By Matthew Geerdes
M emphis Tiger Men’s Basketball began with a winning season (27-7-1) in 1920-21. Of course, the school was then called West Tennessee State Normal School and focused on teacher education, and the team played in the local “Scholastic League,” (1) with a schedule consisting mostly of area high schools (which were often destroyed by the college players) and the Memphis Y Rangers and UT Doctors, both of whom had the Tigers’ number. That first year’s team was coached by Frederick Grantham, a player/coach who was also the starting power forward (1).In 1921-22 the team was coached by W.H. DePriest, whose team played fewer high schools and only two home games. While in the early years, home games were sometimes played at Messick High School gym and at the Memphis YMCA, in 1921-22 both home games were played at the Tigers’ on campus venue – the “Normal Cage” – a room in the administration building marked with the dimensions of a basketball court, which left only 6 inches beyond the boundaries of the court (1). Needless to say, seating, as well as crowds, were non-existent on the way to a 1-7 record. Perhaps coaching was not DePriest’s problem, as he subsequently coached the Lady Tigers (aka Tigresses) to an 11-0 record in 1922-23 (2).
The Tigers’ next coach, Lester Barnhard (who also served as the Tigers’ baseball coach from 1922-24 and as football coach from 1922-23), posted a winning 6-4 record for basketball in the 1922-23 season, including a win over the University of Mississippi in the first game on January 12 (though they lost to the same team the next day, both games in Oxford), and a win over Hendrix college. Barnhard’s second year the team regressed to a losing record of 4-9 although almost half of the opponents were collegiate, and one of the wins was the Tigers’ first win over the UT Doctors. Barnhard left Memphis to coach basketball and football at Central Michigan, but lasted only two seasons there.
The 1924-25 season began the Tigers’ longest coaching tenure to date – the Zach Curlin era. Following in Barnhard’s footsteps, Curlin also served as the Tiger’s baseball coach from 1925 until 1936, and as football coach from 1924-1936. In the spring of 1937, Curlin announced he would only continue as basketball coach and athletic director (1). Curlin’s first basketball mark of 3-5 in the 24-25 season was inauspicious and three more losing seasons followed. However, high school opponents were steadily eliminated, and club teams on the schedule had dwindled to just a handful by the time the Tigers joined the Mississippi Valley Conference for the 1928 season, and the Tigers won 2 games on March 2 1928 to go to the conference title game on March 3, losing a heartbreaker to UT Martin Junior College by a score of 38-37.
The Tigers were on the rise in 1929, as they defeated Cumberland by a score of 40-27 to open the new $100,000 Memorial Gym on campus (1) (and none too soon, as the stock market crash in October of that year surely would have killed such a construction project). That year Curlin posted his first winning season, a whopping 15-3 record, losing only one game at home in the new on campus facility, and finishing second in the conference.
F our more winning seasons followed, through 1932. The rest of the 1930s were not kind to the Tigers, the lowest point being the 0-14 season of 1938, when only two games were even close – two one point losses to Middle Tennessee. That abysmal year marks the only winless season in school history.
In the midst of that stretch, the Tigers joined the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1936. By this time the conference had become a “small school” conference, but in its early days the conference had included mostly bigger schools, such as current members of the SEC and Big XII while at the same time it had also included a number of smaller colleges and even Memphis University School at the same time – so it should be noted that those schools were playing prep and high schools in their early days as well. The story of the SIAA is an interesting side note for anyone who has paid attention to more recent conference realignment.
A fter 1932, the next winning season for the Tigers came in 1941, when the Tigers went 9-8 as the school transitioned to a new name: Memphis State College.
With the onset of World War II, the SIAA disbanded in 1942, leaving the Tigers to scramble for a schedule including the likes of club teams sponsored by Coca Cola, Military-related teams, the Windsor, Canada Ford V8s (which had been Canada’s national team in the 1936 Olympic Games), and even exhibitions against professional teams like the Brooklyn/NY Celtics of the American Basketball League.
Including 1941 (and excluding the 1944 campaign which was canceled due to WW II), 5 of Curlin’s last 7 years as coach were winning seasons.
With Curlin’s retirement in 1948 after 23 seasons came “the little red head” – Coach McCoy Tarry (1). Tarry came to the Tigers from Brewers High School in Brewers, Kentucky where he led the Redmen to an undefeated state championship the prior season and at the time of his hiring was the reigning Kentucky High School Coach of the Year. Tarry is immortalized in a poem by a Brewers High School student as chewing on his tie during that championship game. Tarry built on Curlin’s recent winning seasons, and all 3 of his seasons at Memphis State were winning seasons.
Tarry was known to employ a strategy of protecting a lead by playing five guards and playing “keep away” with the ball (1).
I n 1950-1951, his 3rd season, Tarry led the Tigers to a 17-8 record, and that team suffered only two home losses, one of which was a 3 point loss to Louisville that darkened Epiphany day for Tiger fans in the first ever meeting between the schools. In his best and last season at Memphis State, Tarry led the Tigers to the third round of the NAIB tournament, the first national postseason play in school history.
Tarry left after that 1950-51 season, and apparently never held another major college head coaching job. But the Tigers did not miss a beat. In fact, they only picked up steam under the team’s sixth coach, Eugene Lambert. In Lambert’s first season, the Tigers returned to the NAIB tournament, falling in the second round to Portland.
The home opener for the Tigers in the 1951-52 series was a close loss to Mississippi St., 60-58, in front of 3500 fans in the new $700,000 field house (1). From mid December of 1951 to mid January of 1952, the Tigers took a month-long road trip, traveling to Idaho, Seattle, Portland, Hawaii, Spring Hill Alabama, and Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where the Tigers won the very first black and blue basketball game in convincing fashion, beating Mississippi Southern College (now Southern Miss) 72-57. Not only was this the longest road trip the Tigers had taken to this point, the flight to Hawaii was also the advent of Tiger air travel.
In 1951 and 1952, the Tigers first started to make their imprint on the national scene, and that continued when John Wallesea became the first Tiger to be selected in the NBA draft, chosen by the Minneapolis Lakers.
In 1952-53, Lambert posted his only losing season, but continued to expand the Tigers’ national exposure and experience by traveling to the northeast to play such schools as Temple, #11 Siena, and #1 Seton Hall. While the Tigers lost the latter game, their 85 points were the most any opponent scored on the Pirates to that point in the season. On that trip, the Tigers even played an exhibition game in Madison Square Garden against the New York Knicks! (1)
1953-54 saw the Tigers return to winning form with a 15-9 record, which included a 19 point win (104-85) over 4th ranked Marshall at the Field House, and a 10 point loss later in the season to then #4 ranked Western Kentucky. Most notably, 1954 marked the honoring of the Tigers’ first All-American, Forrest Arnold, who would go on to have a career high 46 point game against Hardin-Simmons in 1955 on his way to being the earliest Tiger player to have his number (#13) retired. Note that being the earliest player to have a number retired does not mean the first number to be retired, as the honor was actually bestowed by the school in 1995, 40 years after that 46 point game.
