In the 1920s, West Tennessee State Normal School played its games in the Normal Cage, the YMCA and the Messick High School gym. The Normal Cage was a room in the Administration Building with the floor marked with the dimensions of a basketball court. The court allowed barely six inches from the court sidelines to the room's walls.
Memphis Normal's first head coach was Frederick Grantham, who also started for the Tigers at forward. Grantham led U of M to a 22-8 record in his only season as player/coach. At this time, the Tigers were members of the Scholastic League and finished second in 1920-21.
The winningest coach in Memphis history is Zach Curlin, who began his coaching career in 1924. Curlin was Mr. Everything, coaching basketball, baseball and football for 23 years at Memphis, while also serving as director of athletics and physical education. The Tigers lost to Memphis YMCA on Feb. 27, 1925 for the city championship.
In the Jan. 25, 1925, Commercial Appeal, it was stated that "popular prices" for Tiger games would be 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for students and children.
In 1928, the Tigers played their first season in the Mississippi Valley Conference and wound up playing in the title game against UT Martin Junior College. UT Martin, however, won the game, 38-37.
The West Tennessee State Normal Tigers began the 1929 season playing in Memorial Gym, the school's new $100,000 on campus facility. The first game in the new gym was against Cumberland College on Jan. 14, 1929 and the Tigers won, 40-27. Normal's best player, Slick Headden, was suspended for an infraction of training rules and did not play in the contest. That year, the Tigers finished second in the Mississippi Valley Conference and placed three players on the All-Conference team.
Some of the outstanding players in the 30s were Sam Hindsman, Milton Mayo, Bert Barnes, Doc Howell, Clyde Moore, Mooney Boswell, Red Humphreys, Jack Dodds, James Stroup, Elmer Vaughn, Otho Lynch, James (J.T.) Crawford and Alton Gardner.
In the 1932 Mississippi Valley Tournament in Jackson, TN, the Tigers are scheduled to play Sunflower Junior College, but Sunflower withdraws from the tourney. Officials of the tournament prepare to rearrange the bracket to give the Tigers another opening round opponent. Curlin threatens to withdraw from the tournament because he thinks the Tigers are entitled to a bye. Curlin, however, decides to play UT Martin and wins, 44-25.
The Tigers upset Jacksonville (Ala.) on January 22, 1937, at Memorial Gym. The win was big because all of Jacksonville's players were over six-feet tall, including its center who stood 6-5. The Tigers' tallest player was 6-2.
On March 10, 1937, the Commercial Appeal wrote that Curlin, who had coached football for 15 years, would now coach only basketball and be athletic director.
The 1937-38 team had the dubious distinction of losing all 14 games it played. It stands as the only winless season in Tiger basketball history.
Some of the top players in the 1940s were Leslie Steele, Sam Hindsman, Howard Street, E.L. Hutton, Wayne Franklin, Randall Smith, Coy Creason, Phil Hodson, Bennie Reed, Jack Graninger and Van Mathis.
In 1941, West Tennessee State Teachers College became Memphis State College. The Tigers went on to win nine of 17 games that year under their new name and claimed the city championship by defeating Southwestern twice.
The 1940-41 season saw the Tigers fall to the World Champion New York Celtics, 48-43, in Memorial Gym. The Celtics agreed prior to the game that they would not take any free throws, instead, getting the ball out of bounds. For three full quarters, forward Davey Banks and crew, gave a dazzling exhibition and scored almost at will. Midway through the fourth quarter and leading by eight points, the Celtics famed comical circus went into action. At one point, Banks played for the Tigers and even the referee, Marion Hale, scored a bucket for the home team.
The Tigers lose to Goldcrest, 54-43, in front of 1,500 spectators at the Gaston Community Center. The game was part of a jubilee to raise money for the Dr. James Naismith Memorial.
In a 72-41 win over Southwestern for the city championship in the 1941-42 season, star forward Leslie Steele scored a record 42 points in front of a crowd of 600. It was the first time in Tiger history a player had scored over 40 points in a single game.
There was no team in 1943-44 due to World War II and the 1944-45 squad had to be made up of freshmen under the age of eighteen. Birthdays rolled around and two of the starters received presidential draft greetings.
The 1947-48 season would be the last for coach Zach Curlin.
McCoy Tarry, known as the "little red head", became the fifth head coach in U of M history in 1948. Tarry came to Memphis from Brewers High School in Brewers, Ky. One part of Tarry's strategy was the use of five guards at the same time once he had gotten a slight lead. The fivesome would then use their speed and quickness to freeze the basketball.
