Memphis vs. Everybody. Anyone who is from the Bluff City is familiar with that well-deserved axiom. It was birthed out of a belief that most of the time, the world, and even fate itself, is against Memphis and its people. If something can go wrong, it will. All odds are against us. The deck is stacked, and the game is rigged.
And while I believe this wholeheartedly, I have also realized that sometimes Memphis vs. Memphis is just as accurate. There is a faction of Memphians that revel in the city’s bad luck. A prevalence of Memphians frequently decry the city and claim they would love to put it in the rearview.
I had the misfortune of spending a great deal of my life living in Heber Springs, Arkansas. The city (which was named after a Memphian) is full of ex-pats that have fled Shelby County. And to a man – or woman – every one of them talked about how they hated living in Memphis and would never go back. It seemed like I was the only one that was proud to be from the Home of the Blues. I wore it like a badge and still do.
The populace of Memphis comes from all over the Mid-South, and the country at large. Maybe this is why there is such a vocal segment of contrarians who love to dwell on the negative and be the first to point out any perceived flaws. Constructive criticism is fair and necessary. But unfair expectations and impatience, along with an unwillingness to admit a lack of understanding or knowledge, leads to a caustic environment that chokes the life out of anything positive.
This is currently the case with the University of Memphis Tigers’ basketball team and their coach, Penny Hardaway. In just his third year, coaching one of the youngest squads in Division 1 (321st out of 347 teams), Hardaway’s every move, or lack thereof, is under heavy scrutiny. Some fans seem to think they have every answer to the team’s issues and are convinced the former All-American doesn’t know what he’s doing.
I’ve seen this movie before. The first time it starred another former Tiger All-American, Larry Finch. I recognize parallels developing with their careers, and I don’t want to see what happened to Larry Legend happen to Penny. Because if this city and the school he loved could turn on Finch, it can happen to anybody.
Larry, like Memphis, was snakebit in both his playing and coaching careers. After he defied advice not to attend his hometown university, he carried them to the 1972-73 National Championship game against UCLA. That Tiger team that also included greats Larry Kenon and Ronnie Robinson, among others, should have won it all. If not for a once-in-a-lifetime performance from Bill Walton, who shot 21 of 22 from the floor, eclipsing Finch’s 29 points and relegating Memphis State to runners-up.
After his college days were over, Finch spurned the Lakers for the Memphis TAMS, only to have the fledgling ABA league fold a few years later. He began his coaching career with UAB and his former mentor Gene Bartow before joining Dana Kirk’s staff at MSU. He once again had a chance to be a national champion until Villanova and the refs proved to be too much to overcome. That 1985 Final Four game was proof of the “Memphis vs. Everybody” refrain.
After Kirk’s dismissal, Finch was hired as head coach just two months before the 1986-87 season. Despite having three players depart for the NBA, Larry compiled a 26-8 record, won the conference tournament and claimed Metro Coach of the Year and The Basketball Times ‘Rookie Coach of the Year’ honors. However, he wasn’t able to lead his team into the postseason, as the sins of Kirk were paid with a one-year NCAA Tournament ban.
The misfortune and snake bites didn’t end there. The 1987-88 team suffered when Freshman of the Year Sylvester Gray and Metro Tourney MVP Marvin Alexander were ruled ineligible after admitting they took money from an agent. But even without Vincent Askew, who left early for the NBA, and Dwight Boyd who missed some time with a broken hand, Larry led the Tigers to a 20-12 record and a trip to the second round of the NCAAs.
It seemed as if every time Finch had a chance to coach a stacked team capable of winning at a high-level, fate would intervene. Prize recruit Hardaway should have played his freshman year alongside Tiger great Elliot Perry but was ruled academically ineligible. When Penny was able to suit up, he, along with David Vaughn, carried the Tigers to the Elite 8 with a legitimate chance to win it all, only to be beaten by conference rival Cincinnati for the fourth time that year.
And the next season, with everyone returning and Vaughn looking like a bona fide superstar, the sophomore suffered an injury in the season opener. In the first half on the road against Arkansas, Vaughn had 10 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, and had hit two 3-pointers. At halftime, fans dreamed of a championship until the first play of the second half when Vaughn came down awkwardly on his knee. The team still finished 20-12 and made the tournament but was a shadow of what it could have been.
Finch’s last best chance to win it all came in 1994-95 when the Tigers lost to Arkansas in the Sweet 16 due to a phantom hand check call on Chris Garner. Memphis vs. Everybody once again. Larry would only coach two more seasons before being unceremoniously dismissed at a Pyramid hot dog stand.
He finished his career as the all-time winningest coach in Tiger history until John Calipari momentarily held that honor before his last season was wiped off the record books for alleged improprieties. Finch won at least 20 games a season 7 times, made the postseason every year the team was eligible except one, and only had one losing season. And that one losing season, he still beat four Top 25 teams and made the Great Midwest Conference Tournament Championship game.
He had a record of 10-11 against Top 10 teams and was 44-45 all-time against coaching greats like John Chaney, Denny Crum, Kelvin Sampson, Larry Brown, Gene Keady, Bob Huggins, Tubby Smith, Nolan Richardson, and John Thompson. He had a winning record against Norm Stewart, Crum, and Keady among other Hall of Famers.
