Memphis basketball's latest drama must be a call to action for Penny Hardaway | Giannotto

Penny Hardaway told everyone on his radio show to start this week that he's a target for unfair negativity and criticism. Before the week was over, before the biggest Memphis basketball home game of the season, we were reminded again that target is largely his own doing at this point.

The latest drama to befall Hardaway's program isn't just about Malcolm Dandridge, even if alleged academic misconduct goes against the founding principles of a university.

This is now just as much about the totality of everything that has gone awry under Hardaway’s watch.

This is about the dysfunction that seems to follow him no matter what team he’s coaching or what players are on his team — dysfunction few others in the country seem to go through, and no other programs at Memphis seem to suffer from.

It’s always something during the Hardaway era and, in the midst of a season that had already gotten stunningly sidetracked, it's hard to ignore that it became that way because Hardaway allowed it to become that way.

This season, like too many seasons in recent years, has turned into a reality show.

Perhaps Hardaway had nothing to do with this self-inflicted problem. Maybe it’s just one 20-something allegedly cheating on a test or having someone else write a paper for him — albeit a 20-something Hardaway has mentored or coached for going on a decade. The university can only hope its investigation exonerates or simply implicates Dandridge, and not others on the team or others within the athletic department. Then, this could get even worse. If this becomes a full-blown scandal, it could affect whatever chances Memphis had in the next round of conference realignment.

But another investigation is already happening under Hardaway's watch, and so much has already happened under his watch.

It’s one thing to be reckless with rotations or the roster or what is said in front of the microphone. But the program’s recklessness with following the rules, without actually achieving anything of much consequence these past six years, is damning when considering it all.

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There was the James Wiseman debacle that didn’t amount to much in the end, but lingered through multiple seasons simply because Memphis insisted on playing Wiseman when most programs would have held him out after he was ruled ineligible.

There was the Emoni Bates saga that almost derailed the 2021-22 season -- and that's the one year Hardaway actually won an NCAA tournament game.

There were the careless recruiting violations committed before last season that led to Hardaway’s three-game suspension at the beginning of this season.

Even last year, which was relatively smooth by Hardaway’s standards, ended with Dandridge and former star Kendric Davis having to be separated from one another during the most important timeout of the team’s NCAA tournament loss to Florida Atlantic.

There has been the revolving door of assistants and staff members, and Hardaway's tendency to surround himself with a cavalry of loyal yes men who aren't willing to – or can't – give him the hard truths that could turn him into the kind of coach he has the potential to be.

And then came this season, with its last-minute transfers and roster fluctuations and chemistry issues and, eventually, a collapse that has Memphis likely needing to win the AAC tournament to get to the NCAA tournament after being ranked No. 10 in the national polls in January.

At least Memphis got a run to the national championship game out of the Derrick Rose SAT controversy.

So how much is too much?

That’s the uncomfortable question everybody who cares about this program has to ask today because none of this is conducive to winning and all of this is pulling Memphis further away from the program Hardaway claims he wants it to be.  What could once be swept aside as his inexperience shouldn’t be anymore.

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While Hardaway considers himself a target, nobody else in college basketball has gotten the kind of free pass he has gotten from Memphis administrators.

Yes, he cares deeply about the city and the university. He remains a legendary figure here. It’s why he pursued the job in the first place. It's why everyone has been willing to put up with all this. It's why the athletic department has had trouble reeling him in. Hardaway is the rare coach without a national title that has more power than his boss.

But that isn’t enough anymore. Hardaway’s hiring wasn’t preordained, however nice that sounded given the connection he shares with Larry Finch. This is a job — a really important one to this city and this university — and the way he’s doing it is unacceptable.

It’s time for him to take control of his program, or lose the right to run it.

You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at and follow him on X: @mgiannotto

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: New Memphis basketball drama must be Penny Hardaway's call to action