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Penny Hardaway

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Penny Hardaway is Memphis’ new men’s basketball coach and school officials hope he can rejuvenate the program at his alma mater.

Hardaway starred at Memphis in the early 1990s before a successful NBA career. He replaces Tubby Smith, who was fired Wednesday after two seasons as the Tigers coach. Smith’s tenure with Memphis fell short of expectations on the court and didn’t draw fan interest — a combination that led to decreased attendance and diminishing donations.

Smith went 40-26 but failed to reach the postseason. Attendance this season dropped to its lowest level in 48 years. The university owes Smith almost $10 million after buying out the final three years of his contract.

Hardaway has no college coaching experience but just led East High in Memphis to a third straight Tennessee Class AAA state title.

Hardaway was introduced at a Tuesday news conference that was open to the public, leading to a pep-rally atmosphere.

Hardaway played two seasons for then-Memphis State from 1991-93. He’s one of the most popular players to ever don a Tiger uniform, and his No. 25 jersey was retired in 1994,Blue-clad fans filled the lobby of the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center, the team’s practice facility. Others were upstairs above the entrance overseeing the announcement which included the team’s mascot and cheerleaders.

A cheer went up from the crowd as Hardaway walked down the steps behind the stage five minutes before the announcement.

Memphis officials are hoping Hardaway can return some of that excitement to a program that once held a steady spot on the national college basketball stage. Attendance has steadily declined and hit 6,200 this season – a decrease of 3,400 from 2016-17 season.

There was a loss of $1.1 million in donations to the basketball program in the 2016-17 fiscal year, primarily from the decrease in season ticket sales.

Hardaway becomes the third former Tiger player to take over the coaching reins of the program. Wayne Yates coached from 1974-1979, while Larry Finch won 220 games in leading the Tigers for 11 seasons from 1986-1997, including the two years Hardaway played for Memphis.

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(AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

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