Author: Isaac Weston (@Isaacweston)
Picture: Mark Weber/Commercial Appeal
When I chose the University of Memphis over the University of Alabama and the University of Tennessee a few years ago, I thought I was forfeiting an experience at a football school and gaining game day adventures at basketball games. But instead, Memphis football went from winning three games a season to being ranked four seasons in a row and playing in bowl games. And Memphis basketball went south—they started dropping in the AP rankings, then quit making appearances at the tournament altogether.
Memphis loves basketball. Loves it. And after John Calipari (sorry for even mentioning him) took a Derrick-Rose-led Tigers team to the 2008 NCAA National Championship only to lose in overtime to the Kansas Jayhawks, the city began craving a championship run with a different end result. Then when the NCAA dropped the hammer on the U of M and Calipari snuck off to Kentucky before academic integrity investigations could punish him, and the city was out for blood.
A young coach, Josh Pastner, succeeded Johnny Boy, but as time went on, Memphis’ championship chances became more and more diminished. The city was mad and even made GoFundMe accounts to buyout Pastner so the Tigers could get a better coach.
Pastner packed his bags for Georgia Tech and we got Tubby Smith to take his place. Smith has received dozens of coaching awards and even won a championship at Kentucky back in the late ‘90s. Fans were hoping he could pull some trophy-lifting, net-cutting, confetti-falling moves from his repertoire, but it never happened and people were losing hope in Memphis basketball once again. If Tubby couldn’t take the Tigers to the ‘Ship, who could? They were never going to get the chance to redeem themselves. Tubby had two seasons to yield a ring, but failed to do so, then before the end of last season even arrived, talk of a new coach began to stir. And once Penny Hardaway’s name was dropped, the city’s basketball flame was rekindled.
Penny is not just a native Memphian; he is an icon. He was born and raised in Memphis, then after high school, stayed there and became a star at Memphis State University. He was picked up by the Orlando Magic and flew high with teammate Shaquille O’Neal for several years, but never won in the NBA Finals. After his professional basketball career, he returned to Memphis and coached at East High School. At one point last season, East High was the number one team in the nation. If Penny could go number one at the high school level, maybe he could do the same with players a couple years older.
Once ESPN caught wind of Hardaway showing interest in the Memphis coaching job, it was game over. Not only was it spoken into existence, it revitalized hope for the future of Memphis basketball. And the day after being named head coach, Penny began recruiting. And recruiting. And recruiting.
He scooped up former NBA player and championship-winner Mike Miller as an assistant coach, and the two started doing in-home visits with high school prospects all over the nation. The duo was even meeting with twelfth-graders that Calipari had just met with hours before. Then Penny scheduled a three-year series with the University of Tennessee to be played in Knoxville, Memphis, and Nashville. And when he wasn’t busy doing those things, he was snagging high-caliber commits. And that is what the Tigers fan base needs to see.
Penny is so cool. He is swagger, he is bravado, he is what winners want to be and what players want to learn from. He is passionate about what Memphis stands for as a city, and he is here to make her proud. He is exactly what Memphis needs at this crucial time, even if he is only around for a few years as coach. He has the U of M President Dr. Rudd and the football coach Mike Norvell wearing his Nike shoes. He has college students wearing his college jersey. He is driving around the South in his Mercedes-Benz sprinter van, with his “1 Cent” logo stitched into the headrests, just talking to folks. If the upcoming season is half as exciting as this offseason has been under Coach One Cent, well, you better be picking the Tigers in your brackets this March.