Due to large crowds in the 1949-50 season, two games had to be moved to Messick High Gym and the Shelby County Building.
The 1950s was a time when University of Memphis basketball had grown into a household name thanks in part to head coach Eugene Lambert. Lambert, who was assisted by "Stormin" Norman Sloan, led the Tigers to their first-ever NCAA appearance in 1955, where they fell to Penn State in the first round. Lambert took the Tigers to a second straight NCAA appearance in 1956. That year, the Tigers lost to Oklahoma City in the first round as Memphis was forced to play without four starters (Forest Arnold, Win Wilfong, Ken Caldwell and Orby Arnold) because of NCAA rules on freshmen and four-year men. During Lambert's five years at the helm, the Tigers had four winning seasons and two 20-win campaigns.
On December 3, 1950 in a win over NATTC, substitute guard Roy Darnell received the honor of scoring the 100th point of the game for the Tigers with two minutes left. It marked the first time in school history a Tiger team had reached the century mark.
On December 6, 1951, the Tigers open up their home season at the new $700,000 Field House gymnasium against Mississippi State in front of 3,500 spectators. The Bulldogs spoiled Memphis's opener, 60-58. The gym was officially dedicated on Feb. 11, 1952 as Governor Gordon Browning delivers a speech prior to the game with Ole Miss.
Beginning December 15, 1951, the Tigers begin their longest road trip in school history by playing at Idaho. Their trip would last a solid month and would see them play 13 games in six different states that would include Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Alabama and Mississippi. During the 13-game span, Memphis went 7-6. The Tigers spent Christmas in Spokane, Washington, before hopping a plane to Hawaii on Dec. 30. This trip also included the program's first-ever plane ride.
The University of Memphis won the 1952 Tennessee NAIB basketball crown with a 45-38 win over Tennessee Tech at Cookeville. The Tigers earned the right to play in the National Tournament at Kansas City, Mo., where they defeated Baltimore, 60-39, before being ousted by Portland, 72-48, in the second round.
Following the 1952 season, John Wallisa became the first-ever Memphis player to be drafted by the NBA. Wallesea went to the Minneapolis Lakers.
Memphis took on the No. 1 ranked Pirates of Seton Hall in South Orange, New Jersey, on January 22, 1953. The Tigers fell to the mighty Pirates, 103-85. The 85 points scored by Memphis were the most tallied by an opponent against Seton Hall up to that point. While on their trip east, the Tigers played an exhibition game against the Knickerbockers, a professional team, at Madison Square Garden.
Memphis defeated No. 4 Marshall College, 104-85, at the Field House.
In 1954, Lambert had the privilege to coach the first-ever Memphis All-American in Forrest Arnold. Arnold, who ranks fourth on Memphis's all-time scoring list, helped lead the Tigers to 62 wins in his four-year career. One highlight of his sterling career, was a school-record (at the time) 46-point game against Hardin-Simmons in the old Field House.
The University of Memphis upsets nationally-ranked Mississippi State, 94-68, as legendary coach Adolph Rupp scouts the Bulldogs. Rupp's Kentucky squad was ranked No. 1 at the time. A reporter asked Rupp about the Tigers and Rupp responded by saying "no comment."
Season tickets for the 1955-56 campaign were $10 for 10 games.
Bob Vanatta came to Memphis after serving as athletic director at Bradley. During his six seasons at The U of M, Vanatta had a record of 109-34 and led the Tigers to three NITs and one NCAA appearance.
The 1956-57 season turned out to be a special year for the Tigers. Not only would there be a name change, but first-year coach Bob Vanatta took a cinderella team to the finals of the NIT in New York City. From that point, the name Memphis took on a different meaning. It was one of the most important years in Tiger basketball history.
Memphis is ranked No. 12 in the nation on January 5, 1956.
On January 11, 1956, the biggest crowd (4,000) in Memphis history saw the Tigers defeat Western Kentucky, 80-64, at the Field House. More than 1,000 fans were turned away at the door.
Some say the true arrival of The University of Memphis basketball came on Feb. 2, 1957, when the Tigers upset No. 3 ranked Louisville at the Ellis Auditorium, 81-78. The Tigers were ranked 16th following the win over the Cards. Three nights later at the Field House, Memphis upset No. 20 Western Kentucky, 86-84.
The 1957 NIT marked a number of firsts for the Tigers. It was the school's first appearance in the NIT, first official game at the famed Madison Square Garden and the Utah contest in the opening round was Memphis's first nationally-televised game.