In his junior season (1954-55) Arnold paced the Lambert-coached Tigers to a 17-5 record, and the school’s first NCAA appearance, a 59-55 loss to Penn State in Lexington, KY.
In 1955-56, the Tigers with Arnold and new star Win Wilfong rose to a record of 20-7, starting the season by drubbing old foe Union 136-70, and continuing with wins over the likes of Texas A&M, Texas Western (now UTEP), Miami, Mississippi State, and West Virginia, among others.
The Tigers achieved their first national ranking that season, entering the AP poll at #18 on Dec 20, 1955 and rising to #12 on January 3, 1956, between Duke and Indiana (5). The Tigers rode all of this success to their second straight NCAA tournament bid, but unfortunately NCAA rules regarding freshmen and 4 year players prevented four of the Tigers’ starting 5 from playing in the tournament, including both Arnold and Wilfong (1).
Considering that the Tigers were not only shorthanded in numbers and not only missing four starters, but also missing two All-Americans (Wilfong the next season) who would become two of eight players in school history to have their numbers retired, it says a lot for the reserves that they managed to keep the game somewhat competitive, losing to Oklahoma City (who had been ranked throughout the season and went on to the Elite 8 by a final score of 96-81. One can only imagine the run the Tigers could have made in that tournament with their full team intact, or the momentum that could have generated for the program, but alas, it was not to be. Still, the next season was to be a great one for the Tigers.
Although Arnold was later drafted by the Atlanta Hawks, he returned to his native Missouri and founded the athletics programs at Evangel College and Central Bible College in Springfield, where he also continues to teach to this day. More dear to his heart than the 46 point game was preaching at the funeral of his high school coach who taught him the game. (4)
But while still in Memphis, Arnold earned All-America honors for his senior season as well on his way to a career total of 1,854 career points and 1,109 rebounds.
Lambert, who had left the head coaching job at his alma mater (Arkansas) to coach Memphis St., had the most successful years of his career at Memphis, winning only half of his games over the next 4 years after he left Memphis to coach Alabama (6).
The new coach, Bob Vanatta had a higher winning percentage at Army than Bob Knight or Mike Krzyzewski ended up having there, but then Vanatta had a rough two years as coach (and athletic director) of a Bradley program which was coming off the national title game the year before he was hired (7).
Vanatta’s change of employment from Bradley to Memphis seemed to benefit both the Tigers and the Braves, as the Tigers continued to rise, and truly arrived on the national scene in 1956-57, which culminated in Memphis St. and Bradley meeting in the NIT championship game.
On the way, the Tigers galvanized around a thrilling 81-78 victory over #3 ranked Louisville at Ellis auditorium on February 2, then two days later, the newly 16th ranked Tigers hosted their largest ever crowd of 4,000 spectators to witness an 86-84 nail-biting victory over #20 Western Kentucky. More than 1,000 fans were reportedly turned away at the door! (1)
The Tigers had risen to number 12 in the AP poll by the time postseason play began, but like 5th ranked Seattle, had no automatic bid due to lack of conference affiliation, so they engineered and accepted a bid to the still very prestigious NIT. Here is the story of the bid, as told by the university’s first Sports Information Director Bill Burk in a column in The Memphis Flyer:
Memphis State had had a successful season, even getting voted into the AP Top 10 a couple of times, but as I recall it, the Tigers closed the season losing to Centenary in Shreveport on a Saturday night. The team had been “on the bubble” for the NCAA; now it seemed that bubble might burst. I was then the school’s first sports information director. I got a long-distance call Sunday morning from Coach Bob Vanatta informing me he had sent a Western Union telegram to the NIT selection committee, signing my name to it, informing them I had inside information the NCAA would be offering the Tigers a bid at noon Monday. Coach V was putting pressure on the NIT to get their invite in ahead of the NCAA’s.
It worked. A couple hours later, the invite came, and Dr. C.C. Humphreys, then athletic director, accepted. (8)
The NCAA had just recently and slightly passed the NIT in stature, but as Burk points out, the quality of teams playing in the tournament is attested to by the fact that Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor lost in the early rounds. So the Tigers run to the championship game pushed local excitement to new heights, and got national attention.
In fact, the Tigers’ first game of the tournament against Utah on March 16, (their official game in Madison Square Garden, not counting the exhibition against the Knicks 4 years earlier), was also the first Tiger game to be broadcast on national TV.
Over 200 students traveled to New York via chartered buses, and about 300 more fans arrived in private vehicles to watch the Tigers play. The buses arrived just in time to see the Tiger’s thrilling win over St. Bonaventure, with the final margin provided by a Bill Swander buzzer-beater in overtime.
Despite not having a player over 6’5″, the Tigers defeated Utah, Manhattan, and St. Bonaventure on the way to the title game with Bradley. Once again, Burk provides the best retelling of the championship game available in print:
Bradley, with All-Americans Barney Cable and Bobby Joe Mason (later to become a Harlem Globetrotter), jumped out to a huge lead in the first half, and it looked like Cinderella’s bubble had popped. But Vanatta told the team that the game would be determined by the first five minutes of the second half. The Tigers came out of the locker room fired up and went on a 16-0 run that gave them a one-point lead. It stayed close to the very end. It was the closing moments that created most of the controversy.
Memphis grabbed a defensive rebound and freshman forward Orby Arnold broke free near half-court. He got a long pass and seemed headed for a sure two points, but the Bradley defender body-blocked Orby to the ground. No foul was called, and Bradley was given the ball on a traveling call. Then, inside a minute to play, as Cable drove for a layup, Jake Butcher ever so slightly touched Cable’s wrist while he was shooting. Cable sank two free throws to move Bradley ahead 84-83.(8)
A referee from the Tiger’s St. Bonaventure game commented afterward on how the officiating was unfair, and it was even the subject of an editorial in Time Magazine (8).
Win Wilfong scored 31 points in the game and was voted MVP of the tournament, despite the losing effort.
Over 2,000 Memphis fans, including Elvis, gathered at the airport to welcome the team home after midnight, and WREG stayed on the air late to provide live coverage of the arrival to the rest of the fans in the city who were overwhelmed with Tiger fever (1) (8).
T he next two seasons saw a good winning percentage and some top 25 wins, but no postseason play. The following two seasons the Tigers exited in the first round of the NIT. In 1961, Wayne Yates was voted the best player to have played in Philadelphia, based on his 25 point and 23 rebound effort in a 78-74 win over Villanova (1).
In 1962, the Tigers returned to the NCAA tournament, losing a 4 point game to Creighton. Vanatta left after the season, returning to his home town to coach the Missouri Tigers, but never again reached the same level of success he had at Memphis.
Dean Ehlers, an assistant under Vanatta, took over the program and the highlight of his tenure was a 19-7 record and NIT second round in his first year, 1962-63.
