It was announced on Monday that Andy Kennedy would be stepping down after the final seconds tick off for Ole Miss basketball this season. To be honest, there were several emotions that came rushing in. This man has been a part of Rebel basketball for the last 12 years, was there during my undergraduate years, brought us all countless memories, and has helped elevate the Rebs to unforeseen heights.
Now, we turn the page. We start the search to replace the 2007 SEC Coach of the Year who has won 245 games and a SEC Tournament title. But, don’t worry, we don’t have to go far to find the man to replace him.
Penny Hardaway, the “first-year head coach” at Memphis East High School is in the middle of another dominating season in the Bluff City, running it’s record to 22-3 as of this writing and a No. 20 national ranking per USA Today. Now, don’t scoff at the ranking because they were at one point this year No. 1 in the country before uncharacteristically losing three straight in two separate national tournaments.
This year’s success is not the basis for this hire, mind you. This is nearly 26 years in the making. So before you hastily disagree, hear me out, you might change your mind by the end.
His name recognition alone would send a jolt through the program.
Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway was a Consensus first-team All-American in 1993 at then Memphis State University after he averaged 22.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 2.4 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game. He was a two-time conference player of the year and was also was a finalist for both the Naismith and the John R. Wooden awards, awarded to the nation’s best player. And did I mention that he was picked to play for the 1992 USA Basketball Developmental Team that scrimmaged daily against the Olympic team?
Yeah, he was pretty good.
After leaving Memphis, he was drafted by the Golden State Warriors initially but then handed over to the Orlando Magic for three future first-round draft picks and Chris Webber. In Orlando, he teamed up with Shaquille O’Neal (maybe you’ve heard of him) and went on to be a four-time NBA All-Star and a two-time All-NBA First-Team selection. During his time in Florida, Hardaway was one of the first BIG combo guards who are now the norm in the association.
At 6’7, Penny was a mismatch for just about everyone because of his athleticism and ability to beat just about anyone off the dribble. Aside from his prowess on the court, his off the court reputation might have been even better with the “Lil’ Penny” ad campaign bolstered by Nike. Voiced by Chris Rock, his alter-ego puppet mini-me was a hit for many years on television and in the media.
Yeah, kids these days might not have been alive for those commercials or seen him play, but hey they could’ve seen him on ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “That Magic Moment” or in the movie “Blue Chips” in which he starred alongside Shaq and Nick Nolte. But, they almost certainly know who he is and probably own a pair of his shoes, which are still on Nike’s product line.
His AAU connections are as good as any.
Hardaway’s Team Penny AAU team is one of the better squads in the Southeast and typically boasts several top prospects on it. Now, he wouldn’t be able to coach both, mind you, but the groundwork has been laid there. On his team alone this year are four 2019 prospects all in the Rebels’ backyard that Penny has coached at the AAU level or at the high school level. And all four are ranked inside the top 120 players in the country.
Five-star James Wiseman, a 6’11 center at Memphis East, is the No. 1 player in the country for next year and is wanted by just about everyone, most notably Kentucky and Kansas.
Four-star D.J. Jeffries is actually the No. 1 player in the Magnolia State and has been an Ole Miss’ top target since Andy Kennedy started recruiting him in the 8th grade. The 6’7 forward from Olive Branch is wanted badly by John Calipari and could be slipping away even more now that A.K. is gone.
The No. 2 player in the state of Tennessee is four-star forward Chandler Lawson, another East player. He is most likely headed to Kansas to follow his brothers who transferred away from Memphis, but could possibly be swayed to Oxford if Penny were to get the job.
And the last top prospect on Team Penny is four-star Malcolm Dandridge. The 6’8 forward has early offers from Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss, and Tennessee and would also certainly be influenced by Penny’s career status.
But, it’s not just the players he coaches, he has unlimited connections on the AAU circuit from playing in tournaments all over the country, meeting other coaches, players, and handlers. If Ole Miss wants to get back into the thick of the SEC and elevate its program even more, they are going to have to commit and “play the game”. In my opinion, Penny can help take it to the next level, without question.
Did I mention he has shoe company connections?
Hardaway’s Nike shoes have been top sellers for Phil Knight and Co. since they hit the shelves. And despite not being in the NBA for almost 20 years, they are still selling well. His East team is sponsored by Nike and Penny, as is his AAU team “Team Penny”. Therefore, one would assume that he knows just about everyone you need to know in and around Nike EYBL.
Whether we are talking about Bradley Beal Elite from Missouri, Team Takeover from Washington, D.C., MEBO Team Hood in Mississippi, or Team United from North Carolina, Penny coaches against and works with all of these players and coaches on the Nike summer circuit. Ole Miss, despite being a big Nike school in baseball and football, doesn’t get the same treatment in basketball. And guess what? Everyone else in the SEC and around the country who commits to basketball DOES get that treatment.
Could it be because Ole Miss refuses to commit? Could it be because Nike believes they are not worth it? Me thinks so. And if Penny were to be the next guy to roam the hardwood at The Pavilion, Nike’s eyebrows would raise.
So what if he hasn’t coached in college.
Yes, he has technically only been a head coach at East for one season. But, there is a TSSAA hoop that had to be jumped through before he was officially the coach. Due to staff members needing to either teach at the respective school or be an assistant on staff for at least three years before being allowed to be the head coach per TSSAA regulations, he wasn’t known in the media guide as head coach until this season. I spoke with former Memphis high school basketball coach Jacob Chapman about it and he reaffirmed my assumption that it was merely a formality.
“His title has been ‘assistant’ until this season but everyone knew he was the actual head coach,” Chapman stated.
During his time on staff at East, the Mustangs have dominated Tennessee. In the 2015-2016 season, they finished 32-2 and won the AAA State title. In 2016-17 season, they finished 32-4, repeated as AAA champs, and finished the year ranked No. 2 in the country. This year, they are 22-3, won the Shelby County title again, and are in the process of going for a District 16-AAA tournament title this week. His only losses this season are to two out-of-state teams who are nationally-ranked and Olive Branch, who have the aforementioned Jeffries.
Ok, so he’s a high school coach, big deal. When Ole Miss hired Andy Kennedy, he had only been a head coach for one year at Cincinnati. Granted he was an assistant for several years in college before that, I know, but it’s not like Hardaway would be lost on the baseline coaching in college. There would be growing pains, yes, but this is a former NBA All-Star and college All-American who certainly knows his way around a court.
“It’s hard to get a read on his X’s and O’s because his team is so talented and I think he needs good college assistants around if he were to take the job,” said Chapman, who thinks he would be able to stay afloat in year one with a little help.
Chapman went on to say that he thinks Penny would have moved up to college by now and thinks the Rebs should take the leap.
“I like his demeanor and how he deals with his players...if anything Penny would get players and that’s what you need right now in college, players.”
Ole Miss refuses to spend money on basketball coaches and its assistants. Yes, they built The Pavilion and the Tuohy Center and that is something that had to be done, but they are still behind literally everyone else in the conference when it comes to investment and paying for success. As I mentioned above, if Ole Miss wants to upgrade the program and compete with the best, they must commit and pay to play.
And if you’re going to move on from your all-time winningest coach, you better be ready to make a splash.
And in my opinion, Penny would certainly be worth it.