The Memphis men’s basketball team’s 2017-18 season had ended with a loss to Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference tournament semifinals just hours earlier when university President M. David Rudd began making phone calls.
He had been preparing the executive committee of the school’s Board of Trustees for the possibility of a coaching change. Now, he was ready to go into action.
“It’s time to talk,” Rudd said, a source with direct knowledge of the conversation told USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee on the condition of anonymity.
As Saturday afternoon turned to evening, he called the three members of the executive committee individually and eventually talked to every Board of Trustees member once he decided to fire coach Tubby Smith and hire former Tigers star Penny Hardaway.
Speaking to more than one trustee member at a time would have violated the Tennessee Open Meetings Act.
But the message Rudd delivered on this night was expected, ever since he began to brief university officials more than a month before on the financial concerns surrounding the men’s basketball program.
“He not only kept us in the loop, but he wanted our opinion,” said Board of Trustees executive committee member Cato Johnson, who is the chief of staff and senior vice president of public policy and regulatory affairs at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, “even though we knew it was his decision.”
How Hardaway’s hiring was years in the making
Hardaway’s return to campus took months for university officials to execute and involved discretion early on and leaks late.
It culminated Tuesday with an introductory press conference inside Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center, the program’s new $20.5 million practice facility, that felt like a coronation for one of the city’s greatest basketball products.
But the idea of hiring Hardaway also came up in April 2016 when former coach Josh Pastner left for Georgia Tech and Memphis hired Smith. How seriously Hardaway was considered for the position remains disputed.
Rudd, for instance, said Tuesday after Hardaway’s introduction, “you’re making a big assumption that Penny wasn’t a serious candidate two years ago.” But a member of the university’s search committee at the time said the committee was split on whether it should even discuss Hardaway.
The search committee member also confirmed what Hardaway said on ESPN 92.9 FM in November 2016: He never received a formal interview from Memphis.
“A couple years ago when Josh left … I started really thinking, ‘Man, I could be the next coach at the University of Memphis,’ ” Hardaway said in an interview on Sports 56 WHBQ on Wednesday. “At that time, the timing wasn’t right, so I’m kind of glad it didn’t happen.”
There was no search committee two years later.
Rudd sprung into action on Feb. 3 after Memphis lost in overtime at ECU, part of a stretch in which the Tigers dropped five of six games. The players called it a “horrible” defeat and Smith wondered if his team needed “psychological help” when he spoke to reporters afterward.
That’s when Rudd first began contacting the executive committee of the university’s Board of Trustees and discussed the possibility of firing Smith, according to a person with direct knowledge of the situation.
The executive committee consists of executive vice president and chief financial officer of FedEx Alan B. Graf Jr., former interim university president and Chesapeake Energy chairman R. Brad Martin, and Johnson.
What they didn’t fully understand yet was that Hardaway had dreamed of becoming a college head coach for years and began seriously discussing a move to the college level in late 2017, two people close to Hardaway confirmed.
He thought Memphis would be the ideal job, but assumed the university would balk at paying Smith the $10 million price tag that came with firing him.
“This job isn’t going to be open for awhile,” Hardaway said in the radio interview Wednesday, describing his mindset during the weeks and months leading into his hiring. “We’ve got a Hall of Fame coach who’s won a championship and I just kind of support from afar. If that time comes up again, I just want to be in the mentions of being the coach.”