I learned the sad news of Dana Kirk's death tonight at the stadium court at The Racquet Club of Memphis. No major announcement, mind you. Just the passing along of significant news among fellow Memphians, fellow sports fans. (Early reports indicate Kirk died of a heart attack.)
Having moved to Memphis in 1991, I never got to meet Kirk, certainly never witnessed a Kirk-coached team bludgeoning some unfortunate Metro Conference rival at the Mid-South Coliseum. But I'll give you some perspective on Kirk's impact on the Tiger program.
I spent my high school days in a tiny hamlet in central Vermont. This was well before the Internet, of course, and was even before ESPN on the 13-channel cable system my town was fed. My buddies and I played basketball during the winter, though, and we learned the game from what the national media brought us via magazines, newspapers, and network television. Among those buddies were born-and-bred Vermonters who might — emphasis, might — be able to tell you Elvis Presley was from Memphis. They certainly wouldn't have known the name Fred Smith, or that such a Memphian had merely changed the business world.
But every last one of my running buddies knew the name Dana Kirk. They knew Dean Smith coached North Carolina. They knew Bobby Knight coached Indiana. And they knew Dana Kirk coached the Memphis State Tigers.
Keith Lee — Kirk's most famous and most expensive recruit — was in the rarefied air of Jordan, Ewing, and Olajuwon in the mid-Eighties. And that was nationally. Kirk's finest team — the 31-4 squad of 1984-85 — did college basketball a favor by breaking a Big East stranglehold on the 1985 Final Four, only to fall to Cinderella in a Villanova uniform.
Those Tigers — Kirk's Tigers — were part of the national conversation, even in hockey country. We all know there are bruises on Kirk's legacy, that the team picture from 1984-85 has its share of sad endings, starting with that of Baskerville Holmes. But Lee and Holmes, Andre Turner and William Bedford, Vincent Askew and Dwight Boyd . . . these were names that stretched the conversation about Tiger basketball well beyond the Mid-South, a phenomenon that has survived without interruption for a quarter century now. (The 1973 Tigers were ground-breakers, an unforgettable team. But the program had been all but forgotten in the eastern time zone until Lee arrived in 1981.)
Dana Kirk won 158 games as Tiger coach, fourth in the program's history. He made some mistakes along the way. But he took Tiger basketball nationwide. Tonight, at least, that's how I'll remember him.