LAS VEGAS — The warnings signs were there. More than a few people said efforts to get Jerry Tarkanian to reflect on his career as one of the most controversial coaches in college basketball history might turn out to be in vain.
Slowed considerably by a series of recent medical setbacks — a mild heart attack in March 2012, two strokes last year, the installation of a pacemaker last summer and three stents in August — the 83-year-old Tarkanian’s “good days” are coming less regularly, and though his awareness is still there, he’s often more content to listen than talk.
So, sitting across from Tarkanian in his son Danny’s living room, as Tark stretched out on a comfy sectional after a long morning of physical therapy that sapped him of whatever energy he might have normally had, I cut right to the chase:
After 30 years of defiance in the face of NCAA investigations and 11 years of retirement without being enshrined, what did it mean to finally be inducted into the Hall of Fame in September?
Tarkanian’s answer, after a long, seemingly thoughtful pause: A shoulder shrug and a wispy, “I don’t know.”
I turned to Danny, seeking elaboration. Was that a true I don’t know, or an I’m tired, leave me alone, or a sly I’m just not telling you to a reporter he’d never before met? The real answer, it turned out, was probably a combination of the three, with an emphasis on the first.
The Hall brings about a complex range of emotions for a coach who more than earned his place among the legends. He appreciates being listed with the greats, but he knows it shouldn’t have taken this long to be acknowledged.
Tarkanian won 778 games at the Division I level, nearly double what Marv Harshman won at Washington and Washington State, yet Harshman was inducted the year he retired, in 1985, with a meager two NCAA tournament wins to his name. Tarkanian reached four Final Fours, one more than Jim Boeheim when the Syracuse coach — no stranger to controversy himself — was inducted in 2005.
So yes, there’s a satisfaction in being honored, but does it represent exoneration after decades as the bane of the NCAA’s existence? Not so much.
“It surprised us that he was inducted, but there’s no vindication for him,” Danny said. “The NCAA did as much as it could to dismantle his career.
“Every single time he had it going, they tried to close him down, and even with that, he’s still one of the winningest coaches of all time,” he continued. “He had a chance to have one of the greatest careers of all time, and the NCAA did what it could to stop it time and time again.
“So being inducted into the Hall of Fame, does it validate all that? No, of course not. Why would it? Because you have a bunch of guys who finally used their opinions and biases and preferences to decide that he should be in? That’s supposed to make his career any more successful than it was when he had it?”
There’s an unmistakable resentment in Danny’s voice when he talks about his dad’s feud with the NCAA, and who could blame him? He saw all of Tarkanian’s struggles firsthand, including during stints as a player under his dad at UNLV and as an assistant on his bench at Fresno State.
But even Danny can acknowledge that his dad is held in the highest regard among his former players — to whom he was undyingly loyal — and fellow coaches who, by and large, could never keep up with the towel-chewing leader they called the Shark. Those people love him. Those people respect him. He’s always been a Hall of Famer in their eyes, and that’s what truly matters.
“The way your colleagues feel about you says a lot about your legacy and what kind of career you had,” Danny said. “And the only people who don’t (speak highly of my dad) are the coaches who weren’t very successful and are trying to come up with reasons for why they failed.”
EARLY SUCCESS AT THE BEACH
Before he turned UNLV into a national powerhouse and helped transform Vegas into Vegas, Tarkanian put the Long Beach State basketball program on the map, perhaps too quickly for his own good.
A successful coach in the junior college ranks, Tarkanian — a virtual unknown outside of California at the time — accepted the job at Long Beach in 1968. In his first season guiding the 49ers, Tarkanian took a team that went 12-13 the previous year under Randy Sandefur and 18-33 in its final two seasons under Dick Perry before that and turned in a 23-3 record.
The secret to Tarkanian’s stunning turnaround at Long Beach wasn’t much of a secret at all. Or it wasn’t closely guarded, anyway. He simply utilized the same junior college-level talent that won him four consecutive California junior college championships in the 1960s to compete at the next level.
In fact, so popular was Tarkanian among junior college athletes that several of his players at Pasadena City College followed him to Long Beach, where it turned out that these guys — many of whom landed in the JC ranks not for lack of talent, but because of academic issues, character issues or the color of their skin — could really play.
Fold in a few big-name recruits like Ed Ratleff, a stud out of Ohio and the best player Tarkanian coached in his five seasons at Long Beach, and you had a team that could compete with anyone.
“He came with guys like Sam Robinson and George Trapp and Charles Nixon and Sean Johnson, guys that played junior college ball,” said Ratleff, whose career 21.4 points per game average is still a Long Beach record. “So right away, he had the experience of playing what was, at the time, big time basketball. So he had some real players there and then when I got there, we just kind of got to it.”
Long Beach joined the Big West before Year 2 under Tark, and that 1969-70 season saw Tarkanian’s team finish 24-5 with a perfect conference record and earn an NCAA tournament bid. The year after that, Long Beach nearly knocked off UCLA in the West Regional final at a time when such a thing was virtually unheard of against John Wooden’s dynasty.
