by Dennis Freeland
Lead me to the gas chamber."
Larry Finch was being funny. It was more than an hour after he had won his 215th game at the U of M. Heading for a press room in the bowels of The Pyramid where a bevy of TV cameras anxiously waited for him to announce his resignation, Finch joked with the three burly security guards assigned to protect him on this night when he could not be protected, the night which would disconnect Finch from the only job he ever wanted.
"Lead me to the gas chamber."
No one laughed. The two or three dozen people surrounding Finch friends, family, reporters, and university officials had just witnessed the almost surreal spectacle of U of M athletic director R.C. Johnson, school president Lane Rawlins, Finch's attorney Ted Hansom, and school attorney Doris Kirby signing an agreement in which the Tiger coach agreed to ride off quietly into the sunset for a sum of slightly less than half a million dollars. The deal was finalized on the counter of an empty concession stand just off the east entrance to the arena floor. It seemed fitting that Finch's career would conclude inside an empty Pyramid those 20,142 seats in this shiny downtown arena contributed greatly to Finch's demise.
Finch had first been offered a buyout on December 18th, the day of the Northeast Louisiana game. Finch steadfastly denies that he was approached last summer, as some have reported. "This summer there was not any buyout discussions with me," Finch said Monday on his WREC-AM 600 radio show. "Whether they may have had a situation where they were trying to raise money, I have no idea. But not with me."
His initial reaction to the December 18th proposal was negative, but less than a week later, in a meeting on December 23rd, attended by Rawlins, Johnson, Finch, and his friend and advisor Rev. Bill Atkins, the head coach agreed in principal to allow the school to buy out the remaining three years of his contract.
It is at this point that Atkins, minister of Greater Imani Church in Midtown, a former talk-radio host, and one of the moving forces behind the Finch support group called the Finch Bench, says the university betrayed its basketball coach.
"After that [December 23rd] meeting, the university was supposed to be working on the financial arrangements," Atkins says. "They drug their feet and didn't do it and then wanted him to announce his resignation without the terms of the buyout completed."
When the university asked Finch to announce his resignation before the contract buyout was finalized, Atkins decided it was time to go to the press with the story. He says he did so with Finch's approval. Once Atkins began telling reporters what had transpired, the story became front-page news in the daily paper and was the lead story on every local newscast. It was a media circus the university could hardly afford, particularly with the key player being local hero and U of M graduate Finch. The potential for racial discord hovering above the fray also moved the school into frenetic action.
Thursday was the last home basketball game for more than a week. School officials didn't want to see this media show following the team on the road, and thus resolved to settle the Finch controversy before the bus taking the team to Arkansas for a weekend game in Fayetteville pulled out of The Pyramid parking lot.
The drama intensified early Thursday night. Finch wept during the player introductions and was himself received warmly by a crowd which seemed aware that history was just around the corner. During the second half, with the Tigers firmly in control on the court, reporters began looking for cues. Would the announcement be made tonight? Yes. The media room in The Pyramid was being prepared for a large press conference. The TV cameras were already in place.
But after the game, Finch stuck to routine. He met with reporters in the usual fashion, telling them he would only discuss the game just played and the upcoming contest in Arkansas. Other topics were forbidden.
Next, Finch did his post-game radio show on KIX 106 with Paul Hartlage and Hank McDowell. A larger-than-usual group of fans stayed to listen. Among Finch's strongest supporters, many complained openly about how the coach was being treated. Some swore they would never again support University of Memphis basketball.
One longtime supporter and close personal friend of Finch was asked by a little girl, no more than 4 or 5, to explain the banners hanging high above the arena floor. The banners represent conference championships and NCAA appearances. Larry Finch, either as a player, assistant, or head coach, had a hand in hoisting most of them.
"They don't mean anything," the young man told the girl. "They're completely meaningless."
The Finch supporters were not spending all their anger on the school. Media types were singled out for criticism, especially the high-profile TV reporters. Channel 5's Harold Graeter was accosted by one woman who told him that Finch's problems were the result of negative media coverage.
During his radio show, Finch appeared to change his mind about the buyout. "I've never quit anything in my life," he told Hartlage and McDowell. "And I'm not going to start now."
