By John Branston

Cheating in college sports ain’t what it used to be.

Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh is currently public enemy number one. Memphis State, as it was then called, and basketball coach Dana Kirk was in the top spot hot seat 40 years ago.

Michigan’s crime is sign-stealing. Harbaugh got suspended for three games and an assistant got fired. Harbaugh makes $8 million a year. His pursuers include the NCAA, jealous rival coaches, every sports commentator in the country and social media geeks.

Memphis State’s rap sheet included overzealous recruiting of star player Keith Lee who got – really – a shoe box full of cash from a booster. Kirk made a pittance of a few hundred thousand which he supplemented with funds obtained, illegally, from a summer sports camp and boosters. He was pursued by federal prosecutors, indictments, and court trials for a year or two. He was also rumored to associate with unsavory Italian-Americans, shave a stroke off his golf score, have a weakness for betting, and cast an eye at a pretty girl.

Michigan’s star “student athletes” stay around Ann Arbor for a year or two, making a million dollars or more off of NIL (name, image, likeness) fees before they turn pro. They can transfer any time they want to. Keith Lee and his teammates stayed and played four years and got by on meal money and, in Lee’s famous testimony, “a shoebox, about a size 7 or 9” full of cash for signing up.

Today’s disgraced or fired college coach gets, at worst, a few years sabbatical before being hired somewhere else like Hugh Freeze; or, at best, he gets a $75 million buyout like Jimbo Fisher, another top job within a year like John Calipari, or leverages his publicity into a political job like U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville. The disgraced Kirk never coached again. 

Harbaugh calls his Wolverines “America’s team.” Michigan has a national fan base that rivals Taylor Swift’s, high academic standards for regular students and graduate students, a gridiron history dating back to the Revolutionary War, and a yucky habit of calling itself “the leaders and best” which partly accounts for the wrath of rival coaches. (I am an alumnus.) When Harbaugh calls a press conference, as he did this week, America listens.

Kirk’s Tigers were “Memphis’s team.” Recruits came here from nearby – Lee, Andre Turner, William Bedford, Doom Haynes, Bobby Parks, John Wilfong. From 1982-83 to 1985-86, there was exactly one player (a reserve) from outside the Memphis area. Playing in the rugged Metro Conference in the cozy confines of the Mid-South Coliseum, the Tigers won 108 games in four years and made the NCAA tournament every year, losing twice to powerhouse Houston and once to Georgetown. The tournament wins were later “vacated” by the NCAA; if you can imagine this happening to Michigan, UCLA, Duke or Kansas then you can do something I cannot.

Like him or not, Dana Kirk was arguably the most successful college basketball coach in America in the 1980s. When he got in trouble, the cries were “Tiger High” and “outlaw school.” Kirk’s book “Simply Amazing” sells on Amazon with a tout “the scandal that rocked the whole athletic department.” Holy Cow!

Harbaugh the coach has to deal with the wimpy, are-you-kidding-me NCAA. Harbaugh the player had to deal with coach Mike Ditka of the Chicago Bears. Kirk the coach had to deal with Hickman Ewing of the United States Department of Justice.

Having known only Ewing, I think I would take my chances with Ditka.


Photo: Dana Kirk and Keith Lee


John Branston was a reporter and columnist in Memphis for 40 years.


Join us at the Smart City Memphis Facebook page and on Instagram for daily articles, reports, and commentaries that are relevant to Memphis.