University of Memphis Magazine
Finch (No. 21) goes airborne against UCLA and Bill Walton (No. 32) in the 1973 NCAA title game. Photo by Phyliss Massey/U of M Photo Services.
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Remembering a lengend: Feature Story

Finch ‘loved this University’ friends and family say
Vickie Finch probably knew her husband best.

“My husband gave 100 percent, he gave his all for the University of Memphis,” Vickie once told a reporter. “When his teams were doing good, other schools didn’t approach him for head coaching jobs because they knew Larry Finch loved the University of Memphis. It was written all over him.”

Finch, who passed away April 2 at age 60 after a lengthy illness, served the University community for nearly half of his life, first as a star athlete who helped take the Tigers to their first NCAA title game in 1973 and later as the winningest coach in Tiger basketball history. He is remembered by former teammates, players, friends and family as a humble, thoughtful and hardworking man who wholeheartedly devoted himself to his sport, his alma mater and his city.

Even before he came to the University, Finch distinguished himself as a player at Orange Mound’s Melrose High School where he played with his future Memphis State teammate Ronnie “Big Cat” Robinson. Finch, who was nicknamed “Little Tubby,” served as a point guard. His high school coach from Melrose, Verties Sails, recalls that “Larry got more out of his ability than any player I ever met.”

Finch was particularly well known for the smoothness and consistency of his shooting game. His prowess as a shooter continued after he began his basketball career at Memphis State under former coach Gene Bartow. He increased his shooting average per game every year of his undergraduate career, ending with a 24-point average per game as a senior. He still holds the University’s record for the most points scored in a single game, 48, which he set in a 1973 game against St. Joseph’s.

Finch (No. 21) goes airborne against UCLA and Bill Walton (No. 32) in the 1973 NCAA title game. Photo by Phyliss Massey/U of M Photo Services.
Finch (No. 21) goes airborne against UCLA and Bill Walton (No. 32) in the 1973 NCAA title game. Photo by Phyliss Massey/U of M Photo Services.
In spite of the brilliance of his early career, Bartow said years later that Finch could have been scoring even more points per game.

“Larry would have averaged 40 a game, but none of us were smart enough in those days to turn him loose. Most of us in those days played a conservative-type game.”

 Finch remembered the University’s NCAA regional final victory over Kansas State in 1973 as his favorite game because it gave him the chance to play for the national championship.

Even though the Tigers were defeated by UCLA in the 1973 final, the season had a heavy symbolic significance for the basketball program and for the community. Memphis was still fraught with racial tension in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination. Memphians united across racial lines in support of the 1973 squad.

After his time at the University, Finch was drafted by both the NBA’s L.A. Lakers and the ABA’s Memphis Tams. Once again, Finch chose Memphis, playing a few short years before lingering injuries forced his retirement. 

Finch returned to Memphis to serve as Tiger basketball assistant coach in the spring of 1979 after working under Bartow at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. One of his greater skill sets as a young coach was in recruiting talented players from the city and region. The young talent he brought to the team helped Memphis to advance back to the Final Four in 1985. 

After head coach Dana Kirk was dismissed, Finch was hired as interim head coach in 1986. Shortly thereafter, he was hired as the head coach, a position he held from 1986 to 1997. During that time, Finch’s teams won 20-plus games in seven different seasons and narrowly missed earning another NCAA Final Four appearance in 1992. Finch amassed 220 coaching victories, more than any other person in the program’s history.               

In addition to Finch’s impressive records as both a Tiger basketball player and coach, his strongest legacy was his tireless devotion to the University and his former players. As one alumni remembers, “He was a role model in every sense of the word. He loved those players like they were his own sons.” — by Frances Breland

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