His last season was a winning one, in which he beat the fourth-ranked Michigan Wolverines, the sixth-ranked, then eleventh-ranked Louisville Cardinals, and made the NIT. Yet, he was still fired only 11-years into his career at the age of 46.
I list all of these things because I want you to remember and because I recall that during his tenure, I would have daily debates about his coaching acumen. Every day some nitwit would try to tell me that he couldn’t coach. When I pressed them for details, they invariably would come up with nonsense. This sort of ill-founded negativity pervaded the city, infecting know-nothings and polluting parents, coaches, and booster’s opinions. Memphis vs. Memphis.
It’s the same stuff I’m reading in print, seeing on Facebook fan pages, and hearing on radio talk shows about our current coach. Penny, who could have picked anywhere in the country to play college ball, chose Memphis State and Coach Finch. Penny, who was a two-time All-NBA selection, multiple All-Star, and on his way to being a Hall of Famer before he, too, was snake bit.
In this case, it was in the form of multiple knee injuries. Injuries that he was pressured to come back from and play on before he was ready. Injuries he suffered in an era before the term ‘minutes restriction’ was invented and before health science and technology advanced enough to repair tears of that magnitude.
After his playing career, he could have chosen to live anywhere, and once again, he picked Memphis. His city, where he gave back and decided to begin his coaching career teaching middle school, then high schoolers the game he loved. When he decided to coach college ball, he didn’t have to pick Memphis (Ole Miss was pushing hard), but he did.
Like Larry, he inherited a bit of a mess but quickly signed the two Memphis high-school players that mattered the most. Four-star 5’9” shooting guard Tyler Harris and three-star Alex Lomax. He also signed four-star Antwaan Jones and no-star David Wingett. In large part, his first team was competitive due to Memphis’ own Jeremiah Martin, but most fans knew better days, and players were right around the corner. After the season, Jones and Wingett left.
Hardaway delivered by signing the number one player in the country, James Wiseman, which led to the number one ranked recruiting class. And then, once again, Memphis vs. Everybody. Despite the NCAA clearing him in early spring, the institution blindsided Wiseman, Hardaway, and everyone that loves Tiger blue by declaring the big man ineligible by retroactively declaring Penny a booster. Everyone knows the story.
Penny and the team played on, adjusting on the fly after an entire offseason of crafting an offense around what would have presumably been the most dominant player in the country. The team still went 21-10, was 12-1 in their first 13 games, and had a 10-game win streak. Then the season was canceled due to the pandemic, and Harris transferred out.
Covid obviously also had an effect on this year. Most notably leading to a lengthy suspension of basketball activities as the team had won six of their last seven and were finally looking like they were starting to gel. Hardaway and his staff have coached the Tigers into being one of the country’s staunchest defensive squads. Admittedly, however, there have only been a few times where they look at least competent on offense. This team misses more layups than should be legally allowed.
It’s worth considering that the nitpicking and harsh criticism is intensified under the microscope that these players are under. It’s reasonable to think that some players aren’t equipped to have their every missed shot, bad pass and questionable decision become fodder for the entire city to digest. Could that explain why players that have been knock down shooters their entire career suddenly look like they’ve forgotten how to play?
I’m not saying players aren’t above scrutiny. Presumably they all want to be pros, but there is a learning curve for most of them. Andre Turner used to be called Andre ‘Turnover’, and we know how he turned out. Praise is equally important, and celebrating what a team does well while winning should be what matters.
But despite seeing the improvements and focusing on what’s good, it’s the same old thing. Comments like, ‘Penny can’t or won’t teach offense’, ‘he doesn’t ride them enough’, ‘the substitution patterns are wack’, etc., prevail as if one of the greatest point guards to ever play the game doesn’t understand it. The one I’m getting sick of the most is, ‘Hardaway is poised to become the first Tiger coach since Moe Iba to not make the Tournament in his first three years on the job.’ I’m sorry, but who made it last year? Who were the number one seeds? Who won their conference tourneys? Who was the National Champion? (Here’s looking at you, Mark Giannatto.)
Again, reasonable, constructive criticism is needed and expected. I do it also. I’m curious as to why we don’t full-court press and trap the whole game. I think it would benefit us and possibly solve some of our offensive woes. But in no way do I think I know more about the game, the team, or what goes on in practice than Penny does. I am just concerned that the constant negativity will once again become toxic and start to affect recruits and ultimately lead to Hardaway having enough with all the noise.
For all you critics who know more than him, what will happen if he decides to leave? Is that what you want? Another carpetbagger like Calipari who’s just going to jump at a “better” opportunity? When the fan criticism became an awful din and Larry was unreasonably let go, Tic Price was hired. I, for one, don’t want to do that again. Who in their right mind would take over the program after Penny Hardaway is driven out?
It’s going to take some time to build the program to where we all want it. This is just his third year of coaching at the Division 1 level. He will learn. He will change his recruiting priorities. He will make the right hires for his staff. No one wants to win more at Memphis than Penny.
Memphis vs. Everybody is real. It’s one of the things that we can all agree on and what makes us who we are. Memphis vs. Memphis shouldn’t be. It’s too hard fighting everyone else when we’re sniping at each other.
(Thanks for reading. If you dug it, feel free to explore my other posts via the menu categories above. Please subscribe, leave a like, and comment below so we can continue the discussion.)