But the most important thing that happened during the Ehlers years was the opening of the Mid-South Coliseum (although that statement might not be true had Bobby Smith been allowed to enroll – more on that later). The Tigers opened the building and the 1964-65 season with an 82-73 victory over Texas A&M in front of 8,763 Tiger fans, the largest home crowd to that date, due to the expansion from the Field House which could hold 4,000 with standing room only to the 11,200 seat Coliseum.
The rest of the 1964-65 season didn’t go so well, as the Tigers’ 10-14 mark was the first losing record since the 1952-53 Tigers produced the exact same final result. Ehlers was let go after the 65-66 Tigers fell even further to a 10-15 record.
On May 19, 1966 the Tigers were invited to join the Missouri Valley Conference (1), giving them a conference home for the first time since WWII.
Coach Moe Iba had a good first year, producing a 17-9 record and returning the Tigers to postseason play in the NIT in 1966-67. But that promising start was followed up with 3 disastrous years that still bring up painful memories for many Tiger fans, although it was said by some that Iba’s hard-nosed and aggressive coaching style was entertainment in and of itself.
But there is a deeper insight to be gained from the difficult days of Iba and the improvements that followed. While Iba’s plodding offensive style played a role in the many losses of his tenure the new conference also exposed a brooding problem hanging over the university and the city itself.
Most Missouri Valley Conference schools at the time had many black players, while Memphis and the university were woefully behind in granting opportunity regardless of race, therefore severely limiting the pool of available players. The university had finally started admitting black students in 1960, but the athletic department did not let coaches recruit black players until 1964. (9)
Tiger guard Mike Butler was one of those who had pushed the administration for the change. In a 2003 interview with the Commercial Appeal, Butler reflected on the needed change:
“It needed to happen,” says Butler, who often ventured to black neighborhoods for pickup games. “Growing up, I had seen all these great black players going away to school. It really didn’t make sense.
“Actually, segregation didn’t make sense if you really want to get down to it.”(9)
In 1965, Ehlers had gotten a commitment from Bobby “Bingo” Smith, a legend of the local high school “Negro Leagues” (and whom observers of Penny Hardaway used as a reference point), but supposedly due to an issue on an entrance exam, he was not allowed to enroll (9). He had no problem enrolling at Tulsa however, where he scored 1,368 points and went on to be the #6 overall pick in the 1969 NBA draft, where he played for 11 seasons and scored over 10,000 points (10).
The Smith episode left a bad taste in the mouth of the local black community and set the university further back in recruiting talented local black players. The one black player on Iba’s first team was Herb Hilliard, an unrecruited walk-on but not skilled enough to be a serious contributor (9).
However Iba, despite his struggles putting a winning product on the court, doggedly recruited two local stars from Melrose High School in neighboring Orange Mound beginning in their sophomore year: Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson.
Robinson was a talented although skinny forward (arriving at Memphis at 6’8″ 175). Finch was a guard with a sturdy frame who was not extremely athletic, but was natural born shooter, with an eye for trajectory and an uncanny amount of spin on the ball. He had honed those natural skills through watching and learning from and eventually challenging older players on the courts of Orange Mound. Finch and Robinson met in junior high and became fast friends, inseparable by the time they shared the court together at Melrose, leading the Golden Wildcats to the city championship over Overton at the Mid-South Coliseum in 1969, their senior season.
Despite the great resistance and mistrust of Memphis State in Orange Mound and the Memphis black community, Iba had worked hard to develop relationships, such as with Leonard Draper, who worked in local community centers and helped Iba make connections around the gyms, and with Verties Sails, who was assistant coach at Melrose at the time. Through those relationships and the assurance of a scholarship to Robinson, Finch found the comfort he needed to follow the desire of his heart, and play for his hometown Tigers.
Of course, this was one of several periods in NCAA history when freshmen were not allowed to play varsity basketball, and the clock had run out on Iba’s losing records before the young stars became sophomores, so Finch and Robinson never got to play for the coach who had recruited them with such determination. (For more detail on the whole Finch commitment story, read this excellent article from the Commercial Appeal).
However, the ultimate story is that through the difficult records of the Iba years, the foundation was laid for the Tigers’ rise to the top of college basketball, and when they did suit up as varsity Tigers, the talents of Finch and Robinson were perfectly matched with the coaching acumen of one “Clean” Gene Bartow.
When Bartow walked into the home of the Blues it was a city strung taught with racial tension, which had been bent to a higher pitch when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. It’s understandable that many of Finch’s advisers wanted him to get out of town, but less than 18 months later, he and Robinson were enrolled at the University, and a year after that, they were starting for Bartow’s first Tiger team. It didn’t take long for the legendary impact to begin; from the first 6 seconds of their first game, when the crowd erupted at Finch’s first two points on a 25 foot basket, people from all walks of life started to come together in at least one thing – a common rhythm of excitement pulsing through their veins for the rejuvenated Tigers.
I n the 1970-71 season, the 18-8 Tigers did not yet return to postseason play, but still made a terrific turnaround, including a win over then #13 Louisville. Ronnie “Big Cat” Robinson also had his biggest day that season, scoring a career high 30 points and grabbing a superhuman school record 28 rebounds – a record that endures to this day and will probably never be broken. The 1971-72 season saw a team that was more seasoned and able to play at the highest level, giving Al McGuire’s #2 ranked Marquette Golden Eagles all they wanted in a narrow 74-73 Tiger loss at the Coliseum, and then later beating Louisville twice (by 8 points on the road when Louisville was ranked #3, and by 15 at home when the Cardinals were ranked #2). Conference championship rules pitted the Tigers against the Cardinals once more, in a playoff game in Nashville, which the Cardinals won, and taking the MVC’s autmatic bid to the NCAA tournament. A deflated Memphis State team went on to lose to Oral Roberts in the NIT.The way the Tigers started the next season, no one would have guessed where they would end up. By the time Memphis State lost to Texas on December 12, they had compiled a record of 2-3, with the three losses being to the only serious competition they faced.
Then the Tigers clicked into place, with three junior college newcomers Larry Kenon (who would go on to be a 5 time All-Star pro and ABA champion the next year with Dr. J), Billy Buford, and Wes Westfall, plus freshman Bill Cook finding their roles to fit in with the established play of Finch, Robinson, Bill Laurie, and Clarence Jones, and the team amassed 14 straight wins, only losing twice more in the regular season.
In the NCAA tournament, the Tigers started out in Houston, first beating South Carolina by 14 points, then #9 Kansas St. by 20 points, sending them to the Final 4 for the first time.
5,000 frenzied Memphians of all ethnic, cultural, and economic backgrounds showed up at the airport to welcome the Tigers back from the Regional. The people of the city were caught up together in a common joy that cut the tension and gave a new vision of hope for the future and a common bond that would continue.
Still, the Tigers had more ball to play. In St. Louis, they picked up where they left off, beating #4 Providence by 13.