The Bruins’ 57-55 win over Tarkanian’s 49ers was the closest of UCLA’s record 38 consecutive NCAA tournament wins during that era. It was a seminal moment for the Long Beach program, and also one — along with the signings of top-tier recruits Raymond Lewis and Les Cason after the UCLA near-miss — that (with a nudge from former UCLA athletic director J.D. Morgan) put Tarkanian on the NCAA’s radar, where he would remain for the next three decades.
“If Long Beach was an older school, and let’s say that Tark had been there for six, seven years and started getting players and they started winning, they probably wouldn’t have said anything,” Ratleff said. “But being a young school and he gets there and the first, second year all of a sudden they’re winning games, they had to think something was wrong.”
Long Beach became a top-five power and lost seven games in Tarkanian’s final two seasons with the program. The 49ers even reached the Elite 8 in 1972. They lost there by 16 to UCLA and order was restored within the college hoops pantheon. UNLV then came calling, but a move east wouldn’t be enough to shake the NCAA, which had, at that point, pegged Tark as a cheater — a tag that, if true, described a side of Tarkanian that his best player never saw.
“A lot of schools in college basketball did not do all the right things, and what Tark did at Long Beach wasn’t even close to what was going on with other coaches,” Ratleff said. “But because Long Beach was such a young school, and they got on the map so fast, they had to think Tark was up to something really, really illegal.
“I tell people — and I know it’s hard to believe because I was a consensus All-American two years in a row — I never got anything from Tark. Nothing, never.
“Back when I was there, a lot of players were in need. A lot of them were from broken families and didn’t have any money and scholarships didn’t offer very much. I don’t know what Tark did for any other kids, because I never saw anything, but I know I never got a single thing.”
Instead, Ratleff remembers Tarkanian as a beloved figure on campus.
“He had a good family life with his wife and kids, and Tark had a lot of people who liked him,” Ratleff said. “The day of the game he might walk by you and not even say hi to you, not even see you because he’s so involved in basketball. But off the floor, Tark was a very likable guy, and people just loved him because he could talk with anybody.”
OFF AND RUNNIN’
Reggie Theus’ three years playing for Tarkanian at UNLV were a lesson in humility for the future NBA star out of southern California, and Tarkanian’s ability to get Theus and his teammates to accept their roles without wanting for more — a trademark of Tarkanian’s teams throughout his career — may have been the most instrumental part of the 1977 Final Four run that put the Rebels on the map.
“Coach was a motivator and he also was a bit of a chameleon when it came to mining and working with the talent that he had,” said Theus, now the head coach at Cal State-Northridge. “It was always about designing a program and fitting a program to the talent that he has coming in, and I take that with me as a coach now.”
After going 44-11 in Tarkanian’s first two years at UNLV, the Rebels finished Theus’ freshman season ranked third in the country at 29-2, with Theus playing just 16 minutes per game off the bench. The following season, Theus was still a reserve for the “Hardway Eight” squad that reached the Final Four, coming within a point of the NCAA championship game seven years after joining the Division I ranks.
The “Runnin’ Rebels” name had been coined in Vegas several years earlier, but it was during the 1976-77 season that Tarkanian’s philosophy truly took hold. The team set several NCAA marks in scoring, including a record run of 12 consecutive 100-point games that it shares with Paul Westhead’s 1990 Loyola Marymount team. That level of offensive efficiency could only be reached through unselfishness among the team’s rotation players.
“He was very good at getting people to understand what their range was and what type of shots were yours to take,” Theus said. “An open shot doesn’t mean that it’s your open shot.”
But the most overlooked aspect of that team’s success, Theus says, was its defense.
“(Tark) really never got credit for his defense until the ‘90s, but teams averaged almost 25 turnovers per game against us, and we pressed full-court, man-to-man for 40 minutes, and it was just a relentless way to play,” Theus said. “We put pressure on you defensively and put pressure on you offensively and it was very, very structured.
“People in those days had this misconception that we were out of control and this and that, but it was quite the contrary, and that’s why he didn’t get his due back then, because people didn’t understand was going on. The game was played a certain way and that was it, and Tark was an innovator in up-tempo basketball.”
The years after that 1977 run would test Tarkanian’s mettle, and ultimately come to define him as he butted heads with a prying NCAA for most of the next decade. UNLV basketball was banned from playing on TV for a time, and Tarkanian was once suspended under orders from the NCAA, though his forced dormancy was later ruled unlawful.
A Congressional probe came next in a case that eventually reached the Supreme Court in 1988, but for Theus and many others who played for Tark, the off-court battles with a crooked NCAA don’t mar the perception of their former coach.
“His legacy is his style of play and his flair, and then obviously he had some resolve at the same time,” Theus said. “… I believe that he got me to play as hard as I possibly could play when I was in college, and that carried me, not only through basketball but through life in general.
“I think most people, most basketball people, would say that Tark never got his due as a coach early, but obviously he did in the end. He was a great recruiter, a great people-person — he could go into the deepest ghetto there is, white, black or whatever, and blend in, and yet you see him at the top of the hotels in the big restaurants with the big wigs, and stuff like that.
“At UNLV, he took a small school in the middle of the desert and turned it into a powerhouse, and UNLV is still living off that reputation today.”
