It was the best of times,it was the worst of times. The first line of “A Tale of Two Cities” came to mind recently when Dana Kirk passed away. I thought of Gene Bartow being honored by the University of Memphis with a banner hanging from the rafters of the FedExForum and Kirk who brought great discredit to the university 25 years ago.
Coach Kirk was an easy guy to like. I worked with him for seven years as the play-by-play broadcaster for the Tigers and doing his TV show on Channel 5 every Sunday morning during the season. Most fans agreed that Kirk was without peer as a “bench” coach, meaning that he could follow the game and make adjustments on the move. The Tigers did win a lot of close games and he would say it was those close games that really turned him on. However it was his life off the court that got him into trouble. For his transgressions, four months in a federal pen didn’t seem so bad. They nailed him for tax evasion, intimidating witnesses and obstructing justice. He was fired by Memphis State and he never again coached Division I basketball. As my old radio partner Jeff Weinberger said, “he got a life sentence” he added, “I have to think that, more that once Coach Kirk thought of what it would’ve been like, had he stayed out of legal trouble. He would have made a lot money–a lot of money.
One aspect of Kirk’s shenanigans that the Fed’s looked into were a couple of games in the ‘85 season that looked suspicious. One was the Detroit game. The Tigers were a lopsided favorite but right before the game a lot of Detroit money showed up in Las Vegas and that raised red flags all over the place. Detroit won the game. The other incident was the Tigers game with Villanova in the NCAA semi-finals. The Tigers, on paper, were the better team but the Wildcats won the game and it was the play of the Tigers guards that caught everyone’s attention. Several times different players were open for shots but passed instead making the West Tennessee Federal Prosecutor Hickman Ewing suspicious.
Ewing told me that several basketball experts had concluded that after a while the Villanova players realized that the Tigers were not going to shoot, so they backed off and their five players were guarding our four. He said there was no way he could prove this, so they left it alone.
There were many reports that Kirk had lost thousands of dollars playing gin rummy and used the Detroit game and the Villanova game to get out from under the debt. This is well known to many, many Tiger fans and I’m not saying it is true, just possible motivation.
Dana and I had a fast-paced, sometimes raucous TV show that was fun to do. Our ratings were good and I never thought it would end. But Coach Kirk shopped the show to Channel 3 and when 5 refused to get into a bidding war, the show moved.
The host for WREG-TV was Tom Stocker, an honest to goodness reporter. He looked for the real story of the game, wanted to dig into preparation and analyze strategy. In other words–give as much information as possible to the viewer–which is what hosts are supposed to do. Kirk wanted the other approach and as it turned out, he was sorry he moved. He asked me to help, but I told him there was nothing I could do.
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.
Big Jack’s book, “Jack Eaton: Great Scott, I Rhyme A Lot”, is available for purchase in both autographed and non-autographed versions at memphissport.net.Big Jack can be heard every Friday at 8am on KWAM 990 alongside former County Commissioner John Willingham.