Plenty of Blame To Go Around for State of Tiger Basketball

Regrettably, the discussion of Tiger Basketball has come to resemble political debate in the era of Trump.

Nuanced, balanced opinions have given way to all or nothing dialogue.

Self-styled tolerant people are out for the coach’s head after 40 games (he’s 25-15, by the way), and if you blame them or anything else for the woes of the program then you’re accused of letting the coach off the hook.

There is only one (publicly acceptable) position right now:  that Tubby Smith, and everything about his program, is a disaster. 

The reality is, there’s plenty of blame to go around in what everyone agrees is a historic low point in Tiger basketball, at least from a national relevance and fan attendance perspective.

Allow me to divy things up:

Reality – 5%

I assign reality 5% of the blame for the current state of Tiger Basketball.

Nobody wants to hear it, but the world of college athletics in 2017 is very different than it was 10-15 years ago.

Comparing Tubby Smith’s program to the one Dana Kirk led in 1985 isn’t just irrelevant, it’s idiotic in light of the reality of what that program represented.

Even 2008 seems like forever ago.

Derrick Rose had a great run at Memphis, but fans of the sport know that the one and done rule has eroded College Basketball.

This column is a little dated, but it notes that attendance for Division I men’s games has been falling over the past decade.  TV ratings are also down.

The sport itself is now the subject of an FBI investigation, the details of which make clear just how brazenly Memphis would likely have to cheat (or break the law) to continue recruiting elite prospects to a non “Power” school in the current environment.

The proliferation of televised content has also altered the recruiting landscape – diminishing some programs’ inherent recruiting advantages and concentrating financial resources in the “Power” conferences.

Furthermore, the need to focus resources on football has never been greater. Memphis has definitely been doing that, to everyone’s delight.

None of this is an excuse for basketball failure – but it is reality and it gets routinely ignored.

Dick Hackett / Sidney Shlenker – 5%

Tiger basketball has been a downtown thing since 1991, and it was always a bad idea. Now that the program is in a prolonged down cycle, the chickens have come home to roost in the form of pathetic attendance numbers.

Dick Hackett was the mayor of Memphis in the 1980’s and Sidney Shlenker was the scummy guy who helped sell Memphians on the idea of a downtown arena. The Tigers playing downtown, at the Pyramid, was part of the deal. Eventually, Tiger basketball moved to FedExForum with the Grizzlies – but leaving the Coliseum for anywhere other than campus wasn’t smart. It works OK when the Tigers are ranked. When the team is lousy, the large empty arena only enhances the depression factor.

By the way, Memphis isn’t the only fading power in a major market playing in front of dwindling crowds in an NBA arena. Georgetown is having the same issues. The Hoyas turned to a graduate and former NBA star, Patrick Ewing, to try to turn things around – could the Tigers be desperate enough to try the same thing?


Tubby Smith – 35%

As soon as you criticize anyone other than the head coach for the state of the Tiger program, people think you’re letting Tubby Smith off the hook.

I’m not letting Tubby Smith off the hook.

There’s a few things Tubby needs to do immediately. First, he probably needs to go on Gary Parrish’s radio show. Tubby Smith needs to tell Gary Parrish and his listeners exactly how he plans to turn things around. Then he needs to go on Geoff Calkins’ show and say the same stuff again. Tubby Smith needs to engage his fiercest critics and answer their questions.

I don’t particularly care for Gary Parrish, but Tubby shouldn’t be afraid of (or above) taking him on, head to head. That’s part of his job.

After that, he probably needs to sign a local recruit, if for no other reason than to shut a lot of people up.

Beating Louisville, Wichita State or Cincinnati wouldn’t hurt – but that doesn’t appear likely this season. Short of that, he needs his team to be competitive and improve. If they can’t at least do that, it’s going to get even uglier, and fast.


Gary Parrish & Geoff Calkins – 25%

Speaking of political debates, I’ve always been fascinated by the post-Presidential debate spin room. The spin room is acknowledgment of the reality that, in most cases, the winner of a Presidential debate is whichever candidate the pundit class says won the debate. This is why spin is so important.

Got to get that narrative out there fast. 

My point?

To some extent Tubby Smith’s first year in Memphis was an epic failure because Gary Parrish wrote a national column saying it was an epic failure.

The local narrative matters, and in year one of the Tubby Smith era the local narrative got away from him. Amidst the Lawson drama, having to reshape the roster on the fly, underwhelming recruiting, and an already declining base of attendance – Gary Parrish had an opening to eviscerate Tubby Smith and for whatever reason (ratings, resentment) he took it. His woke listeners lapped it up and at that point the die was cast.

Tom Bowen – 25%

It’s impossible for any fan, or columnist, or even probably Tubby Smith himself, to know with certainty why Memphis basketball has seen a precipitous drop in competitiveness, recruiting, attendance,  and national relevance over the past decade.

There are so many factors that go into success or failure.

What we do know is that there’s only one person whose job it is to understand and account for all those factors – Athletic Director Tom Bowen.

Memphis just opened a new basketball facility and pays its head coach handsomely, so the natural inclination is to think that all the pieces are in place.

I suspect it’s not that simple.

Tom Bowen, like Tubby Smith, needs to engage the local media more. He needs to challenge Smith more on engagement, recruiting, and promotion of the program. If necessary, he needs to push for staff changes.

Bottom line, the Athletic Director needs to be more accountable for the current state of the program.

John Calipari – 5%

Ask UMass fans how life after John Calipari is going.  Calipari left Amherst, MA 22 years ago and the Minutemen haven’t won an NCAA tournament game since.

Now, Memphis isn’t UMass but it isn’t Kentucky either. Tiger fans in their right minds should’ve celebrated the early successes of Josh Pastner, but they didn’t. In the shadow of Calipari’s excessive success, it just all looked so puny.

The hangover is real, and to some extent it’s still going on.

So yea, you can blame Tubby Smith. You can pretend that firing him would fix things in an instant.

Those are acceptable opinions.

Those are the only acceptable opinions.