To followers of Tiger history, Providence had it coming, after knocking the Tigers out of postseason play in 1960 and 1967. Providence star guard Ernie DiGregorio got off to a hot start, but then the Tigers found their rhythm and the game played fairly evenly. While Friars center Marvin Barnes sat out part of the game with a sprained knee, coach Bartow instructed his team to pound the ball inside, and the Tigers’ stars put on a dominant performance, as Kenon had an unreal 28 points and 22 rebounds while Robinson added an amazing 24 points and 16 rebounds, and Finch (only!) had 21 points.
After a raucous postgame celebration that included the likes of the governor and Isaac Hayes (12), attention turned to the championship game. The Tigers came into the game with a full awareness of the juggernaut they faced. UCLA had won the previous 6 NCAA titles, and 74 games in a row prior to the game with Memphis State, and they had a record of 207-5 in the previous 7 years. However, the Tigers had plenty of skill and confidence of their own, and despite 3 early fouls on Kenon, they pulled to a 39-39 tie at halftime, and felt more confident than ever.
Stories abound of Finch’s trick shots in open gym time around Memphis, and of ability to score from anywhere on (or off) the floor. He was known for laying down backwards at the foul line and swishing the ball through the hoop, and for shooting from seats all over the bleachers in the field house. That ability to put the ball in the hole was on full display in his 29 point performance in the championship game.
But with Kenon’s 3 early fouls and Robinson picking up his 4th early in the second half, Walton didn’t have to contend with all of the Tiger’s size on his way to the most dominant performance in NCAA tournament history.
Walton hit a record 21-22 field goals for 44 points in the game. Several things went into that amazing percentage. Dunks were illegal at the time, and about 7 “uncalled dunks” and goaltends were controversial not only to Tiger fans, but to the players and coach Bartow as well (12). While this might sound like sour grapes in the era of celebrating dunks, it takes on a different perspective when one remembers that Kenon could certainly have made use of the dunk, as he was one of the participants in the first pro dunk contest, see the video here, Kenon starts at 3:58 – and several of his game dunks can be seen in a Spurs highlight film here.
Regardless, Finch showed grace, sportsmanship, and his famous sense of humor – helping Walton out of the game when Walton sprained his ankle late in the game. When asked by the Commercial Appeal’s Ron Higgins in 2007 why he helped Walton off the floor, Finch said “Because, he was kicking our (butt)!” (14)
In a 2002 USA Today article, the game was listed as the 18th greatest NCAA tournament game of all time, mostly because of Walton’s scoring. (13) But the Bruins have always been very complimentary of the Tigers’ play. Walton said: “We knew we were going to have to be at the top of our game against Memphis because they were such a terrific team — we knew we had our hands full. And Gene Bartow was such an outstanding coach.” (12)
UCLA Coach John Wooden said of the game: “The 87-66 final score was misleading — it didn’t indicate the toughness of the game” (12)
The accomplishments of the Tigers were not only noticed by local fans or their opponents however. Memphis State was the only team of the tournament that year to place two players on the All-Tournament team – Larry Finch and Larry Kenon, and Bartow was named NABC coach of the year.
But as much as they accomplished on the court, taking the team to heights that were not reached again for 35 years, the impact of the team’s accomplishments off the court can only be described as transcending the importance of sport itself. While racial issues and attitudes still divide people in Memphis as they do throughout the nation and the world, the unification of the city around the Tigers in 1972-73 led to not just a common feeling or topic of conversation, but a greater number of people who began to look at others as people, more like themselves than different.
And as talented and spirited as the other players were, as sharp a coaching mind and as much class as Coach Bartow brought with him, everyone knew that the key piece that set it all in motion was the 6’2″ guard who was known in the Mound as “Dirty Red” and to his Tiger teammates as “Little Chubby” or “Little Tubby,” to fans as the great #21, the epitome of Memphis basketball and the man who would become almost as legendary a coach as he was a player, Larry Finch.
Then of course the All-Americans Finch and Robinson (who would both go on to have their numbers retired) graduated and were drafted by both the NBA and ABA. Kenon was drafted early by the ABA’s Nets, a huge accomplishment for his one year of play at the major college level.
Given these departures, the rebuilding Tigers of 1973-74 fought their way to a respectable 19-11 record, losing to #5 and eventual champion NC State, splitting the series with top 20 ranked Louisville, and making their way to the second round of the NIT before losing to #15 Utah.
When Illinois was hit with NCAA penalties in 1974, they sought out the man known as “Clean Gene” to set their program back on the right track. As Bartow and the Memphis State administration had not been seeing eye to eye on some things, he was ready for the move. However, his stay at Illinois lasted only one year, as UCLA came calling upon Bartow to replace John Wooden. While it was difficult for some Memphis fans to see Bartow coaching UCLA, that only lasted for 2 years, before he took the job as athletic director and founding basketball coach at UAB. Of some interest to Tiger fans, it was revealed years later that Bartow wrote a letter to an NCAA enforcement official referring to concerns for his life over resisting the influence of booster Sam Gilbert at UCLA, though Bartow (known to avoid any public criticism) has said it was a joke. (15) This relates to Tiger basketball as it adds to the mountain of evidence about the Bruins’ ineligibility to compete in 1973 among other years, due to Gilbert’s activities (16), and Tiger fans have an understandable complaint about such things.
Nevertheless, for whatever reasons, Bartow came to UAB, he continued to be warmly welcomed in Memphis and would still be a part of the city’s basketball story in years to come.
Former Tiger All-American and Bartow assistant Wayne Yates was hired as the next head coach, and led the Tigers to 3 straight seasons with 20 or more wins and postseason appearances (one NCAA tournament appearance).
In 1975, Memphis left the Missouri Valley, joining with Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Saint Louis and Tulane to form the Metropolitan Collegiate Athletic Conference, also known as the Metro 6 and later simply as the Metro Conference (12)
On December 11, 1976 Tiger star John Gunn was admitted to the hospital, suffering from Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. He died on December 21, just 90 minutes before his teammates tipped off against Mississippi (12). The team won the game in his honor, bur mourned his loss all year.
Yates’ program showed signs of slowing in 1977-78 as the Tigers dropped to 19 wins, but it became a crisis the next year when the Tigers fell to a losing record of 13-15, and under those circumstances, Yates left his one and only head coaching position.
