What started with a press conference and a “postgame scuffle” has turned into predictable praise. Because when you win, people conveniently forget that just a few weeks earlier they wanted you unemployed.
Back in January, Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway said something that every coach has wanted to say at one time to the press, but can’t.
“Stop asking me stupid f*cking questions about if I feel like I can do something,” he snapped at media members during a press conference. The Tigers had just been defeated by SMU, their third straight loss, in an injury-plagued and COVID-ravaged season that culminated in a disappointing 9-8 record at the time.
In January, Memphis sucked. Hardaway’s seat was getting warm as his program had yet to make the NCAA tournament during his tenure despite all the talent he’d recruited there. And after he said what he said during that press conference, it felt like the world was coming down on the Tigers.
Then, something changed. The team got healthy and rallied. After losing to SMU at home, Memphis went 12-2 over their next 14 games, made the NCAA Tournament, won their first-round game against Boise State, and were having their way with No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga before losing 82-78 in a game that proved that the questions that Hardaway was once asked were indeed “stupid.” No one was questioning his commitment or talent now. They were too busy cheering.
If anyone knows how Hardaway feels, it’s Michigan head coach Juwan Howard. A few months ago, these were the men that people were pointing to as to why hiring former stars to come back and coach at their alma maters was a bad idea. Because while Hardaway was on the hot seat in January, by February many were calling for Howard’s job.
At this point, there’s no need to rehash what happened between Howard and Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard and the “scuffle” that followed because your opinion on the matter is what it is. However, what can’t be argued are the conversations that stemmed from it, as there began talk about if the postgame handshake line should be done away with. It felt like everybody had something to say about a timeless basketball tradition all because two competitors got into it.
To date, Gard still hasn’t publicly apologized for appearing to have started the whole thing. What a person doesn’t say, can say a lot about them.
When Howard returned from his five-game suspension, the Wolverines lost his first game back in the Big Ten Tournament to Indiana, in what seemed like a must-win game if they wanted to make the Field of 68. However, even though Michigan had 14 losses on their resume, the committee deemed them worthy, making Howard’s squad the team that most college hoops fans felt like stole a bid from a more deserving program.
Then — much like what happened with Hardaway’s Memphis team — something changed. In the very first game of the first round, Michigan upset No. 6 seed Colorado State 75-63 and followed that up by knocking off No. 3 seed Tennessee 76-68. During the postgame handshake line, irony — as it often does — showed up as the cameras caught a long and emotional embrace between Howard and Tennessee’s Kennedy Chandler, as the 19-year-old wept in the arms of an opposing coach.
“My youngest son, Jett, and Kennedy played together in AAU, and they won the LeBron James Tournament in Ohio, so we’ve had a relationship,” Howard explained.
“We recruited him, unfortunately, we wasn’t that lucky. But, to see the output, the effort, the growth, and being able to produce like that on the floor and how he led his team in a special way. So I just gave him some words of encouragement.”
Juwan Howard and Michigan will face No. 2 seed Villanova on Thursday in the Sweet Sixteen. The fair-weather fans at Michigan and Memphis — and Greg Gard — will be watching to see what transpires as we find out who’ll be headed to New Orleans for the Final Four by the end of the weekend. But, while those results have yet to be determined, what we do know is that Howard and Hardaway are examples of just how fickle fanbases, alums, and some in the media can be. Because sometimes, the people that cheer the loudest for you are also the same ones that want you to fail.
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