Six weeks ago, Memphis State University was celebrating because its basketball team made it to the NCAA national semifinals. Now, the school's president says, "We've been put in a position where any association with the basketball program makes a person suspect."
The suspicions are the result of a four-week long bookmaking investigation by a federal grand jury, allegations of violations of NCAA rules and a complaint from the local chapter of the NAACP that the university shortchanges its black players academically and exploits them.
"It's been misery," said Thomas Carpenter, the university's president. "These are trying times. My real concern is that if it (the grand jury) came out with no findings -- we came out clean -- the suggestion of scandal has already been broadcast nationally. People will remember that. It's unfortunate. To be honest with you, it would be very much to our advantage if some grounds were developed on which we could take dramatic and decisive action. That's the only way that we can get the attention of those who believe the worst right now."
Coach Dana Kirk, who has coached at Memphis State six seasons, has denied any improprieties and has defended his players, who have not been available for comment. When a caller on Kirk's radio show asked last week about possible point-shaving by the Memphis State team, he replied, "I'd be surprised if anybody shaved points anytime . . . Look back at how many times things have happened like a Tulane and a Boston College and an Art Schlichter, and things like that. Things don't happen that way that much, and sometimes I think they (the media) associate things a little too much."
The Memphis State basketball team was, in some minds, unavoidably associated with the gambling probe on April 18. At that time Nick Belisomo, a Memphis pawnbroker who is one of the Tigers' biggest boosters and a close friend of Kirk, was subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury. Kirk and Belisomo are members of Colonial Country Club, and Belisomo was Kirk's guest at the Final Four.
Federal prosecutors have declined to reveal the focus of the grand jury investigation, which resumes Tuesday. But one witness said he was asked "about gambling and bookmaking at Colonial," and two university officials said Billy (Spook) Murphy, a former Memphis State athletic director and now an adviser to Carpenter, was asked his impressions of the basketball team's late-season losses to Detroit and Villanova, the latter game in the national championship semifinals.
Kirk has confirmed that he plays in gin-rummy games at Colonial. But he says he plays for pennies and nickels, not $2,000 per game, as has been reported locally. Eight of the 11 witnesses who testified before the grand jury last week also are members and two other witnesses were waiters in the men's grill at the club, which plays host annually to the PGA Tour's St. Jude Hospital-Memphis Open.
Although ABC-TV reported that Belisomo paid two unidentified Memphis State basketball players in violation of NCAA rules and that he offered a cash inducement to a high school player, also in violation of NCAA rules, he has denied the accusations.
Among other club members subpoenaed were: Murphy; Bud Davis, a local car dealer and another of Memphis State's biggest athletic boosters, and two members of the Golden Tigers, a $1,000-a-year booster club recently disbanded by Carpenter. All are said to be witnesses, not targets, of the grand jury investigation.
As of late Friday, no Memphis State players, coaches or officials had been subpoenaed, according to Ben Hale, a retired FBI agent hired by Carpenter three weeks ago.
Carpenter says he has heard the rumors about fixed games. "I find it incredible to question the Villanova game, because Villanova turned out to be the best team in the country," he said. "But the Detroit game (a 71-66 loss on Feb. 28) had a lot of elements to it that did raise questions.
"I suspect that particular incident had a lot to do with the interest in Memphis State athletics and so forth, because rumor has it there were three large bets placed against Memphis State. I recall at the time discussing the point spread, which is published, was 7 1/2 points or something like that, and agreeing with others that the spread was way too high under the circumstances.
"We played four games that week. It was an extremely tough schedule, and there was no great incentive to win that game. It was a trip up there and the only real question goes back to: 'Should that game have been scheduled anyway?' "
At best, if the accusations about big-time gambling at Colonial are true, Kirk's judgment will be questioned. Carpenter and Athletic Director Charlie Cavagnaro said that Kirk has told them he is not aware of any bookmakers at Colonial or any betting on Memphis State games by members there.
"This situation is terribly frustrating," Carpenter said of the rumors. "Of all places, the university must be fair, must be fair to everybody. I have always believed that people are innocent until proven guilty. We've been trying to follow that principle here. I get letters wanting to know how I can retain a coach whose character is so questionable.
"That's so questionably absurd. At this point, I don't know anything our coach has done that would justify action on my part. I've talked to him a number of times. This is not to say he's innocent of anything, but at this point I have no reason to take any action."
Carpenter said Kirk has the responsibility to disassociate himself from Colonial if he knew there was betting on Memphis State games at his club, even if he wasn't participating in it.
Hale said the university is not conducting its own investigation because it is waiting for the federal grand jury probe to finish. At that time, according to Carpenter, he likely will ask the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to investigate the program.
Cavagnaro said he has forwarded to the Metro Conference information concerning an automobile accident in which center William Bedford crashed a Jaguar lent to him by a booster, in apparent violation of NCAA rules. He also forwarded a state audit that showed Memphis State overpaid 108 athletic scholarships by $58,940.75 between 1980 and 1984.
One thing is sure, Carpenter said. He will not terminate the basketball program, as fellow Metro Conference member Tulane did recently in the wake of allegations of point-shaving, drug use and NCAA violations involving the basketball team. "I have no thought of disbanding the program," he said. "We'll make corrections and keep it going."
Basketball and football are important at Memphis State. On the coffee table in Carpenter's office are two stacks of magazines. At the top of one pile is Business Week; at the top of the other is the football team's media guide.
"It's a major factor in community entertainment, if you will," Carpenter said of the school's football and basketball teams. "It's a source of pride that can put our name in places like Los Angeles, Miami and New York . . . in a way that we couldn't do otherwise. I've often said that no one would ever have known of Notre Dame without the Four Horsemen and the athletic program."
Kirk is revered by many Memphis State fans -- if not the media. "There's a great love-hate relationship here with our coach," Carpenter said. "And all those who hate him are coming to the fore."
One fast-food chain took out radio and television ads to counter the negative publicity.
The allegations by the NAACP got the grand jury investigation off the front page last week. According to statistics provided by Memphis State, no black athlete who entered Memphis State since 1973 has graduated. The NAACP said Kirk is insensitive to black players and asked Carpenter to consider firing him if the situation does not improve.
"Our graduation rate for basketball players has been a subject of discussion around here for a long time," Carpenter said. "I will say this: Had our performance been the same as Georgetown's, and their's the same as ours, we probably would have been criticized for being a diploma mill. That seems to be the way things are going."