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Penny Hardaway is the First Nike Signature Athlete To Become an NCAA Head Coach and It’s A Big Deal

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picture via the Commercial Appeal and Mark Weber (Penny Hardaway with his former high school teammate Elliot Perry who also played 9 years in the NBA)

Penny has been away from the NBA for ten years. In that time he’s won championships from middle school to high school and AAU as a head coach. His story of how he helped to coach his best friend’s middle school team after his friend was overcome by cancer is legendary. The story of how he decided to take on the journey of his friend and become a high school coach where he won 3 back to back state championships at Memphis East is the stuff of legend.  Now Penny has replaced a college basketball coaching mind in Tubby Smith at his alma mater, the University of Memphis. When Penny ran the court in his number 25 jersey playing for Coach Larry Finch and Memphis State that was the early 90s. He was well known, but he hadn’t become a superstar. He was on the road to becoming the next Magic Johnson. He was LeBron before LeBron. His dazzling ball handling and passing skills were matched by his explosive inside/outside game. It was a game that was paired with Shaq which made the Orlando Magic must see tv in the age of Jordan and the Bulls.

Penny became one of the most marketable players in the game. He had a sidekick in Lil Penny and was so popular many think his stardom is what drove a media hungry Shaq to leave for the bright lights of L.A. to be “The Man”. Penny shined bright as a representative of Memphis basketball in a city that is defined by the game. A city, that even when it landed an NBA franchise, the city was still powered by Memphis State University history and lore. Names like Baskerville Holmes, Doom Haynes, Keith Lee, the Little General Andre Turner, are uttered with reverence in Memphis like mentioning the name of college greats like Pearl Washington or Lew Alcindor. The legacy of Memphis extends beyond the court. Penny’s coach, Larry Finch chose to attend Memphis State when black players weren’t really welcomed. Larry Finch was more than a basketball player. His decision to attend Memphis was a revolutionary balm for a city tense with racial issues, deep racial scars.

Penny taking over for Tubby Smith was out of necessity, but that’s not what’s important. What is important is the symmetry and karmic justice of a former superstar player taking the helm of his college alma mater. Penny is walking in the footsteps of Larry Finch and this has reignited the passion for basketball in a city that has starved for a winner. Yeah, Memphis has the Grizzlies who played in over 7 straight NBA Playoffs, but the Grizzlies never really replaced the Tigers as Memphis’ team. Memphis finally has a nationally ranked football team… but Memphis is basketball. It’s a city where you can’t walk ten feet without running into someone with a story about neighborhood basketball legend. During the John Calipari years with recruits like Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans, the University of Memphis found its footing back in the national spotlight in a way that they hadn’t seen since Penny walked the campus in the 90s helping to lead the Tigers to the NCAA Tourney. Coach Cal was years ago now. In the last two years the University of Memphis Men’s Basketball team could barely draw 1500 people to the Fed Ex Forum. Less than four years ago they used to sell out an NBA arena. The team hasn’t appeared in the NCAA Tourney in years.  Players like Cameron Payne and Ian Clark, two Memphis kids who played at small colleges made it to the NBA from Memphis, but not from Memphis. In the last two years there haven’t been any players who have made it to the NBA from  the University of Memphis. The last guy to get there was in the Josh Pastner era. No NBA players, no NCAA or Post Season Tourneys, Memphis was nationally irrelevant until this week when Penny Hardaway won a 3rd state championship and accepted the position as head coach immediately turning Memphis into everything it was.

photo via Commercial Appeal (Wall of Fame at the U of M)

It’s an amazing story… but this is a sneaker site and I’m a marketing guy. When I heard that Penny was getting the job in a contract year for the University of Memphis who is signed to Nike I said two words, “Holy s–t!” I’ve discussed the importance of Nike in Memphis on this site, but not in relation to college basketball. Nike is one of the biggest employers in this city. When I’m asked about Nike I often say that Portland may be the home base of Nike, but Memphis is the heart of Nike. When you look at the fact that Penny Hardaway, one of the original signature guys for the Swoosh, the man who had the most technologically advanced basketball shoe designed for him in the Nike Foamposite, the man who had a doggone puppet voiced by Chris Rock, who wooed Tyra Banks… when you consider that Memphis has been irrelevant and Nike launched one of the most important tournaments during their irrelevance, and Memphis has never participated in this tournament, you have the perfect storm for what Nike does best, marketing.

