Skip to main content

Troubled Times At Memphis State

The Tigers made it to the '85 Final Four, but now many disturbing questions are being raised about their basketball coach and his embattled program

Over the past four years Memphis State's basketball team has had a 104-24 record and has reached the NCAA tournament's round of 16 four straight times. In 1985 the Tigers gained the Final Four. But just when the school's basketball program should be basking in glory, it's slinking in the shadows cast by a grand jury investigation into gambling in the Memphis area, by an NCAA probe into possible recruiting violations and improper payments to MSU athletes, and by an investigation of the school's athletic program as ordered by MSU president Dr. Thomas Carpenter.

The stunning reversal of Tiger fortunes began last April when a federal grand jury in Memphis launched an investigation into suspected gambling and bookmaking activities at, among other places, the Colonial Country Club, where Memphis State basketball coach Dana Kirk, former Tiger athletic director Billy (Spook) Murphy and a number of the school's athletic boosters are members. Speculation about wrongdoing involving MSU's basketball program intensified when it became known that Murphy and several boosters, including close friends of Kirk's, had appeared before the grand jury.

Among the areas of concern:

•Speculations that Kirk had fallen deeply into debt, possibly as a result of his affection for high-stakes gin rummy games. "I'll take a nickel from you if you want to play me a game," Kirk said several weeks ago. But a source with knowledge of the grand jury proceedings said the stakes at Colonial, where Kirk sometimes played, were often higher than that, with individuals winning and losing as much as $3,000 in an evening. Carpenter said, "We assume [any] debt is part of the grand jury investigation." A source familiar with the case told SI that the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service have been looking into Kirk's gambling habits and possible debts, but that these subjects have not necessarily been taken up by the grand jury.

•Alleged payments by Tiger boosters to players. Harry Davis, a former vice-president and controller of the William B. Tanner Co.—a media services firm largely owned by Tanner, who was one of the founders of the Golden Tiger booster club—told SI that his former boss provided money to players. Asked how much money was involved, Davis responded, "How does $1,500 a month sound?" Davis also said that Tanner, whose company televised Memphis State, Metro Conference and other college games, supplied cars to players and concocted "pseudo jobs" for them. Tanner, who on June 10 began serving a four-year federal prison sentence after pleading guilty to three counts of understating personal income and one mail-fraud count, denied Davis's charges. Last week The Commercial Appeal of Memphis quoted former (1978-81) Memphis State player Jeff Battle as saying that he and other players had been given money by boosters and coaches. Battle also told the paper he and other players received special discounts to obtain merchandise from businessmen who were boosters. Reached by SI, Battle confirmed receiving payments. He also said boosters made cars available to players. He would not name any boosters, but said that Tanner was not one of them. Last April William Bedford, the Tigers' 7-foot sophomore center, was involved in an accident while driving a Jaguar loaned to him, in apparent violation of NCAA rules, by a company that donated money to an MSU booster club. On two other occasions Bedford received speeding tickets while driving cars rented by another company that supports the MSU program.

•An allegation in The Commercial Appeal by an unnamed "adviser" to former Tiger star Keith Lee that Kirk promised $10,000 to Lee's family if he would attend MSU. Kirk denied the charge. Ben McGee, a confidant of Lee's and the former chairman of the board of trustees of Arkansas State University, told SI that during Lee's junior year, the player's late mother told him that Kirk had promised her money. But McGee said it was never paid, a fact that prompted McGee to tell Kirk, "Whatever you promised, just do it."

•Rumors of possible point shaving or fixes of Memphis State games. The Commercial Appeal reported that Murphy and possibly others were asked before the grand jury for their "impressions" of Memphis State's 71-66 regular-season loss to Detroit on Feb. 28 and its 52-45 loss to Villanova in the Final Four semifinals. A source close to the grand jury told SI that the panel was still looking into the possibility that those and other games were fixed.

•Woeful academic standards for Memphis State basketball players. Only four of the Tigers' 38 scholarship players since 1973 have graduated. None of the blacks in the group graduated, a fact that brought a scathing denunciation of the school from the local chapter of the NAACP, which accused it of exploiting black athletes. The NAACP has urged that Kirk be fired.

•A state audit released in May that 109 Memphis State basketball and football players mistakenly received nearly $60,000 in supplemental federal grants given to needy students from 1980 to 1984. Carpenter blamed "sloppy management." A further audit, soon to be released, details credit card abuses in the athletic department.

Last Friday Kirk called a press conference at which he claimed there was nothing amiss in his program. He refused to answer questions, saying that if he did so, "We'd be here all night." But the university fears that something might be amiss. On April 25 it hired former FBI agent Ben Hale, who has since been looking into possible wrongdoing in the basketball program.

Memphis State is a commuter college of 21,500 students with relatively modest academic aspirations. In the late '50s, the school concluded that the way to get itself known was through its basketball program. No question that it now has. And as the specter of scandal has grown, the university administration has had more and more trouble disguising its dislike for its coach. Privately, some top university officials wish that Kirk would take his act on the road. Kirk seems oblivious to these feelings and said on Friday, "I have the full support of our administration." When Carpenter was asked if he supported Kirk, he paused, and then said, "Dana has won games and that's what he was hired to do. But I'm not real comfortable seeing him on TV advertising water beds."

Kirk has done TV commercials not only for Aqua Sleep World but also for Fleming Fine Furniture, United Paints and local Ford dealerships. There are also the requisite radio shows, a television show, a camp, a shoe-endorsement deal—all of which likely more than double his $62,500 salary from MSU.

