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 shekels...an 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."