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Paying the Price

Someone has to be responsible for the latest embarrassment at the U of M.

by DENNIS FREELAND

PHOTO BY LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
Johnny Jones looks on as Tic Price talks to his team.
ust when you thought things couldn't get any worse for the University of Memphis athletic department, the head basketball coach is forced to resign after allegedly assaulting a female student with whom he had been having a sexual affair. Of the many lingering questions, perhaps this is the only one that really matters: Who is going to pay for the hiring mistake that was Tic Price?

Price was brought to Memphis in a hurry. After being turned down by several coaches, athletic director R.C. Johnson selected Price to replace Larry Finch in March 1997. Evidently the school did not do an extensive background check on their new coach. It cost them.

It was an expensive deal. First the university paid the remaining years on Finch's contract. Then they bought out Price's contract at the University of New Orleans, and made the new coach the highest paid coach in school history. But all that pales with the price the school is paying now.

Will anyone be held accountable?

There were troubling signs from the beginning. Price used the names of several former Tiger players, including NBA star Penny Hardaway, on promotional materials for his first summer camp. Not only were the players not participating in the camp, but the coach also had not gained permission to use their names.

Next came revelations that Price had been named in a California paternity suit. Suddenly Price had two children. No problem. The school just updated the media guide. Beside a picture of Price, his second wife Jamie, his son by a first marriage, and the 8-year-old girl, the bio reads: "Price is married to the former Jamie Lynn Simms of Baton Rouge, LA. The couple has a son, Ryan, age 14, and a daughter, Chanel, age 8."

A regular Ozzie and Harriet.

Without the school's knowledge, Price cut an advertising deal with Advance Auto Parts. His face appeared on billboards and TV hawking the chain which was trying to get a foothold in the Memphis area. Never mind that their competition was AutoZone, a local corporate citizen who just happened to sponsor the Tic Price radio show.

Oops!

The list goes on. There was the story about Price asking for $2,500 just to attend a community function sponsored by a firm that was a loyal supporter of the university. Finch, football coach Rip Scherer, and other university officials had always participated in the event gratis. But not Price.

There remain a number of questions about this sordid affair.

* Why is the university paying Price's salary through the end of January? If the charges are true, isn't that grounds for immediate dismissal?

* Why did the university agree to a confidential settlement? By not coming clean immediately with all the facts, the school just invited massive speculation. It started first thing Monday morning on talk radio shows. And, this being a sweeps period in local TV broadcasting, a sex scandal involving the university was too good to pass up. Thus we were treated to a local TV reporter interviewing the clerk at Kinko's, where the anonymous fax telling on Price originated.

* Why didn't Price appear at the press conference? Unbeknownst to reporters gathered at the athletic office building, Price was meeting with his players across the street in the athletic dorm on Sunday night. It would have taken great courage for the coach to meet the press and answer questions, but that would have been the right thing to do. (Price has engaged the services of attorney Robert Spence Jr., who was scheduled to read a statement from Price Tuesday afternoon, after the Flyer went to press.)

* Why did university officials allow Price to tell his players that he was resigning for "health" reasons? That led to the pitiful scene played over and over on TV of junior Marcus Moody unwittingly repeating the charade.

Where was university president Lane Rawlins in all of this? Rawlins has taken a deep interest in the athletic programs at the school. He hired Johnson. He was there when Finch was fired in 1997. What role did he play in the firing of Price?

n Where does the buck stop? Once again the University of Memphis' national image has taken a serious blow. Do members of the board of regents even care about the university? Will anything be done? Or is the city of Memphis stuck with the ineptness that plagues and seems to define the university?

His friends say Tic Price is a kind and generous man. I have seen that side of him. Last summer, when I was hospitalized, Price sent me a funny get-well card with a personal note of encouragement. He sought me out afterwards to inquire about my health. On occasion, we talked about important things. At those times I saw the Tic Price his friends speak so warmly about.

But Price fell victim to the same character flaw that did in Bill Clinton and thousands of men before him. I'm truly sorry about that. But Tic Price is gone, leaving behind larger questions for the University of Memphis and the city at large. Most particularly this:

When will we start demanding the best from the U of M?

TIGER TALK: It was like the line in "American Pie," the band refused to yield. The Ripley High School band was allowed to perform the pre-game show before the Army-Memphis game. But they exceeded the time allowed. The band was still on the field when the Tigers stormed out of the locker room. The band continued to play through the fireworks accompanying the players' entrance, delaying kickoff about 10 minutes. The state of Georgia has been extremely good to the Tiger football program. Fourteen players in the regular rotation played at Georgia high schools. The list includes quarterbacks Travis Anglin and Neil Suber, defensive standouts Kamal Shakir, Idrees Bashir, Calvin Lewis, and Andre Arnold, and Lou Groza Award candidate Ryan White. Cincinnati has won its final game six consecutive years. The Bearcats try to continue the streak against the Tigers Saturday at Cincinnati. Memphis will have an experienced punter next year. The Tigers are redshirting Ben Graves, a senior who shared time as the number-one punter with Jim Cande last year. Speaking of Cande, the senior from Germantown has been terrific in the past two games. He averaged 48.3 on eight kicks last week and kept Army pinned deep all day. Cande hopes to try out for some NFL teams. Marcus Bell has become a standout defensive lineman, the most dominant tackle at Memphis since Tony Williams, who now starts for the Minnesota Vikings. Bell was named C-USA defensive player of the week for his 12 tackles against Army.

Louisville and Southern Miss Winner Will Be Invited to Liberty Bowl

Steve Ehrhart, managing partner of the AXA Equitable Liberty Bowl, has announced that the winner of this week's game between Louisville and Southern Miss will receive an invitation to the Liberty Bowl. If Louisville wins, they will tie Southern for the C-USA title. East Carolina also has a chance to tie for the title, but in the case of a tie the bowl gets its choice.

"We wanted to remove all of the politics from the process," Ehrhart said. "It will be decided on the field."

Either way the bowl stands to win. Southern is nationally ranked, while Louisville has an explosive offense, led by all-American quarterback Chris Redman. The C-USA winner will play Brigham Young, champion of the Mountain West Conference, on December 31st.

E-mail Dennis Freeland at freeland@memphisflyer.com.


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