T he next coach would be one of the most complex figures in Tiger basketball history: Dana Kirk. Kirk had played center for Marshall, (17) and by 8 years after graduation had landed his first head coaching job, leading Tampa from 1966-71. He left for greater pay and advancement opportunities as an assistant to Louisville head coach Denny Crum, where he worked from 1971-76. Kirk learned Crum’s high-low offense to perfection. Kirk was hired by Virginia Commonwealth University in 1976, and his impressive record of 57-23 led to his hiring at Memphis State, which needed a spark to return it’s program to glory. (18)Regarding Kirk’s complexity: he would in fact return the program to glory, but at the same time bring about it’s greatest shame. Even after his death, many fans are simultaneously proud and embarrassed at his legacy. Was he a great winner, a great cheater, or both? He certainly came across larger than life, especially when he was winning, with a personality both egotistical and engaging. He brought in great recruiting classes and yet was possibly the finest bench coach to hold the job.Kirk’s daring, bravado, and basketball brilliance can be seen in the way he took advantage of the rules to design his famous “wrong way play.” Kirk exploited the lack of a second half tip-off by having his players line up on the wrong end of the floor, with the point guard loosely guarded in the “backcourt,” which was actually the end with the Tigers’ basket. The point guard would receive the inbounds pass and then turn and get a free two points as he would go in for a layup essentially unguarded, as in the following video clip (and see another example following the clip):
Kirk’s first season went about as well as Yates’ last, which is to say it went poorly, at 13-14, with a December 28 victory over #19 Arkansas standing as the lone highlight. However that season did feature another iconic Kirk moment and perhaps the strangest finish to a major college Division I game ever. On February 7, with 15:40 left to go in the second half of a game at Florida State, Kirk became so agitated by the officiating that he pulled his team off the floor, resulting in a forfeit!A great freshman class the next year did not help the bottom line, and with the exact same record as the previous year there were a lot of forgettable moments. However, in hosting Kansas, beating Louisville at home in overtime, and beating Cincinnati at the Shoe in quadruple overtime, the young team (with only two seniors) gained valuable experience.
For the next season, the Tigers added West Memphis’ Keith Lee – an exceptionally skilled 6-10 forward, who would become a 4 time All-American, the leading scorer in school history, and who remains on various lists of the top 50 and top 100 college players of all time. Lee averaged an amazingly consistent 18+ points and about 11 rebounds his first 3 years and then 19.7 points and 9.2 rebounds his senior season. (20)
Everyone expected him to make a major impact, but still, it was amazing to see the turnaround as the addition of Lee (joined by Aaron Price and Ricky McCoy) sparked the maturing Tigers to a 24-5 record. Memphis State didn’t lose a single home game, defeated 3 ranked opponents on the year, and returned to the polls for the first time since 1972-73. They entered the AP poll at #19 in the latter part of the season, rising to #9 as they secured an NCAA berth. The Tigers pulled off a 56-55 victory over Wake Forest in the first round, before falling 70-66 to Villanova.
See 1981-82 highlights set to the original song “Bu-Bu-Bu-Bu Basketball” from that season:
The Tigers entered the 1982-83 season with two more key additions, forward Baskerville “Batman” Holmes, and “The Little General” Andre Turner. As with most freshmen point guards Turner took some time to adjust to the college game, and as with most who face high expectations, many fans were not patient enough, calling him “Andre Turnover” early in his career. Indeed, Turner barely posted a positive assist to turnover ratio that year, with 127 to 120. (21) But still the two newcomers melded with the team stocked full of ever more experienced talent, and the Tigers rose to another level, if not quite to expectations.
Memphis State started out the season ranked #6, and with 11 straight wins to begin the year, rose to #1 for the first time in school history on January 10, before losing the first game of the season at Virginia Tech only hours later. The Tigers still hovered around the top 5, with victories that included eventual champion NC State and a revenge victory over the Hokies. Then with two losses to Tulane in the space of a week, they dropped back into the teens, where they stayed for the rest of the season. In the NCAA tournament, the Tigers got a tough draw, but in an unforgettable matchup, Lee and the Tigers got the best of Patrick Ewing and the Georgetown Hoyas, with Lee’s 28 point and 15 rebound performance leading Memphis State to a 66-57 victory.
The Tigers didn’t fare so well against their Sweet 16 opponents, the “Phi Slamma Jamma” Houston Cougars, featuring Clyde “the Glide” Drexler and Akeem “the Dream” Olajuwon. Lee battled valiantly against the taller Olajuwon, but the Cougars were too much for the Tigers that day, and the eventual runner-up won 70-63. Turner was unfortunately immortalized in this clip in which Drexler “glides” over the head of the 5’11″ guard to complete a spectacular dunk.
For the 1983-84 season, the team added guard Jon Wilfong (nephew of Tiger legend and All-American Win Wilfong), forward Larry Bush, and 7 footer William Bedford, an athletic and very talented prospect. Bedford made the short journey from Melrose, the high school of Tiger legend and Kirk assistant coach Larry Finch.
Memphis State started the season ranked high, at #5 in the AP poll, and remained in the top 5 for the first several weeks. But after a one point loss to unranked
Mississippi State at home and a 14 point loss to #15 UCLA at Pauley Pavilion within the space of a week, the Tigers dropped into the teens.
Then the Tigers returned to winning form, racking up 12 straight wins, including a 69-65 victory over Oklahoma at the Coliseum, where Lee outplayed 3 year first team All-American Wayman Tisdale, with 22 points and 18 rebounds to Tisdale’s 12 and 14. (22)
Memphis State made its way back into top 10 before losing to Louisville, Va Tech, and Louisville again within the span of two and a half weeks.
The Tigers were a 6 seed headed into the NCAA tournament, but the Mid-South Coliseum was a first round NCAA site and at the time there were no rules against playing on home courts, so the Tigers had a lot of support in their 92-83 victory over Oral Roberts, and the energy only built for their 18 point domination of 3rd seeded Purdue.
In the Sweet Sixteen, the Tigers lost to Olajuwon’s Cougars by 7 points, just like the previous year, although this time, freshman center William Bedford scored 21 points against Olajuwon. The Cougars would go on to be national runner up again, though without such a dramatic finish this time.
While the Tigers lost in the Sweet Sixteen for the 3rd straight year, Lee continued to put up strong performances, including an average of 12.3 rebounds per game in the tournament. That was the highest rebounding average in the field, which of course included Olajuwon and Most Outstanding Player Patrick Ewing of the champion Hoyas. (23)
Lee could have been drafted high after the season, but just as he declined to attend the Olympic trials in the spring of 1984, he also stayed out of the draft because he wanted to be home in the Memphis area with his mother, who was suffering from bone cancer. Rebecca Lee died on October 22, 1984, just before the start of practice. (25)
As the Tigers entered the 1984-85 season, they added shooting guards Vincent Askew and Dwight Boyd, forward David Jensen, and center DeWayne “Real Ugly” Bailey. David Jensen was not only the sole recruit who didn’t come from Memphis, he was also the only player on the team who didn’t play high school ball in the Memphis area. But even Jensen had a claim to be a Memphian, as he was born in Memphis and both his mother and grandmother were Memphis State alumnae. (24)
But even as the Tigers were ranked #5 by the AP and #4 by Sports Illustrated to start the season, significant questions remained, namely, who would replace 3 departed seniors – shooting guard Phillip “Doom” Haynes (no more booming of “Doom” around the Coliseum as he fired up one of his trademark bank shots), center Derrick Phillips and small forward Bobby Parks. Phillips and Parks had gone down with midseason injuries (Parks collided with a Florida State player and blew out his knee), so Bedford and Baskerville Holmes had already made their way into the starting lineup. Those replacements seemed likely to stick, but shooting guard remained an open question.
