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.
In spite of the brilliance of his early career, Bartow said years later that Finch
could have been scoring even more points per game.
|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.
“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
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