hard-nosed basketball, running, jumping, pressing everywhere and winning games. Losing is not an option for us. I really want to hit the ground running. I know people are saying to be patient and to do this first and to do that first, but I’m not wired that way. I go all or nothing.”

Penny Hardaway speaks at a news conference and rally announcing his new role as head coach of the University of Memphis men’s basketball team.

Andrea Morales for The Undefeated

The two-time All-American and four-time NBA All-Star inherits a 40-26 record accumulated during the past two seasons under Smith. This season, the Tigers finished 21-13 after a American Athletic Conference Championship semifinal loss to top-seeded Cincinnati.

“I’m not just coming here to be a face,” Hardaway said at the news conference. “I’m coming here to make a difference, with the help of getting the fans back in the stands like it was back in the old-school days. I am dedicated to this team that just finished this season. Like I told those kids in the locker room, it was kind of unfair a little bit to them that nobody really showed up, but those days are gone. Also bringing some really good talent here that the city of Memphis would love to see on a nightly basis.”

Hardaway’s ongoing support of the University of Memphis is evident in his $1 million donation in 2008 to the Penny Hardaway Hall of Fame Building, which opened in August 2011. He graduated from college in May 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in professional studies.

Fans line the second-floor balcony at a news conference and rally announcing Penny Hardaway’s new role as head coach for the University of Memphis men’s basketball team. Photos of Hardaway line the balcony.

Hardaway was picked third in the 1993 NBA draft by the Golden State Warriors but was traded to the Orlando Magic for the rights to Chris Webber, the draft’s top overall pick.

The 6-foot-7 point guard played in the NBA from 1993 to 2008 with the Magic, Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks and Miami Heat.

Hardaway’s notoriety goes back to his senior year in 1990 at Treadwell High School in Memphis, where he averaged 36.6 points and 10.1 rebounds. His time at Memphis State University is in the books. He spent two seasons with the Tigers and led the team to two NCAA tournament appearances, including the Elite Eight in 1992. His achievements include two career triple-doubles, and he ranks 17th in scoring. Hardaway won a gold medal with the 1996 U.S. Olympic team in Atlanta.

Kelley Evans is a general editor at The Undefeated. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.