Mark Story

Penny Hardaway is changing the model for college hoops coaching hires

Penny Hardaway compares UK target James Wiseman to past NBA players

Memphis East Coach Penny Hardaway talks about star player James Wiseman, a top UK recruiting target.
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Memphis East Coach Penny Hardaway talks about star player James Wiseman, a top UK recruiting target.

Penny Hardaway has coached one season of college basketball with a winning percentage of 61.1.

The Memphis Tigers head man has just put together his first full recruiting class. It yielded a lavishly praised seven-man haul touted as the nation’s best incoming group for 2019-20.

Included are two players, elite big man James Wiseman and forward D.J. Jeffries, that Kentucky pursued.

That’s hardly an extensive coaching track record. Yet it feels like Hardaway, a four-time NBA All-Star as a player, has already changed the model for who gets hired in high-level men’s college basketball coaching searches.

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Memphis Coach Penny Hardaway has lured a recruiting class that includes the players ranked No. 1, 17, 37, 48, 50, 84 and 123 in the 2019 Rivals 150. Mark Humphrey AP

This week, Michigan tabbed former NBA All-Star Juwan Howard to replace the departed John Beilein. Earlier this spring, Vanderbilt named two-time NBA All-Star Jerry Stackhouse its men’s hoops head man after the ouster of Bryce Drew.

Like Hardaway, 47, neither Howard nor Stackhouse had ever coached college basketball before being hired as head men. Without the perceived early success by Hardaway at Memphis, I’m not sure either Vandy or Michigan could have “sold” their hires.

Other than Penny, the track record of NBA megastars as college head coaches has been abysmal.

Clyde Drexler, a 10-time NBA All-Star, went 19-39 in two seasons (1998-2000) as head man at his college alma mater, Houston.

Isiah Thomas, a 12-time NBA All-Star, was 26-65 over three seasons (2009-2012) at Florida International.

Isiah Thomas
Isiah Thomas went 26-65 as Florida International head coach from 2009-2012. Associated Press

Chris Mullin, a five-time NBA All-Star, went 59-73 in his four seasons (2015-19) coaching his college alma mater, St. John’s.

Mullin stepped down after leading St. John’s to the 2019 NCAA Tournament First Four (a bid that should have gone to UNC Greensboro) where the Johnnies lost to Arizona State.

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Chris Mullin stepped down after four seasons (2015-2019) as St. John's head coach with a 59-73 record. Herald-Leader

Patrick Ewing, an 11-time NBA All-Star, is 34-29 over his first two seasons as head coach at his college alma mater, Georgetown. The Hoyas improved from 15-15 in Ewing’s first season (2017-18) to 19-14 last season.

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Georgetown Coach Patrick Ewing, left, greeted Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim before a game. In two seasons as Hoyas head man, Ewing is 34-29. John McDonnell The Washington Post

Never before has a former pro basketball star been able to produce the level of recruiting buzz as a college head coach that Hardaway has generated at Memphis.

Yet when Memphis administrators bought out Tubby Smith to install Hardaway, it looked risky. Hardaway had cut his coaching teeth in grassroots basketball with the Team Penny AAU program. He also served as head coach at East High School in Memphis.

It was assumed that Hardaway would have recruiting success with players from his own AAU program. The question was whether he would be able to lure other high-level prospects with whom he had no prior ties.

For the class of 2019, the answer has been yes.

All seven of Hardaway’s commitments are ranked in the Rivals 150.

No. 1 Wiseman, No. 50 Jeffries and No. 123 Malcolm Dandridge all had previous relationships with Hardaway, either from high school, AAU or both. A fourth, No. 84 Damion Baugh, played high school hoops in the city of Memphis.

However, Hardaway and Memphis also landed No. 17 Precious Achiuwa out of Montverde Academy in Florida; No. 37 Boogie Ellis, a former Duke commit, from San Diego; and No. 48 Lester Quinones from the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

The other major question was whether Hardaway could succeed in the X’s and O’s chess matches with more experienced college coaches. The jury is still out on that, but Hardaway directing his first Memphis team to a 22-14 mark and the second round of the NIT suggested he can hold his own.

In the coming season, Hardaway will face the task that one-and-done maestros John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski encounter every year: Getting a freshman-dominated roster of high school stars to play as a unit that can overcome more experienced foes.

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Penny Hardaway had a 22-14 record in his first season in charge of the Memphis Tigers. Brandon Dill AP

It is possible that daunting challenge will expose Hardaway’s lack of college coaching experience. It is also conceivable that Hardaway’s background working in AAU basketball uniquely qualifies him to overcome it.

A former Wolverines forward, Howard, 46, gives Michigan a direct tie to the days of the Fab Five — the players from the same recruiting class who were the starting lineup for national runner-up teams in 1992 and ‘93 (finishes that were later vacated due to NCAA rules violations that did not involve Howard).

Before getting the call to replace the departed Beilein (now the Cleveland Cavaliers head coach), Howard had been a Miami Heat assistant since 2013.

Vanderbilt tabbed Stackhouse, 44, off the coaching staff of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. In 2016-17, the ex-North Carolina Tar Heels star had been chosen NBA G-League Coach of the Year. New Vandy Athletics Director Malcolm Turner is a former G-League president.

Is Hardaway a singular exception to what has been the rule of failure for ex-NBA stars turned college head coaches — or is Penny the start of an emerging trend?

To a large extent, that will be determined by how Howard at Michigan and Stackhouse at Vandy each fare.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a H-L sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.

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