As Askew won the starting spot, the mostly veteran Tiger team started 9-0 including home wins over Southern Cal and UCLA, and road victories over Mississippi, and Mississippi State, before losing at South Carolina by 2. Then came another 8 game win streak including a 3 point win at Louisville, a victory at Virginia Tech, and two convincing wins over Florida State. Some of the details of those games and of the team at that time are captured in this passage from a February 11, 1985 Sports Illustrated article by Curry Kirkpatrick:
“The final piece to the puzzle is Skew,” says Turner of his rookie back-court mate, Askew, a fluid, 6’5″ athletic wonder to whom Kirk is delegating increased shooting and ball-handling responsibility. This has taken pressure off Turner, formerly maligned as Andre Turnover, who has cut his giveaways by nearly one a game as compared with last season. Nowadays Turner will sometimes move to the wing; he made two key jumpers from there Saturday while a full complement of Hokies were doing the hokey-pokey around Lee. Askew, meanwhile, responded with 18 points and eight assists—a neat followup to his performances at Florida State (16 points) and at archrival Louisville, where he absolutely saved the Tigers in a 69-66 victory. That was Memphis State’s first win at the ‘Ville in nine years. While Lee and Bedford, beset with fouls, could manage only 17 points between them in that victory, and Turner was shut out. Askew iron-manned the full 40 minutes, scored 11 points and passed off for 11 other baskets.
The Tiger reserves, often lifeless in the past, have come alive. Could be that’s from watching the spectacular Memphis State pompon girls, who, shimmying through their X-rated routines, not only have blown the UCLA song girls out of the water but also have become the closest thing in the civilized world to the Solid Gold Dancers.
The killer Bs off the bench are swing-man Willie Becton, who had 10 points and 10 rebounds at Florida State; freshman guard Dwight Boyd, who scored 16 at Louisville; and Dewayne Bailey, Lee’s rookie caddie, who calls himself RU (Real Ugly). With Non-B sophomore John Wilfong, nephew of old Tiger hero Win, all have come through in clutch situations time and again.
After that article had gone to press, the run was stopped by a 4 point loss at #13 Kansas on February 9, in phenom and future champion Danny Manning’s freshman season. The next win streak lasted 6 games and included a thrilling comeback from 16 points down to win at home over Florida State (the final minute of game time is seen in this video), a 14 point home win avenging the earlier loss to South Carolina, and an 8 point home victory over Kirk’s prior team, the 17th ranked VCU Rams. Then this Jeckyll and Hyde team suffered what many felt to be an odd loss to Detroit. The Tigers then won the last regular season game, and their three Metro tournament games, including another defeat of Louisville at Freedom Hall, where the tournament was held.
The loss to Detroit probably cost the Tigers a seed, as they entered the NCAA tournament a #2, in Oklahoma’s bracket. But after a 12 point victory over 15 seeded Pennsylvania, the mighty Tigers showed their vulnerable side, needing heroic shots from “The Little General” Andre Turner in two consecutive games over UAB and Boston College in order to advance to the regional final game against Oklahoma. Oklahoma had needed their own heroics from their aforementioned All-American Wayman Tisdale to make it to the game, as they lived on only after his 5-bounce buzzer beater fell through the net to beat Louisiana Tech in overtime. Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Wolff described how Turner took over the Oklahoma game as well:
He was most impressive against the Sooners during a 2 minute stretch midway through the second half. The 6’10″ Keith Lee and 7-foot William Bedford, who sandwiched Oklahoma star Wayman Tisdale at the back of the Tiger zone and limited him to 11 points, had each picked up a fourth foul, and the Sooners were two points behind. On four straight possessions, Turner twice threw alley-oop passes to Bedford for baskets, then twice swished jumpers in the lane after receiving feeds from Becton. For much of the rest of the game he baby-sat the ball, adding a layup and hitting both ends of a one-and-one.
The Memphis State Tigers were going back to the Final Four, twelve years after their first Final Four and title game appearance. Assistant coach Lee Fowler felt good about the team’s chances, but felt that other recent Tiger teams had been just as good, as reported in an article in the Los Angeles Times:
Fowler points out that this year’s Tigers are just “one of the best Memphis State teams of the last four seasons.
“We’re capable of winning the national championship, but we’ve had three other teams this good. Just remember our previous NCAA pairings. Twice we were matched against Houston and Akeem Olajuwon,” Fowler said.
“This time we were never matched against a big pivotman and Villanova doesn’t have one for us to work with Saturday,” Fowler said. “Of course, Georgetown has a guy we all know (Patrick Ewing), but we’d like to have that challenge Monday.”
Of course, Fowler and the Tigers aren’t forgetting that the last team to defeat Georgetown in NCAA Tournament play was Memphis State by a 66-57 score in 1983.
Thousands of Memphis fans headed up to Lexington in high spirits. As Fowler said, they had seen so many potentially contending teams fall short of the biggest stage.
Villanova’s plan of attack for the game was to disrupt Memphis State’s high-low attack through multiple different defensive looks and physical play to cut off and frustrate Lee. Massimino said: “Our goal was to control Keith Lee – that’s what we tried to do.” (29)
Commenting on the physicality and ugliness of the game afterward, Kirk’s said “If Villanova is Cinderella, Cinderella wears boots” (27)
Lee picked up his first foul just seconds into the game and then was hampered by a second first half foul. He got his 3rd with 17 minutes left in the second, and ultimately fouled out with 10 minutes left, all the while being blanketed by Villanova players.
Still, the Tigers stayed in the game, and it was as close as the previous three games had been. Ultimately Turner’s heroics almost saved the day again, but down by just one point with 1:15 left, Turner had a nice looking jump shot rim out, and several more attempts missed. Eventually the Tigers had to foul, and Gary McClain, who later admitted to using cocaine before the game, (28) made the foul shots to seal the game. The 52-45 final score shows that the game was ugly, but not how closely fought the contest was the whole way. Below is a video recap of the game:
It wasn’t the result anyone wanted, of course, but even in disappointment over the game, there remained pride among Tiger fans over reaching the Final Four. In retrospect, the close wins in reaching the semifinal and the loss to the eventual champion shows the difficulty of the accomplishment, even with as talented a team as the Tigers put on the floor.
After four All-American seasons, Lee was drafted #11 by the Bulls in 1985, and traded to the Cavaliers. However, the NBA’s intense schedule took its toll on his knees which had been a problem since Lee was a child, and he never played more than 67 games in a season, in the three years he played for the Cavs and the Nets.
How would the Tigers adjust to the departure of Lee (along with reserves Willie Becton and Ricky McCoy)?
Despite those losses, investigations of gambling issues involving both Kirk and the program, and published reports alleging NCAA violations, all of which were public by mid-June of 1985, (30), the 1985-86 team didn’t seem to feel any ill effects.
The additions of Rodney Douglas and Marvin Alexander helped, but the success of the season came from the seasoning of seniors Turner and Holmes, juniors Kenneth Moody, John Wilfong and William Bedford, and sophomore Askew finally coming into his own.
