EXIT DANA KIRK
When embattled Memphis State basketball coach Dana Kirk was canned last week, there was immediate speculation that the firing was due to fears that Kirk may be indicted by a grand jury investigating sports gambling. The Commercial Appeal of Memphis reported that a "powerful university booster" recently contacted Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander and said Kirk had to go. According to the paper, Alexander then told Board of Regents chancellor Tom Garland to have the Kirk matter settled before the board adjourned last Friday. The governor's office denied this scenario, but the fact remains that Kirk, who had a 158-58 record in seven years at MSU, was fired on Wednesday.
University president Thomas Carpenter made the announcement, saying the school would buy out the remaining 30 months of Kirk's five-year contract to "change the leadership of the basketball program." He admitted school officials had been "concerned" about the focus of the grand jury investigation on gambling, but insisted, "If that was involved [in the firing], we would have waited until whatever happened happened."
Perhaps, but it is nonetheless clear that Kirk's dismissal makes life easier at Memphis State. More than a year ago reports surfaced that the grand jury was investigating possible point-shaving in MSU basketball games, that Kirk had associations with a Memphis gambling figure and that he had promised the family of ex-Tiger star Keith Lee $10,000 if Lee would attend MSU (SI, June 24, 1985). Kirk denied the last charge and wouldn't talk about anything involving the grand jury. Then a revelation that Memphis State had graduated only four of 38 scholarship basketball players since 1973 brought a demand for Kirk's head from the local chapter of the NAACP. In May of this year the NCAA slapped the Tigers with two years' probation for recruiting violations and other rule-breaking. The bad news was unending: A recent Commercial Appeal story alleged that Kirk had received a $10,000 check from the Winston Tire Co. to bring his team to a 1983 Christmas tournament in Los Angeles. Kirk said the money was for his work at an L.A. hoops clinic. Then several published reports told of Kirk charging a Memphis TV station $500 for interviews during MSU's Final Four appearance in 1985.
Something had to give. Avron Fogelman, co-owner of the Kansas City Royals and MSU's most prominent backer—he recently built a $3 million business school for the university—told SI's Armen Keteyian last week, "Too much of a burden has been placed on Memphis State. They had lost a lot of self-pride and national esteem." Fogelman, a friend of president Carpenter, insisted he played no part in Kirk's dismissal, but added. "I did not think it was in the institution's best interests to continue to have a cloud over its head."
With the coaching job now being offered to the popular Larry Finch, Kirk's assistant, MSU's cloud may be lifting. But Kirk's may not be. A source close to the grand jury told SI last week that indictments are expected before year's end. Kirk had no comment on last week's events or the ongoing investigation, promising he would hold a press conference "when I have something to say."
GETTING INTO A NEW RACKET
Journeyman tennis pro Craig Wittus is developing a second career as a rock singer and has already recorded a video with John McEnroe on guitar. The backup band on his upcoming album has a fitting name: Highly Strung.
ANCHORAGE SNOWS 'EM
Last spring we told you of Anchorage's sterling effort to convince the International Olympic Committee that the 1992 Winter Games should be held in that fair city (SCORECARD, May 5). As you might recall, Anchorage's road show included cultural displays, economic and climatic statistics and, not least, the talents of Seymour the tap-dancing moose (actually schoolteacher Bonnie Rindo in costume). Well, the Association of National Olympic Committees bought it. In a report recently delivered to the IOC, Anchorage is one of three cities—Sofia, Bulgaria, and Lillehammer, Norway, are the others—to receive a highly favorable review. The report, drafted by committee members who saw presentations and then visited seven competing cities, calls Anchorage's a "surprisingly strong bid, well-organized by a group of enthusiastic business people who feel they can assure the financial viability of the Games from commercial sources and provide...free board and lodging and a $1,000 travel grant [per athlete] to offset the geographical remoteness of Alaska." No mention was made of the moose.
FEELING FINE, MERCI BEAUCOUP
A vibrant Mark Twain once assured his readers that "the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." So, too, have the death notices of Zotique Lesperance, 76, who last year was elected to the hockey Hall of Fame as a media honoree, deceased. Lesperance, a hockey writer since he was 14, was happy and healthy in his Montreal home when he learned of his dubious distinction. He was soon on the phone with the NHL.
"They couldn't have been nicer," says Lesperance. "I guess they expected me to sue, and to tell the truth that crossed my mind. It's no fun to be told you're dead when you're not. But they invited me to Vancouver for this year's Hall of Fame dinner at full league expense. They promised they would revive me." Two weeks ago Lesperance was reinducted and given a duplicate of the plaque that hangs in the Hall of Fame in Toronto. "See," he says, pointing to the year—1985—that is inscribed on the plaque. "That's when I was dead."