Right now the NCAA is embroiled in scandal. I’ve written articles on the fact that Nike has the ability to right a lot of wrongs in the sport:

The NCAA Should Be Disrupted and Nike’s PK80 Could Carry Some of the Burden

While it would be impossible for Nike to takeover for the NCAA because there are other footwear brands sponsoring teams, I do think that the shoe brands have the ability to address the issues that are being investigated. That’s for another article. Right now this article is about Penny Hardaway and the fact that the University of Memphis is about to benefit from the timing of a contract that is lapsing for outfitting their sports programs.

The hire of Penny Hardaway was not done for nostalgic reasons. It was a financial hire. Under Tubby Smith, as reported on ESPN 929 by Gary Parrish, season ticket sales had dwindled to 4000 in a 17,000 seat arena. The school was losing over 1 Million dollars a year and they weren’t meeting the requirements to earn a 800,000 kickback/year from the Fed Ex Forum and Memphis Grizzlies.  In the last week since Penny was hired ticket sales have skyrocketed. You can’t walk anywhere without hearing people talk about the program. Penny has basically repaired a serious issue in one week, but the University hasn’t even entered negotiations with the Swoosh and the fact that Penny is the first signature athlete to coach a college program, his alma mater at that… Well I guess Patrick Ewing was the first signature athlete to coach his alma mater since he owned Ewing Athletics and returned to Georgetown to coach, but Ewing and Ewing Athletics ain’t Penny and Nike. This is going to be a very interesting season for the University of Memphis. Here are the things I see that are going to happen:

  1. Because this is a Signature situation and Nike outfits the college I can see the 1Cent logo that appears on the Foamposite and Penny’s signature line being utilized on an alternative uniform. The opportunity for branding and marketing with a U of M 1Cent uniform option is incredible. When you consider that Nike has taken a lot of time to create exclusives for programs like Duke and Arizona and those exclusive team items generate a considerable amount of income for those schools you can fully expect that the campus and the city of Memphis will be covered in Tiger Blue. More important the three Nike stores that are in Memphis will serve as alternative locations for non-students of Memphis to grab gear. Gear won’t be relegated to the Fed Ex Forum only or campus stores. While Nike can’t promote and place Elliot Perry’s name on a jersey a throwback collection of Memphis jerseys would be explosive (it wouldn’t be commercial at all, but the branding opportunity…).
  2. While there have been several footwear “Penny Packs” Class of 97, Shooting Stars, etc, there has never been a University of Memphis Foamposite. It could be that Penny played for the Orlando Magic and both the U of M and the Magic share similar colorways, but the opportunity exists for a Penny Pack that features the Penny signature shoes. This has to be tempered however as many of Penny’s recent releases have not sold very well at retail. The Penny 4 has been on sale for a while. However the Air Penny 1 in a pack with a Foamposite with U of M branding could be just what the retro line needs.
  3. While Penny’s line has slowed down, limited release drops are going to be common with Penny as the coach. This means that the team won’t get just Penny signature line shoes, there will be Nike Signature shoes from every line donning the U of M Tiger logo. Think Oregon player exclusives for Memphis and you got every kid in the country wanting to attend the U of M simply because of the kicks.  Trust me, as a former high school coach I know kids really do consider kicks as a deal breaker in recruitment.
  4. While this isn’t about the gear and Nike, it’s about the team. There will be some unrealistic expectations placed on the program. Traditionally it’s the players that bear the burden of pressure. In Penny Hardaway you have a battle tested NBA player who will take all of the pressure off of his players. The attention will be on Penny and that’s a good thing.
  5. The University of Memphis will have to adjust its scheduling this fall. They will be selected to compete in the PK80 (my guess). This is extremely important as the PK80 has become an important tourney in shaping the landscape of teams who make it into the NCAA Tourney. The competition provides an opportunity for big games early in the season that weigh heavily on selection Sunday for the tourney. As many teams have a hard time scheduling games against big time programs, the PK80 gives the participants a serious resume builder. Here is a line about the teams who participate in the PK80, “Collectively, these schools account for 391 tournament bids, 89 Final Four appearances and 23 national championships.”

Penny Hardaway, one of Nike’s most marketable athletes in history, is the coach of his alma mater in a basketball crazy town. A town where one of their biggest employers is Nike and the college team is sponsored by Nike. This is a marketing match made in heaven and I can’t wait to get those PEs.