Any pretense the Memphis basketball program was trying to maintain about the six-month-old Tubby Smith era was blasted into oblivion last week by a tweet from K.J. Lawson, accompanying a screen shot of the press release announcing his transfer from the program.
Those are lyrics from a Drake song, but Lawson’s quick deletion of the message told you everything you needed to know about its meaning: Those birds were aimed at Memphis.
Lawson is one of six Memphis players who have announced their intent to transfer since the Tigers’ season ended last month. The Tigers now have next to nothing returning from a 19-13 team, and plan to buttress that nothingness with what Memphis Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins described as “juco flotsam.”
The Memphis basketball program is a historically strong one, but it is as bad off as it’s been in quite some time. And while it’s unfair to put all that on a guy who basically just got there, it’s also fair to wonder:
What is Tubby Smith doing at Memphis in the first place?
Tubby Smith is not in the “rally a city and take a stuck-in-neutral program back to the Final Four” stage of his career. Smith, 65, hasn’t been to the Sweet 16 since 2005. The national championship he won at Kentucky came in 1998, with a mostly Rick Pitino-assembled roster that retained seven players from a 1997 team that lost in the national final. There were four more SEC titles to follow at Kentucky, but by 2007 the blueblood’s talent had dipped into the substandard, and Smith was shooed away like so many before him to the likes of Minnesota and Texas Tech. That’s perfect for a guy like Smith, who is in the “take the basketball team at a football school to the NCAA Tournament every three or four years” phase of his career. It’s a soft landing.
Memphis is a different sort of program in a different sort of place requiring a different sort of coach — one who embraces the public eye. The Memphis basketball team is as big a show as there is in town, and Memphians expect a certain amount of engagement from its coach. The city produces enough top-rate talent to sustain a Top 25 basketball program year after year — but only if you get ’em.
Smith is mostly losing ’em these days. It’s not just that next year’s roster is going to be a jalopy of mismatched parts, you get a sense from the local media that Smith is already losing support in the community by not engaging with it.
… I think an astonishing number of fans will support this program next year, no matter the condition it is in. But that’s because they love the university and they love the program, not because they love what is being done to it now. So, yes, it makes sense to ask for fan support. But why not start conducting the program in a way that is worthy of that support? Why not try reconnecting with the fan base, even through these dark times? Why not start building the connections to the community that should have been built during the past year? Memphis fans are fabulous, and patient, and long-suffering. Why not reward the suffering that is to come by giving something back?
You can maybe survive that someplace like Texas Tech or Minnesota, where basketball is No. 2, or someplace like Kentucky or Kansas, where local players don’t form the foundation of the program. At Memphis, it’s not all you’ve got, but it’s most of it.
In a letter that hasn’t gone over well with fans, Memphis athletic director tried playing this all off as a sign of the times.
The past several days have been challenging ones for our University of Memphis men’s basketball program. I met with Tubby Smith at length, and while student-athletes deciding to leave our university has been difficult to watch, it has not surprised us.
Across the country, more than 700 Division I men’s basketball student-athletes transferred last year. That record number of transfers is expected to be eclipsed again this year as this trend continues to grow.
And, yeah, OK, sure. Kids these days. But Memphis isn’t losing bench guys looking for a larger role. Memphis lost its top three scorers. Dedric Lawson averaged 19.2 points and 9.9 rebounds per game last year. If he was leaving, you figured it was for the NBA. As it is? It’s Kansas, and he’s taking his brother K.J., the American Athletic Conference rookie of the year, with him. Plus, Memphis is losing second-leading Markel Crawford. All six of the players leaving are from the state of Tennessee.
The Lawsons’ father, Keelon Lawson, says he was told by Memphis last year he’d retain the assistant coaching job he’d had for two years under Josh Pastner, regardless who was hired to replace Pastner. Instead, Smith brought over his own staff from Texas Tech, and Lawson was demoted to director of player personnel.
That was last summer, and evidently not a big enough deal to blow up the relationship at the time. What changed since then isn’t completely clear. Statements by the various Lawsons have been vaguely contradictory, and Memphis itself has been of little help sorting this all out.
But it doesn’t really matter. Maintaining good relationships with talented players and those with influence over them is part of the job. Maybe the biggest part.
By all accounts, that’s not really Tubby Smith’s thing, which makes you think it’s probably a good thing Tubby rents.