Over 200 Memphis students pile into five chartered buses for 17-hour ride to New York to watch their Tigers in the NIT. Another 300 fans are expected to make the trip in private cars. The bus shows up at the arena during halftime of Memphis's thrilling overtime win over St. Bonaventure. Bob Swander sank a last second shot as Memphis won, 80-78, giving the Tigers the right to play Bradley for the title. Against Bradley, Win Wilfong scored 31 points and was named MVP of the tournament. The Tigers lost the game, however, 84-83. On March 24, the Tigers return home as 2,000 fans, including Elvis Presley, greet the team at Municipal Airport.
On July 1, 1957, Memphis State College became Memphis State University.
The University of Memphis wins the prestigious 1957 Sugar Bowl Tournament on Dec. 30 with a 47-46 upset win over sixth-ranked Maryland in three overtimes. The Tigers upended Loyola-New Orleans the night before, 65-63.
One of the finest players in Tiger history was Win Wilfong, who played from 1955-57. Wilfong scored 1,203 points in just two seasons to put him 16th on The University of Memphis's all-time list. Wilfong was a first team Converse All-American in 1957.
Other great players during this decade that helped put the Tigers on the basketball map were John Wallisa, Jack Butcher, Phil Hodson, Joe Nip McKnight, Dick Kinder (who scored 44 points against Marshall in 1953), Ken Caldwell, Bill McClain, Hoover Scott, Bob Swander, Elmore Fortner, Spud Hays, Jim Hockaday, Jack Graninger, Neal Doyle, Millard Davis, George Price, Skip Wolfe, Joe Gummersbach, Joe Smith and Orby Arnold.
Bob Vanatta accepted the head coaching position at the University of Missouri in 1962 and long time assistant, Dean Ehlers, became the Tigers' eighth head coach. In his first year, the Tigers went 19-7 and received a bid to the NIT at Madison Square Garden. The Tigers were led that season by Larry Garber, Jamie McMahan, Hunter Beckman, John Hillman, Bob Neuman and King George Kirk.
In 1961, Wayne Yates was voted by the Philadelphia Sportswriters as the best player to play in the Philadelphia area all season. Yates scored 25 points and ripped down 23 rebounds in a 78-74 win at Villanova.
On February 19, 1963, the Tigers played Dayton in front of a packed Field House. In fact, the fire marshalls stopped the game for several minutes to clear the aisles. At the time, Big Jack Eaton (Voice of the Tigers) was at a loss for words and did not have any interviews to fill the interrupted broadcast. So what did Big Jack do? He resorted to singing. Eaton was the Voice of the Tigers from 1959 to 1987. By the way, the Tigers won the game 61-59 when Jamie McMahan tipped in a missed shot.
The final season at the Field House was highlighted by Memphis's startling, 83-65, win over No. 2 ranked Loyola-Chicago before a standing room crowd of 4,000 on Jan. 20, 1964. The final official game ever played in the Field House was on Feb. 26, 1964 when U of M fell to Xavier, 99-86. Prior to the 1964-65 season, however, the Tigers said good-bye to the Field House for good when they played the annual Blue-Gray game before a packed house.
During the early 1960s it was decided that Memphis needed a new facility to showcase its basketball program. In December of 1964, the 11,200-seat Mid-South Coliseum opened. The Tigers hosted Texas A&M in the first collegiate game ever played in the building and U of M defeated the Aggies, 82-73, before 8,763 screaming Tiger fans.
Memphis began the 1965-66 season south of the border with exhibition games in Mexico City against Mexico Poly, National Physical Education School, LaSalle and the University of Americas.
In 1965, the Rebounders Club was officially formed to help promote Tiger basketball on a fulltime basis. The Organization, which is in its 34th year, has over 500 members. The current club president is Harold Collins.
In 1966, Moe Iba became The U of M's ninth head coach. In Iba's first year, the Tigers earned a trip to the 1967 NIT. That was the last tournament to be played in the old Madison Square Garden. Also on May 19, 1966, the Tigers became a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, making them the 24th school to enter the Missouri Valley family. The conference would later be referred to as "The Valley of Death" because no win came easy in the Valley.
Iba was noted for his disciplinarian and hard-working style which was not the only factors that brought the multitude of basketball enthusiasts to the games. Iba's vivid personality accounted for the sale of many tickets. As one supporter put it in 1966: "I'd pay two bucks just to see Iba."