Kirk was hired in 1979. He came to Memphis after three years as the coach at Virginia Commonwealth. On arrival he said, "If you are a loser, you are usually a nice guy. But the winner steps on toes to get to the top. I plan to step on some toes." After Memphis State had successive 13-14 seasons under Kirk, Lee arrived on campus from West Memphis, Ark. In Lee's first year, the team was 24-5. But as the Tigers enjoyed ever greater success, some Memphis citizens developed a classic love-hate attitude toward Kirk: love the wins, hate the style. As Carpenter says, "A lot of people are tickled with all this. They think Dana is finally getting his comeuppance."

But Kirk also has a lot of friends. Nick Belisomo, for openers, Interest in Memphis State's basketball program was heightened when Belisomo, a pawnshop owner identified in Memphis news reports as a gambling figure, was summoned before the grand jury last April 18. Belisomo is a member of Kirk's inner circle and traveled to all of Memphis State's postseason tournament games this season as a guest of the university. Carpenter says Belisomo telephoned him recently and was "almost in tears over the fact that he may have damaged the athletic program." Belisomo won't discuss his grand jury appearance.

Tanner, 54, is another friend of Kirk's. His prison sentence was the result of a plea bargain on charges brought following an Aug. 11, 1983 raid on Tanner's offices by the FBI and IRS. Tanner was accused of paying millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks to other companies and business associates. Six other men were convicted.

"I've been a good friend of Dana's," says Tanner. Davis puts it stronger: "Dana and Bill were very close personal friends. If Bill told Dana to jump through a hoop in the air, he would have done it."

Davis, who now lives in Phoenix, provided the FBI with some of the information that led to Tanner's arrest and, ultimately, his guilty pleas to fraud and tax-evasion charges. Davis told SI there is "no question" that Tanner gave money to Kirk for his own use. Davis said that Tanner also gave money for the "procurement and support" of players. Davis said that money was "laundered" and "the cash put in players' hands." Davis also said that Tanner would periodically "shower some extra $1,000 or so here and there" on former A.D. Murphy, now an assistant to the president. Tanner explodes at these accusations: "He can't come to my face and say that. He's a lying joker, and he knows he's lying." At his press conference Kirk denied receiving or making improper payments. Murphy declined to comment on any specifics in the case.

Tanner may also have been involved in recruiting Lee. Jerry Schaeffer, sports information director at Arkansas State, told SI he remembers hearing a tape recording of a 1981 telephone conversation in which a Memphis State booster offered Nelson Catalina, then an assistant coach at Arkansas State and now the head coach, a job as a Tiger assistant if he could persuade Lee to attend Memphis State. "The booster said he had enough influence [at Memphis State] to guarantee a job," Schaeffer said. He said he remembers being told that the booster was a "Mr. Tanner," but he doesn't recall hearing a first name. Catalina confirms receiving such an offer but says he doesn't know who made it.

William B. Tanner was one of three founders, in 1979, of one of MSU's cash-laden booster clubs, the Golden Tigers, which eventually grew to about 100 members who paid $1,000 or more a year each to support athletics. Initially, the club was Tanner's project and was run out of his company. While the Golden Tigers did do benevolent things (for example, they installed a burglar alarm system in the home of the widow of Rex Dockery, the late Tiger football coach killed in a 1983 plane crash), the university had little control or knowledge of how the money was spent. Carpenter says he tried for some time to tame the Golden Tigers by bringing the club under university control. He backed off when the group threatened to withdraw its financial support, which included the installation of a computer system in the athletic department. Says a former Golden Tiger, "They scared the man to death."

But when the current scandal erupted, it was too much for Carpenter. On May 6 he announced he was disassociating the university from the club. Tanner said the only reason he could think of for Carpenter's taking such action "maybe is the association of Nicky Belisomo and myself."

Bob Richardson, a surgeon and the most recent vice-president of the Golden Tigers, said he had "no idea" who was the club treasurer. If the club kept books, members interviewed by SI say they did not know about it. The bookkeeping deficiencies are making it hard for the university to track down the money in the Golden Tigers' treasury, which it feels rightfully belongs to the school.

Memphis State says it will stop taking boosters on free trips to out-of-town games. It plans to monitor Kirk's outside activities. And university officials say they'll try to upgrade the academic performances of their basketball players.

The NAACP would like to see other improvements. Last month, officials of the local branch of that organization met with three players from the team and, according to Maxine Smith, executive secretary of the Memphis NAACP, were shocked at the "frustration, hopelessness and helplessness" the players expressed. One of the players, Vincent Askew, a star freshman guard last season, talked the other evening on the phone to Memphis City Council-woman Minerva Johnican. "He was very upset," says Johnican, "and ready to leave MSU. He said, 'I don't have anyone to talk to.' Vincent said he tried to talk to the head coach but could never get a conversation."

Carpenter, while trying to be conciliatory, was not caving in to the NAACP: "One coach told me that if you have 15 players, 10 are not interested in education. If the players don't graduate, it's disappointing. But it was their choice." But it was also the choice of the university, which, as Carpenter admitted, hired Kirk with the winning of games, not the education of players, in mind.

In conducting the university's investigation, Hale says he's concerned not only with wrongdoing, but also with the appearance of wrongdoing. Whatever happens with the grand jury, Hale and the NCAA will obviously have their hands full. Current A.D. Charles Cavagnaro says bravely, "Clouds move on. Black eyes do heal."

True, but at the moment Memphis State is sporting quite a shiner.



Kirk called a press conference last week and said nothing was amiss with the Tigers.



After four great years at MSU, Lee is beset by allegations about his recruitment.



Booster Belisomo, the owner of this pawnshop, was a regular on postseason trips.



[See caption above.]



Tanner, one of the founders of the Golden Tigers, reportedly gave players money.



MSU president Carpenter severed athletic department ties with the Golden Tigers.



Askew told the NAACP he was ready to leave MSU.