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Troubled Times At Memphis State
Douglas S. Looney
June 24, 1985
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
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June 24, 1985

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

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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.

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