The Tigers got off to a 20-0 start, including victories over three ranked teams, with close wins over #5 Kansas, #17 Louisville, and finally, a dominating win over Virginia Tech, with the decisive 2nd half run preserved here:
That win would be immediately followed by the season’s first loss on February 1 as the #2 ranked Tigers traveled to the #16 Hokies who clearly had a taste for revenge after the 22 point drubbing they received just 5 days earlier.
In the last game of the regular season, the Tigers lost to Louisville by 1 point in Freedom Hall, payback for the Tigers’ 2 point win over the Cardinals at the Coliseum, and showing just how evenly matched the teams were. The Tigers went on to lose the Metro Conference championship game to Louisville, also at Freedom Hall.
The Tigers entered the tournament as a 3 seed, but in the second game faced 11 seeded LSU, in a game played in Baton Rouge. The Memphis State Tigers led by 12 in the second half, but with 2 key MSU players in foul trouble, LSU mounted a comeback, and after trading baskets inside of the last minute with the game tied, LSU‘s Anthony Wilson had the ball squirt out of a loose ball scrum into his hands, where he fired up an off-balance 10 foot heave that went in at the buzzer for a 83-81 LSU victory. (31) LSU would go on to win their way into the Final Four, where they lost to the eventual champion Louisville Cardinals who had matched so evenly with the Tigers in the regular season.
In 1986, the NCAA levied its case against Memphis State. (32) The big item the NCAA cited for the vacation of tournament appearances, probation, and a one year postseason ban was the overpayment of Pell Grants to athletes in Football and Men’s and Women’s basketball. The amount of the Pell Grants was not more than non-athletes received and was legal under the Pell Grant program, but the NCAA had a regulation restricting the amount of Pell Grants to athletes until a short time after this penalty was handed down to Memphis State. While the amount sounds like a lot – $58,000, that was federal money administered by the financial aid office to 60 otherwise qualifying (read needy) students over the course of four years, for an average of $966 per year. Furthermore, the rule restricting Pell Grant funds was removed less than 10 years later, thus the ostensible reason for Memphis’ vacated 1985 Final Four is the common and legal practice for all NCAA institutions today.
The other basketball related violation listed in the report is William Bedford’s use of a booster’s car on 5 different occasions, but the university suspended him when this was discovered, thus a penalty was already self-imposed. (33)
That is not to say there were no other violations. Keith Lee was called as a witness in Dana Kirk’s tax evasion trial, where a lot of things came to light under the weight of the court. In that trial it was revealed that Kirk received payments for tournament appearances (34) and for interviews (35), that he failed to report income from endorsements (36), and that he charged children at basketball camp $1 each for drinks which were donated (37). But Lee’s testimony revealed that he received a $1200 lump sum cash payment, a car, a television, a stereo, and up to $600 a month in additional money, with a total value of about $40,000. (38)
However, to keep this in context, Lee testified that representatives of Arkansas State offered him $30,000 plus other inducements. (39) Furthermore, to reference another source from the time, Gary McClain said in his tell-all article that he received no inducements like players at other schools (although it should be noted that he was not a top level recruit or All-American) but in Villanova’s supposedly clean championship-winning program, he was able to “borrow” money from boosters whenever he wanted some cash, without paying it back. (40)
And so Tiger fans’ relationship with Kirk’s teams remains complex: wanting to still celebrate and enjoy their accomplishments, unable to hide from the truth that violations of the rules occurred, and painfully (perhaps bitterly) aware that many other teams who were that good have also been that bad, but are celebrated without reservation by national media and fans because their misdeeds never came to light or were never punished.
Perhaps the legendary “voice of the Tigers” for many years “Big Jack” Eaton summed up the Kirk era best in a 2010 editorial in Memphis Sport Magazine:
Basketball fans got an insight into big-time college basketball when it came to light that Keith Lee got more than $40,000 from Kirk to play for the Tigers. Keith was the top high school prospect in this area and his signing was the foundation for the Tigers great success. The kid from West Memphis was, to put it bluntly, a stud. Boy, could he play. He became Memphis’ all-time leading scorer. Yes, he was a bargin for 40 G’s. Kirk recruited other great players: Baskerville Holmes, Bobby Parks, Andre Turner, “Doom” Haynes, William Bedford, John Wilfong, Vincent Askew and more.
Combine great players and a great coach and you’ll get Dana Kirk and the Tigers. It’s a shame that they can’t be honored as one of our all time greats. But they will be in that limbo consigned to disgraced teams. Too bad. I loved those guys.
However, as a postscript, while the NCAA struck Memphis’ appearances in the 1982-1986 tournaments from the record and vacated the games, they will be
happy to sell you DVDs of each of the games for $24.99 each.
1986-87 looked to be a tough transition for the Tigers, with Turner and Holmes having completed their eligibility, and Bedford going pro after his junior year, while adjusting to a new head coach, and being on probation with a postseason ban. It would have been easy for the team to “mail it in” as a season that wouldn’t really count, with plenty of built-in excuses.
But the team defied expectations. They started slow, at 2-3, but then only lost 5 more games, to finish the season at 26-8. Many of the wins came in dramatic fashion, however, including at least 5 come from behind victories, which led to the nickname the “Cardiac Kids” and had the university posting disclaimers (perhaps tongue in cheek) suggesting that people with heart conditions not watch the Tigers play. (11) The most dramatic and memorable of these comeback was when the Tigers were down by 7 at Oral Roberts with 15 seconds to go, and won on senior John Wilfong’s buzzer-beating 3 pointer, as seen here:
The 1989-90 and 1990-91 seasons featured a few top 25 wins, but despite some nice individual efforts, the team was not able to win 20 games either season, and both seasons ended with NIT losses at home. However, help was already on the way.
T he 1990 Parade Magazine National Player of the Year and #1 high school player in the country, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway of Treadwell High School in Memphis was already on the Tigers’ bench for the 90-91 season, but was unable to play for academic reasons. Hardaway was already considered one of the best to ever come from the talent-rich local basketball scene, and he would go on to live up to that standard with his play for the Tigers and in the NBA.It wasn’t just that Hardaway could do it all, a swingman with the size of a small forward and the skills of a point guard. It was how he did it. He was fast getting down the floor but not frantic, athletic but seemingly effortless. Perhaps the best description of his game draws on the language of theoretical physics as Esquire magazine once did, saying:
Rather than `breaking defenders down or running swiftly by them, Hardaway seemed to elude them by drifting in and out of a private dimension, as though the very essence of the game were wormholed for him personally. He was a free radical within the physics of basketball. The comparisons with Magic Johnson were not misplaced. (45)
The following highlight reel with both NBA and college highlights shows Hardaway operating in his “private dimension” …
Hardaway wasn’t the only star newcomer on the 1991-92 team. He would be joined by highly skilled and highly regarded 6-9 forward David Vaughn from Nashville. Vaughn, a McDonalds All-American and Parade All-American, was ranked as highly as #5 in his recruiting class, so he was a major catch for head coach Larry Finch (11). Of course it certainly didn’t hurt that Vaughn was being recruited to Memphis State by his Uncle Larry! In fact, Vaughn is really David Vaughn III, and his father David Jr. was a 7 footer who was supposed to come and play at Memphis State with Finch. However, he had been swayed to go play at Oral Roberts University when Roberts himself came to Nashville to recruit him. In a peculiar twist of fate, Vaughn Jr. married Finch’s sister Gail. But the marriage did not last and Vaughn Jr. was overseas playing basketball, and Vaughn III ended up being raised by his grandparents in Nashville. Coach Finch nurtured a relationship with young David, having him come to Memphis in the summer for basketball camp and stay at his house.