The fans cheered loudly.
After finishing the radio show, Finch confounded reporters and university officials by heading not toward the press conference but to a small room across the hall from the Tiger locker room. There, for the next half hour, a stream of people came and went. First friends and family. Then Finch's attorney, Hansom. Then the university attorney. Then other university officials. Finally Finch emerged and started toward the press conference. But he was stopped by Hansom and the two returned to the small room where the procession of visitors began all over again.
Finally the last details were worked out and an obviously tired coach again started the long walk to his destiny. The procession moved from one hallway into the concession area just off the arena floor, then stopped while various parties signed off on the agreement ending Finch's 11-year reign as king of Memphis basketball.
Rawlins came to Finch and hugged him. Finch didn't resist, but didn't respond in kind either. "Nobody's dead," Rawlins said quietly.
"No, nobody's dead," Finch repeated.
Then he turned to the three guards.
"Lead me to the gas chamber."
"LARRY, THROUGH FRUSTRATION and great pain, agreed to what they gave him, but it was far below what the university should have done," says Atkins, who accuses the media of exaggerating the amount Finch had asked for. According to Atkins, Finch wanted his base salary plus the money he would have made from TV and radio over the final three years. That amount would have come to about $690,000. The school will not pay any TV or radio money after this season. "I thought it was despicable for the university to send Larry Finch off with $411,000," Atkins continues. "It's just bad."
While Rawlins made his dramatic announcement (which was seen live on most local TV stations' 10 p.m. newscasts), Finch battled tears. His wife, Vicki, sat close by with her right arm firmly around his lower back. Finch thanked Rawlins for his complimentary remarks and promised a statement later.
"Larry was not prepared for that press conference after the Southern Miss game," Atkins maintains. "He went anyway, just to keep the peace."
Johnson spoke last and, reading from a prepared text, followed his brief comments about Finch with an outline of how he would hire a replacement coach. This seeming insensitivity outraged Finch supporters.
The A.D. later defended his comments and the timing of the school's buyout. "This is in reality almost a divorce, and divorces aren't very pleasant," Johnson said this week. "I don't think there is ever a good time, and beyond that I don't want to talk anymore about it. We certainly didn't want to hurt anybody's feelings. There is no good time to do this sort of thing."
WHEN A 35-YEAR-OLD LARRY FINCH was named head basketball coach in 1986, the sum of his head coaching experience was two years one at Richland Junior High and one at Messick High. He had recruited for and learned from two successful head coaches, Gene Bartow, the former Memphis coach who with Finch's help built a successful program from scratch at UAB, and Dana Kirk, who had taken a team composed of local players recruited by Finch to the Final Four only a year before a series of scandals forced Kirk's resignation.
No one could have guessed how much college basketball would change on and off the court in the next 11 years. Consider the adjustments Finch had to make based on these unforeseen factors:
THE COACH HAS CALLED A PRESS conference at Greater Imani church for Thursday morning. Finch's public response may determine whether the program enjoys a smooth transition.
Finch is proud of his reputation as a Memphian who has contributed to racial harmony in Memphis. "When they started the Finch Bench, I said I didn't want there to be any racial barriers," he said on his radio show. "You've got people from all walks of life involved in the Finch Bench. But when you say, `Finch Bench,' people say, `Oh, Lord, here we go with this white-black stuff.' But that wasn't the case. I've been one to stand up and say we don't want to have this sort of stuff."
Later he reiterated the affection he feels for the school where he played and coached. "I love my school. My children go out there," he said. "We've got a lot of people who work on campus out there whose children went other places to school, but my children walk the same halls I walked."
Atkins also thinks his friend will take the high road. "Larry is not going to do or say anything to hurt that university. Larry Finch is one of the kindest, dedicated, committed persons you will ever meet. I am just bewildered by the hate, the negativity, the nasty things that have been said about him. You can fuss with his coaching his wife argues with his coaching sometimes. But aside from that, what has happened to him has been totally unfair."
And the coach's friend has a prediction to make: "He will coach again. At a major university level," Atkins says confidently. "He's coming back to The Pyramid. I guarantee you."
But next time it will be with a different team, sitting on a different bench.