There is a simple problem with the administration at Memphis trying to spin its way out of the roster mess that has enveloped the program within the last week: These are the same people who signed off on all of the dubious personnel moves that led the Tigers into this lingering disaster.
If you think the problems began when the Lawson brothers announced last week they would be transferring to a different program, you weren’t paying attention as the Tigers descended to three consecutive seasons of missing the postseason.
That would be no surprise, given that Tigers attendance has plunged from 16,121 per game (10th in Division I) in 2013-14 to 12,028 in 2015-16 (all the way down to 30th).
“The past several days have been challenging ones for our University of Memphis basketball program,” athletic director Tom Bowen wrote in an open letter to “Tiger Nation.” Bowen said it has been “difficult” to watch six players transfer out and leave behind the Tigers and coach Tubby Smith, including Dedric and K.J. Lawson, who Monday announced they would attend Kansas.
“However, Coach Smith and I are extremely optimistic about the future of our program.”
Statement from Memphis AD Tom Bowen: pic.twitter.com/l5uKf9ca9p— L. Jason Smith (@JasonSmith929) April 11, 2017
It was in the aftermath of Memphis’ most recent NCAA Tournament appearance that previous coach Josh Pastner consented to hire Keelon Lawson Sr. as an assistant coach. That was the summer of 2014. Lawson had been a high school coach in the city and was fairly brazen about his desire to obtain a college assistant coaching position by bringing along his talented sons.
“If you hire me,” he told Gary Parrish of CBS Sports in 2014, “I’m automatically bringing you top-20 players in the country. Automatically. And there coaches sitting on benches right now who can’t do that.”
He was right. Some couldn’t. The thing was, assuring K.J. Lawson and Dedric Lawson would play for the Tigers was different than assuring they would be part of a functional, productive team.
Memphis should have recognized controlling this situation would be impossible when Keelon Sr. accepted a position as an assistant coach at Arlington Country Day school in Florida in the spring of 2014, indicating at that point if he were to land an assistant coaching position at another college then K.J.’s previous commitment to the Tigers likely would be vacated. Pastner went ahead with hiring him, anyway, and both K.J. and Dedric enrolled in the fall of 2015.
Dedric was the top scorer as a freshman for Pastner’s final Tigers team, which finished 19-15 and under .500 in the American Athletic Conference. K.J. missed most of the year with an injury.
Dedric (19.2 points per game) and K.J. (12.3 ppg) were two of the team’s top three scorers in 2016-17, Smith’s first as head coach, but that team lost six of its final seven games to finish 19-13 overall and 9-9 in the AAC.
The two Lawsons ranked first and second on the team in field goal attempts; they took 43 percent of all Tigers shots this past season. So why would they leave? Well, what happened in between season one and season two is that Smith was hired and chose to move Keelon Sr. off the coaching staff and into an administrative role, squeezing him through an NCAA loophole before it was officially on the books. One of the reasons Smith did this: to make his son, Saul Smith, an assistant coach.
Monday, Keelon Sr. told Parrish on his radio program that if not for the demotion Dedric and Keelon would not be leaving the Tigers.
In his letter, Bowen said the current Tigers staff members are “actively recruiting experienced student-athletes” to play at Memphis. He wrote, “I ask you to be supportive of the process and this program, as well.”
So the athletic department was OK with making Keelon Sr. a coach, and with demoting him, and with the son of the new head coach serving as one of the three assistant coaches allowed on a Division I staff.
What part of all this merits the support of any fan?