Let's run this up the flagpole one time. We get this head coach who doesn't smoke or drink or curse or even look like he does any of that bad stuff, see. Get him to act so nice nobody believes it. Bring some local kids in here, blacks and whites, mix 'em up, understand, so everybody in town has some favorites. Get a cute little tubby guard who can turn into an all-star Porky Pig right before your very eyes. Have him work with children and be an 'example' and all that. Get a big junior-college stud, call him Dr. K or something and turn him loose. Then get the mayor to issue proclamations, the governor to phone up. Invite all the celebs. And top it off with your publicity guy doing poetry—something like 'Meet me in St. Louis, Wooden.' Socko numbers like that. Then throw the whole thing out there into college basketball and watch it take off. We'll knock 'em dead, baby. Instant Lap-Up."
And so it has been, away down south at the confluence of three states where Tennessee Big Oranges, Ole Miss Rebel Flags and Arkansas Pig Sooeys lap up with the Tigers of Memphis State. Over the past three seasons there is not one team—not even Alabama, Minnesota or Maryland—that has improved its station so much or so fast as the one coached by Gene Bartow.
Last week, after it concluded the home portion of its schedule by wiping aside Wichita State 99-77 and West Texas State 116-79, Memphis State had a 19-4 record and a commanding two-game lead in that strange and puzzling old conference known as the Missouri Valley. The team looked adequately prepared and peaking for a final run toward its first outright league championship. Ahead are three more games on the road—in The Pit at North Texas State, against New Mexico State's resurrected John Williamson and at St. Louis, where the Tigers have never won. Even so, they should have enough left to withstand fast-finishing Louisville and surprising Tulsa and get to the NCAA playoffs.
This is the dream that Bartow, a scholarly looking fellow who is called Clean Gene by his admiring players, has nurtured since coming to Memphis in 1970. Upon arrival from his previous head coaching position at Valparaiso ("Li'l Valpo," he calls it), Bartow encountered a program that had fallen on hard times, racial turmoil, losing streaks and knife fights. The Tigers had lost 56 of 76 games and finished last in the league they had recently joined for three straight years.
Good vibrations were imminent, however. Two hometown players from Melrose High, Larry (Little Tubby) Finch and Ronnie (Big Cat) Robinson, joined the varsity the same year Bartow appeared. If the coach was Mr. Nice, the sunny dispositions of Finch and Robinson outniced even him. It was Soul of Sunnybrook Farm and Strawberry Fields Forever.
In the beginning Bartow opened up the Memphis attack. Finch was given his head outside, Robinson gobbled up everything inside and the Tigers raced to records of 18-8 and 21-7. That first year Bartow had his team playing for a share of the Valley championship on the final day, and last season Memphis defeated Louisville twice only to lose the title in a playoff.
Through all of this the unobtrusive Bartow was a promoter. With the help of an energetic, rhyme-wielding publicity man named Bill Grogan, he initiated such items as spotlighted pregame introductions, uniformed color guards, banners, posters and several categories of blue and white pomponed young lovelies whirling about during the games. Bartow was so impressed with the crowd enthusiasm at Drake, in fact, he took the director of the Memphis State band, Dr. Tom Ferguson, to Des Moines to scout the rival band and organist. "Someday we're going to have an organ," Bartow says wistfully.
Already Bartow has an imposing house organist in the person of Isaac Hayes, the Black Moses of Rock and a rabid Tiger fan who helps with recruiting. It is not unusual to see Hayes drive up to a Memphis State game in his $26,000 Cadillac with velvet upholstery, TV set and gold-plated hubcaps and stun the crowd with his shaved skull, wolfskin accessories and fox on each arm.
"We win the Valley," says Finch, "and Isaac will throw a little party. A little $10,000 party."
The rejuvenation of Memphis State basketball seems to have hit the metropolis at a particularly opportune time, coming as it did after the terrible April afternoon in 1968 when the assassination of Martin Luther King tore the city apart. A harsh polarization of the races followed, and it was only recently—as the Tigers' success took hold of the populace—that the wounds began to heal. Credit has been given. At the close of last season Mayor Wyeth Chandler said, "This team has unified the city like it's never been unified before. Black and white, rich and poor, old and young are caught up in its success. Memphis is a better city now, thanks to the Memphis State team."
As Finch and Robinson have taken accolades for bringing togetherness to the campus (the school's 13% black enrollment is said to be the largest percentage of blacks at any major university in the land), so have they endured responsibility for the Tigers becoming the mystery team of the year. On occasion Memphis has been overwhelming with 6'10" JC transfer Larry (Dr. K) Kenon, a superior rebounder who is certainly the MVP in the Valley, doing his stuff and Finch and Robinson operating at peak efficiency. It sometimes has been underwhelming, too. Finch and Robinson have experienced their worst season together, and as a result the Tigers have been capable of looking horrendous—as they did in an 83-69 loss at Louisville two weeks ago when they shot 23% in the first half, and as they did at the beginning of the season. That was when the team lost three of its first five games as Bartow struggled with different lineups and an injured Robinson. Then the Tigers went on a 14-game winning streak, during which the coach installed a zone-trap defense employing three substitutes, freshmen Bill Cook and Clarence Jones and another junior-college product, 6'7" Billy Buford.
While Cook, a local hero himself (his family together with the Finch and Robinson clans might fill one side of the Mid-South Coliseum), and Jones can be groomed slowly, Memphis will need the extremely quick Buford down the stretch. His daring, frenetic style has become a crowd delight, yielding a fan club and "Bill's My Thrill" T shirts. Buford missed the Louisville game with an eye injury, which may be one reason why the Tigers were blown out. Two nights later at Tulsa he scored 11 points, forced five turnovers and got two steals and four loose balls as Memphis won in overtime. Last Thursday Buford entered the Wichita game with the Tigers ahead 18-14. When he left eight minutes later his team led the game 41-19.
"Billy Bipp, he's our Fire Man," says Finch. "A man goes for a loose ball against Bipp, he better watch it up side his neck."
Memphis has counted heavily on depth to produce some important victories. Against Drake, Doug McKinney, who would be the fifth guard on a depth chart, scored at the first-overtime buzzer and Buford got 10 points in the two overtimes as Memphis won. Against Arkansas, Jim Liss, who might not even make a depth chart, hit the winning free throw at the end. Still, if the Tigers are to get to St. Louis and the NCAA finals, Finch and Robinson must play back to the form that they showed in their junior year.
One man close to the team says it is a matter of the two "reshaping their egos" to accommodate the stardom of Kenon. The feeling is that Finch has finally accomplished this but Big Cat has not. "I hear of this Kenon taking over stuff," says Robinson, "but look, if the dude can do it let him do it. I just want one thing—to get to the NCAA. There are no jealousy hangups."
Last week, as the two senior stars finished their careers at home in the game against West Texas State, an outpouring of love and adulation left few dry eyes in the house. It was a sensational and emotional valentine for the hometown pair, and one had to be impressed by the affection accorded Finch and Robinson and their families. Governor Win-field Dunn telephoned his regards earlier. Mayor Chandler presented farewell tributes. A radio station announced a trophy. Certificates were handed to the crowd designating "one-millionth fan" night. Even the absence of Isaac Hayes, who was supposed to have written a ballad for the two seniors and introduced the starting lineups and sung a song as well, could not ruin the occasion.
As a matter of fact, Big Cat and Little Tubby just laughed that off. They were thinking of another day. Meet them in St. Louis, Isaac.