ORLANDO -- In the wake of a report that Memphis might fire men's basketball coach Tubby Smith after the season and hire Tigers legend Penny Hardaway, Smith said he still has the support of the school's administration.
"I feel pretty comfortable, pretty confident about what we've done this year and how we're growing the program, and the type of young men that we're recruiting," Smith said after the Tigers' 79-77 first-round victory over South Florida at the American Athletic Conference tournament.
Earlier Thursday, Smith's lawyer had said his client has received only positive feedback from school administrators.
"What Tubby has gotten consistently from that administration is, 'Coach, we know you're doing this the right way, we know this is a process, we know this is gonna take some time, we're happy with what you're doing,'" said Ricky Lefft, who has been Smith's longtime lawyer. "Tubby told them from the beginning it was a four- to five-year process. When he says it's a process, that shouldn't be a surprise to anyone."
After a 19-13 season last year, multiple key players, including K.J. Lawson and Dedric Lawson, left the program. The mass exodus and reduced attendance at home games intensified the scrutiny on Smith at a school that has yearned for the success it enjoyed under John Calipari in the 2000s.
Picked to finish ninth in the conference this season, Memphis recorded a 10-8 record in conference play with a shorthanded roster. Jeremiah Martin (18.9 PPG) is out for the season with a broken foot.
Memphis president M. David Rudd told the Commercial Appeal this week that he will evaluate the program after the season.
The school would owe Smith $10 million if it decides to fire him without cause after two seasons.
Considering his finish this season despite everything the team lost, however, Lefft said Smith should receive a high grade on that evaluation.
"If you're going to grade him at the end of the season or grade this team at the end of the season," Lefft said, "he's exceeded expectations, so he should get an A."
Hardaway's connections to elite talent as an admirable coach on the local AAU and high school scene, according to the CBS report, are part of the appeal to his alma mater.
"I know that Penny and Coach have visited with each other," Lefft said. "I think they've played some golf. They've had lunch. I know Coach has reached out to him, as he's reached out to all alumni. [Smith's staff] has recruited Memphis kids. He'd like to have Memphis kids there. At the end of the day, he can't completely control that."
"It is part of our business," Smith said. "It's the profession we chose, and unfortunately you are hired to be fired usually, unless you're at some program that's unbelievable ... he did a good job there, the best he could. We're proud of him. It's always tough when that happens, whether it's your family or friends or anybody in the business, nobody ever wants to see that happen. But it's part of the culture now, it's like something that's celebrated at the end of the season by a lot of people."