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The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee)
Tubby Smith emerged from the elevator within the University of Memphis Administration Building at 11:32 a.m. on Wednesday and realized he was on the wrong floor.
Accompanied by his attorney, Smith found the nearest open door and asked for directions to the office of university president M. David Rudd. Then, he climbed the one flight of stairs left between him and his fate as the Memphis men's basketball coach.
About 20 minutes later, Smith walked back out of a meeting with Rudd and athletic director Tom Bowen and confirmed the news everyone had been expecting: He was no longer the head coach at Memphis.
Smith was fired Wednesday by Memphis after just two seasons leading the men's basketball program. The decision by the university ended more than a week of speculation about Smith's job security.
"I appreciate the opportunity to have led the University of Memphis basketball program the last two years," Smith said in a statement. "I'm proud of the work my staff and I have done to serve the players, the school and the community in leading us to a 21-13 season this year."
"After 39 years in college coaching, I know that change happens and I wish the University and the team the best as they pursue a different direction. As a lifelong competitor I believe the game never ends and I'll be exploring my next move on and off the court in the coming weeks."
Smith, 66, finished with a 40-26 overall record, but rumors swirled about his future following the team's regular-season finale on March 4. A report last week stated Memphis is considering former Tigers star Penny Hardaway as its next head coach.
Memphis will owe Smith nearly $10 million because he still had three years remaining on a five-year contract. According to Smith's contract, the university is allowed to pay that figure over six years.
"After considerable deliberations and in the best financial interest of the University of Memphis, an agreement of separation with Head Men's Basketball Coach Tubby Smith has been reached," the university's athletic department said in a statement. "Details are to be finalized, and no further comment will be offered."
The focus of the Tigers' coaching search will now turn to Hardaway, who is currently the head coach at East High School and founder of the Memphis-based AAU team, Team Penny.
Hardaway told reporters in Murfreesboro after coaching East in the TSSAA state quarterfinals that he could not comment about the Memphis situation. But he is considered the overwhelming favorite to get the job, in part because university administrators have considered replacing Smith for more than a month now.
Though speculation about Smith's future began to run rampant last week, a person with direct knowledge of the situation told The Commercial Appeal that Rudd began discussing the possibility of Smith's firing with the executive committee of the university's Board of Trustees once Memphis lost in overtime at ECU on Feb. 3.
The executive committee consists of executive vice president and chief financial officer of FedEx Alan B. Graf Jr., former interim university president and Chesapeake Energy chairman R. Brad Martin, and Cato Johnson, the chief of staff and senior vice president of public policy and regulatory affairs at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare.
Smith's tenure at Memphis proved tumultuous. He was hired in April 2016 after making the NCAA tournament at Texas Tech in hopes he would reinvigorate the fan base. The Tigers' men's basketball program had been under scrutiny and the target of discontent during the end of Josh Pastner's seven-year run as head coach.
When he arrived at Memphis, Smith elected to move former assistant coach Keelon Lawson to the director of player personnel role and bring his assistant coaching staff from Texas Tech. This choice proved controversial by the end of Smith's first year on the job.
After some initial success, the Tigers closed the 2016-17 season with six losses in the final eight games. It included the program's worst loss in 70 years to end the regular season and a 30-point setback in the AAC tournament.
Six players sought a transfer in the weeks to come, including the team's top three scorers. Dedric and K.J. Lawson landed at Kansas while Keelon Lawson, their father, left the staff.
Smith replaced those departing players with a bevy of junior college transfers, and this year's roster featured eight new scholarship players overall. Nonetheless, the Tigers recorded their first 20-win season in four years at last week's AAC tournament and finished fifth in the conference standings after being picked ninth during the preseason.
But Smith's dismissal is more related to off-court factors than the on-court product.
Attendance at home games fell to a 48-year low this year. As a result, the athletic department could miss out on an $800,000 payment from the Memphis Grizzlies as part of the school's lease at FedExForum.
Donations to the athletic department also fell by $1.1 million during the 2016-17 fiscal year thanks in large part to a drop in men's basketball season ticket sales.
In addition, Smith struggled on the recruiting trail, especially locally. During his two years, he did not sign a Memphis-area player. His first two recruiting classes were ranked 98th and 50th in the country by 247 Sports.
The Tigers' 2018 recruiting class is ranked 60th nationally, according to 247 Sports, and features 7-foot-3 signee Connor Vanover and recent commitment Myreon Jones.
Bowen held a meeting with the Tigers' current players at the team's practice facility at 2:30 p.m. Junior Mike Parks Jr. said they were instructed not to speak with reporters.
But leading scorer Jeremiah Martin thanked Smith on his Twitter account and wrote, "I can definitely give you credit for how you developed me on and off the court."
Senior Alex Moffatt, meanwhile, wrote on social media, "sad to see a future Hall of Famer and a great staff run out of town because 'fans' would rather boycott their team they love so much instead of supporting them in a 'down year' (most wins since 2014). Wouldn't be financial struggles if 'fans' would be fans and show up."
"And don't get me wrong," Moffatt added, "I think Penny will do a great job getting Memphis back on the national scene, but I think how it was done was wrong."
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