The buzz going into the season was incredible, with the supreme talent on deck, the Tigers set to play in the newly formed Great Midwest Conference, and had played their last game at the 11,200 seat Mid-South Coliseum, leaving the “round house” for the newly constructed 20,142 seat Pyramid Arena.
The first game in the Pyramid was nationally televised on ESPN, against #20 DePaul, and the Tigers and Demons put on a show. Unfortunately the Tigers eventually lost in overtime 92-89.
Even with the freshman phenoms, the season got off to a slow start, with the Tigers losing 6 of the first 14 games. But then they fell into place, and reeled off 15 wins in the remaining 20 games. That winning streak included a defeat of #5 Arkansas (who the Tigers would beat a second time that year in the NCAA tournament), as well as a one point victory over Louisiana-Lafayette (Southwestern Louisiana at the time) which featured this memorable Hardaway alley-oop finish:
However, the Tigers made it to the Elite 8 before losing to Cincinnati, and won the 2nd and 3rd games in dramatic fashion, defeating Arkansas on a David Vaughan game winner with 5 seconds to go, and tying Georgia Tech with a Billy Smith runner with 11 seconds left, before sealing the game in overtime with free throws. (11) So despite the crushing 4th loss to Cinci, the Tigers still rose to the occasion of getting back on the national stage.
The 1992-93 Tigers, seemed poised to rise to even greater heights as their young stars now had a year of college experience. However, those hopes came crashing back to earth with the body of David Vaughn when his anterior cruciate ligament gave way on the end of a fast break, 4 minutes into the second half of the season opener against Arkansas. Vaughn already had 10 points and 8 rebounds in the game, but that would be the end of his season. (46)
The shorthanded Tigers seemed capable of playing with anyone, or of losing to anyone. Talented, but lacking depth, amazing at times but inconsistent, they lost some games they could and perhaps should have won, but had a 3-2 record against top 20 teams heading into the tournament, with one of those losses being by one point to Tulane and the other being to 12th ranked Cincinnati. In fact one of the Tigers’ top 20 wins was a victory earlier in the season over the Bearcats who were #4 in the country at the time. That February 6 win over #4 Cincinnati was not only significant as the high water mark of the season, but it also gave the Tigers Men’s Basketball program its 1000th win.
There were several other significant milestones that season, as Head Coach Larry Finch marked his 500th game as a Tiger (player, assistant coach, and coach) in a December 21 victory over Chaminade at the Maui Invitational. (11)
Then in a January 4 victory over Georgia State, Hardaway filled up the stat sheet, posting the first ever triple-double in the history of the school, with 12 points, 15 rebounds, and 14 assists. Then only two nights later, in a win over #18 Vanderbilt he put up 26 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists. While all of the legends who had gone before him had not posted one triple-double in all of their combined games, Hardaway had amazingly accomplished the feat twice, in back to back games!
While the Tigers had the potential to advance in the tournament even without Vaughn, and even with his loss fans dreamed of going back to the Elite 8 or further with Hardaway, a 3 point loss to Western Kentucky in the tournament’s opening round put those dreams to rest.
However, as much as postseason success is the defining criteria for prestige and national respect in basketball, there is another factor which probably should be at least as important to fans (although some fans of “blue blood” schools may have lost sight of it in the belief that the only good season is a championship). In a word, the arguably more important factor is enjoyment. Of course Tiger fans want to win it all, to go to more final fours, and expect to win in the tournament. But in the bigger picture, Memphis fans also know how to enjoy good basketball, and regardless of the season and tournament result, there was a lot to enjoy and remember for a lifetime in Penny Hardaway’s two years of play at Memphis State.
When Hardaway was selected at #3 in the 1993 draft, he was the highest draft pick to date from the school.
Stay tuned – the rest of the 90s is coming soon…
3. Commercial Appeal Score Database
4. Big O Sports on Forest Arnold
5. Statsheet.com rankings 1-3-56
6. Statsheet.com Coach Eugene Lambert
7. Statsheet.com Coach Bob Vanatta
8. Memphis Flyer – Flashback: Memphis vs. Bradley
9. Commercial Appeal – Quite a Commitment
10. Basketball-Reference.com – Bobby “Bingo” Smith
11. Go Tigers Go History Part II
12. University of Memphis Magazine – Meet Me in St. Louis
13. USA Today Men’s Basketball Tournament Greatest Games
14. UofMTigers blog reposting of CA Higgins article on Larry Finch
15. LA Times article on Sam Gilbert
16. Basketball Prospectus article referencing Sam Gilbert
17. Commercial Appeal Reflection on Dana Kirk 2/16/2010
18. Statsheet.com Coach Dana Kirk
19. Florida State summary of 1980 season
20. Basketball-Reference.com Keith Lee
21. DatabaseBasketball.com Andre Turner
22. Sports Illustrated – Mighty Sweet Music in Memphis
23. CBS Sports Mayhem History 1984
24. Sports Illustrated 1984-85 preseason #4 Memphis State
25. Sports Illustrated – A little Tiger Turner-bout”
26. LA Times – Kirk Led 6 Year Revival at Memphis
27. Time Magazine – A Dream That Couldn’t Miss”
28. Sports Illustrated – A Bad Trip: Downfall of a Champion p. 11
29. Villanova Vs. Memphis State Final Four recap on youtube
30. LA Times Memphis State Coach Denies Offering to Pay Lee”
31. LA Times LSU Beats Memphis State With Basket at the Buzzer”
32. NCAA Infractions Report
33. LA Times – Memphis State’s Bedford Suspended Two Games
34. Kirk Allegedly Paid $5000 for Tournament Appearance”
35. Houston Chronicle – Kirk Opens Up Can of Worms with Fees”
36. LA Times – Feds Subpoena Kirk Contract with Car Dealers
37. LA Times – Kirk Accused of Overcharging Youngsters at Camp
38. LA Times – Lee Testifies About Payments
39. Highbeam – Washington Post Archived – Lee Testifies of Payments (including Arkansas State Offer)
40. Sports Illustrated – A Bad Trip: Downfall of a Champion p. 5
41. Memphis Sport Magazine – Disgraced but Remembered by Jack Eaton
42. KUSports.com – Tigers Trying to Recover Following Suspensions
43. Google Books – An Athlete’s Guide to Agents
44. KUSports.com – Finch: MSU Played Well Sans Stars
45. Esquire Magazine – The Disappearance of Anfernee Hardaway
46. Sports Illustrated – David Vaughn