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Penny Hardaway, Juwan Howard and the danger of hiring legends

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The Memphis Tigers hit an all-time low under Penny Hardaway Sunday. A team once in the top 10 in December lost to the SMU Mustangs by 27 points and has now lost two straight and six of nine. Everybody in the city has disdain for its players, and honestly, Hardaway doesn’t hide it.

One day earlier, the Michigan Wolverines fell to 8-18 with a 73-63 loss to the Michigan State Spartans. Despite two straight Sweet 16 runs in 2021 and 2022, the first of which was an Elite Eight run, Juwan Howard is a dead man walking and may not last the season.

This is a cautionary tale for college athletics departments. The basis for the hirings of Penny Hardaway and Juwan Howard had everything to do with their legendary status at their respective programs as players and little to do with their actual qualifications.

Now, because the fan bases of the programs love them so much from their playing days, the administration is under a ton of pressure. Hardaway is on more solid footing than Howard, but making the necessary move to fire both is extremely difficult. That is where the issue of hiring legends comes.

Legends certainly can work out as hires. Jim Harbaugh just led the Michigan Wolverines to a national championship after taking them to the Rose Bowl as a player. Steve Spurrier won the Heisman as a player with the Florida Gators and then coached a Heisman winner while winning the national title.

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However, by and large, the lure of a school hiring a beloved former player turns into a failure. Right now, the Tennessee Lady Vols are having to learn that the hard way. They hired longtime assistant and former All-American Holly Warlick as Pat Summitt’s successor. When she didn’t work out, they hired three-time UT national champion Kellie Harper.

In both of these cases, they have taken much longer to make the necessary firing because of the players’ beloved status as legends. It’s not only basketball in which UT has failed on this front too. Just look at the history of the Tennessee Football program through the years.

Johnny Majors was a homerun hire on its face in 1977. He had just won a national championship with the Pittsburgh Panthers and was a Heisman runner-up for the Vols while helping them go 10-0 and win the SEC Championship in 1956. There was never a more obvious move.

Still, Majors was mediocre his first four years, suffering two losing seasons and a third .500 season. There were four winning seasons after that but no top 25 finishes. The administration stuck with him for far too long for the sole reason that he was beloved in Knoxville, and while he did get it going in 1985, no coach deserves that long of a leash.

Before Majors, there was the coach Majors played for, Bowden Wyatt. An All-American for Robert Neyland in the 1930s, Wyatt did have early success at UT and had a solid resume before he was hired as well. However, he was allowed to sink the program into irrelevancy before Doug Dickey came along.

After 1957, the Vols went six straight years without a postseason appearance, finishing ranked just once, but the administration kept Wyatt on board because of his success as a player and his deep ties to Neyland. The result was Dickey had to work overtime to modernize the program.

If anybody is wondering why Tennessee Football as right to never hire Tee Martin as a head coach, this is why. It’s not about whether or not Martin would have succeeded. The problem is if he didn’t succeed, the program would have taken much longer than it should to fire him.

More often than not, legends don’t work out. The hires of Penny Hardaway and Juwan Howard are the most egregious because they were hired specifically for their status as legends with the program rather than what they did as head coaches. To this point, they’ve had similar trajectories.

Both were high school coaches, and they were hired a year apart. They also are both two seasons removed from a major controversy. Hardaway lashed out at a reporter, cursing him out for asking if he can get it done. Howard was suspended for five games that year due to an altercation with another coach.

Although things don’t usually get that bad, the truth of the matter is ties to the program should honestly serve as a deterrent from making a hire. The Lady Vols may be in the market for a new coach soon and should take that into account. Howard is done. Penny Hardaway may last past this year. If he does, though, it bolsters this case.

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