GNARLY CROWD CONTROL
It turns out there was a bit of deception going on at the recent Op Pro surfing championships in Huntington Beach, Calif. (SI, Sept. 8). Perfectly honorable deception, though. Australians Mark Occhilupo and Glen Winton were in the middle of their best-two-out-of-three final series when a scuffle among unruly beachgoers grew into a full-fledged riot in which participants were smashing and burning cars and throwing bottles, bricks and cups of sand at police. The violence was taking place behind the large crowd of spectators watching Occhilupo and Winton; police feared that the situation might worsen if the surfing ended too soon and the fans mixed with the rioters.
Officers and meet officials huddled. Occhilupo, who had won the first heat easily, was also doing well in the second heat and seemed on the verge of wrapping up his second straight Op title. But when the result was announced—following a mysterious meeting among Occhilupo, Winton and Ian Cairns, director of the Association of Surfing Professionals—Winton was the surprise second-heat winner. The surfing would continue for one more heat.
What had really happened is that Occhilupo had already won the competition. Winton had been announced the winner in order to fool the crowd into staying through a meaningless third heat, also won by Occhilupo. Neither surfer complained about the extra half hour of work, and by the time they finished the riot was nearly under control. Fans were never told of the ruse.
"Just when our sport is coming into its own, a bunch of yahoo metalheads start this gnarly riot," said meet P.A. announcer D. David Morin. "What Glen and Occy did was pretty impressive. It was way above and beyond the call."
When former Washington Redskins All-Pro tight end Jerry Smith announced recently that he was suffering from AIDS, the usually fatal disease that attacks the body's immune system, he showed uncommon courage. Many AIDS victims are stigmatized because of the frequent link between the disease and homosexuality or intravenous drug use, and the 42-year-old Smith is the first former or current pro athlete to admit having AIDS. But news of his affliction has educed only the sincerest expressions of sadness and concern.
Earlier, the eight-year-old son of Redskins strength coach Dan Riley was diagnosed as having cancer. The boy, whose name is Tim but who is known around the locker room as T-Bird, was scheduled to undergo chemotherapy. Rather than have his son experience any shock at watching his hair fall out after treatment, Riley, a devoted family man, shaved T-Bird's head. Then he shaved his own head so his son would have company. Then seven Redskin players shaved their heads and appeared on local television to wish T-Bird a speedy recovery.
It is heartening to know that neither Tim Riley nor Jerry Smith lacks sympathetic friends as they battle illness.
GORDON McLENDON, 1921-1986
In the late 1940s and early '50s listeners to the Liberty Broadcasting System wouldn't have guessed that Gordon McLendon would live until 1986. To them, McLendon was "The Old Scotchman," a wizened gent with an uncanny talent for delivering thrilling baseball play-by-play. In fact, the man behind the voice was an ambitious Dallas entrepreneur, not yet 30, who was building Liberty Broadcasting into a 458-station empire and amassing one of America's largest personal fortunes.
The Old Scotchman wasn't McLendon's only creation. Details of the ball games he called were largely born in his imagination. Working from reports filed from ballparks around the country, McLendon was the pioneer in the art of re-creating games he never saw. He operated four turntables with various levels of crowd noise and simulated the crack of the bat with a stick. His "stadium public address announcer" was holed up in the studio men's room where the echo was deeper. For authenticity, McLendon recorded the fans in each major league city, so when a guy yelled "You bum!" during a Red Sox game, he did it with a Boston accent. The regional flavors of McLendon's re-creations mixed well with the announcer's friendly Texas twang and spicy use of simile. "Fast as the lead dog in a coon hunt" is vintage McLendon, as are "mad as a rooster that overslept" and "uncertain as a dish of Tuesday's hash" and "dangerous as a radio announcer without a script." Despite that last protestation, McLendon was a master when he had no script. If a glitch developed in the Western Union transmission to Dallas, McLendon would stall, telling of the pitcher pawing the rubber, tying his shoelace, wiping his brow, cleaning his cleats, tying his other shoelace.... Perhaps his most charming invention came during an off day in the 1950 season when McLendon re-created an 1886 game between the Brooklyn Bridegrooms and the St. Louis Browns. At one point he delayed the game as the ball was retrieved from between a horse's hooves.
McLendon, whose Liberty network folded in 1952 and who sold his last 14 radio stations a decade ago for more than $100 million, was once asked if he had any moral qualms about fictionalizing real ball games. "This kind of question infuriates me," he answered. "I was happy as hell to be able to entertain our listeners. What harm is there in making 100,000 people happy on a hot summer afternoon?"
THEY SAID IT
•Joe Brinkman, American League umpire, relating what managers don't say to him during those discussions: "Hey, Joe, good call on that steal play. You were in great position. I admire the way you guys get on top of all those plays."
•Jay Hilgenberg, Chicago Bears center and owner of slow-footed racehorse Show Me Green: "Never again will I invest in anything that eats."