TARK GETS A TITLE
Growing up in Las Vegas, Greg Anthony always dreamed of playing for Tarkanian and the Rebels — which, even during the program’s few “down years” made for the most popular show in town. And after a year at Portland, Anthony finally got his chance, transferring home after UNLV’s return to the Final Four in 1987, then taking a redshirt before hitting the court in 1988.
Such idolization of a coach has the potential to set a player up for disappointment, but in Anthony’s case, his experience under Tarkanian lived up to the hype.
“We tend to have a far more inflated perception of someone or something, and then when you get the opportunity to experience it firsthand, it doesn’t always live up,” said Anthony, now an analyst with NBA TV. “But in coach’s case, he exceeded (expectations).
“He was so generous with his time and he was so influential. The things that he would say and the way in which he would say them — he was very confident, and for a lot of kids coming from impoverished backgrounds, you don’t always have the highest self esteem. But coach made me feel like I could do anything, in addition to on the basketball court. He changed my life.”
It would not be a stretch to say that Anthony, along with teammates Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Anderson Hunt, changed Tarkanian’s life too, when they finally earned him his elusive national championship in 1990.
The team didn’t look like a championship-caliber bunch early on during a 3-2 start that saw them drop games to Big 8 powers Kansas and Oklahoma, but by season’s end, UNLV was a machine, sealing Tarkanian’s first and only title with a 30-point win over Duke in the NCAA championship game, one of three 30-point victories in the tournament.
“It was awesome, something that means more, literally, with each year that passes,” Anthony said of the title run. “I tell people that I don’t know if I’ve ever had a day go by since we won that championship where someone didn’t mention it or want to talk about it.
“It kind of gives you perspective of the importance of that, and to be a part of that team, given all the great players he’s had and all of the great things he accomplished over the course of his career — to be a part of that is something that I’ll take with me forever.”
Of course, with Tarkanian, no good deed went unpunished by the powers that be, and three months after UNLV’s national championship, the NCAA banned the program from playing in the 1991 tournament over the recruitment of Lloyd Daniels.
Anthony, Augmon and Johnson all could have left for the NBA and avoided the storm that was descending on Vegas, but the nucleus decided to return for one more year, in part out of loyalty to Tark, and eventually a deal was struck that allowed UNLV to defend its title in the 1991 tournament if it agreed to sit out in 1992.
“We were having a great time, we were really relishing and enjoying the college experience, and Coach obviously had a lot to do with that,” Anthony said. “We also wanted a chance at history. Those are memories that we take with us our entire lives that, had we left early, we would not have had the opportunity. I don’t think any of us, if we could go back and do it over, would have done things any differently.”
The ‘91 season ended in disappointment, with the 34-0 Rebels losing in the national semifinal to the same Blue Devils they had dominated the year before, but Anthony says a second title wasn’t necessary to validate Tarkanian’s impact on his players, UNLV and college basketball as a whole.
“Coach really helped me understand that decisions in life are not always going to be popular, they’re not always going to be easy, but you have a responsibility to make sure that you do things in a way that you will always be proud of,” Anthony said.
“He basically built the greatest basketball program in the country from nothing. A lot of coaches have similar accomplishments, but if you coach at North Carolina or Indiana, Kentucky, places like that — they were good before you got there, and they’ll be good after you’re gone. Very few have had the kind of impact Tark did without a foundation to fall back on.”
A SECOND CHANCE
Two months after the ’91 tournament, the Las Vegas Review-Journal published a photo of three of Tarkanian’s players in a hot tub with Richard Perry, a prominent gambler who had previously been convicted in a point-shaving scandal at Boston College.
Though UNLV was never found to have been involved in any illicit business with Perry, the image turned out to be Tarkanian’s undoing at the school, and he was forced to resign at the end of the 1991-92 season.
After an ill-fated 20-game stop with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, Tarkanian — a man who became known for giving opportunities to players who, perhaps, didn’t deserve them — got a second chance of his own at his alma mater, Fresno State, in 1995. And there’s no one who is more appreciative of Fresno State’s faith in Tark than Chris Herren.
In fact, Herren, whose infamous struggles with addiction came to define him during his time at Boston College, Fresno State and in the NBA, credits Tarkanian, in part, with the five-plus years of sobriety he’s enjoying now.
“It would not be an overstatement to say that,” Herren said. “His impact on me goes well beyond basketball. The second chances that he gave me played a big role in my life and were a big part of my recovery. When people were telling him to get rid of me, he held on, and because of that, he played a big part in my sobriety later on in life.
“He opened doors for me that stayed open when I was 32 years old and started searching for recovery. He put me on that path, and when everyone was saying that he was enabling me, he set me up and opened the door, basically reminding me where to go when I needed it.”
Herren paints a different picture of Tarkanian than the one the NCAA, which eventually settled with Tarkanian for $2.5 million in 1998 over its constant hounding of the legendary coach, would have had you believe for so many years. The Tarkanian who Herren describes is a thoughtful, caring man who truly understood his players — and was also a hell of a basketball coach.
“He was always ahead of the curve,” Herren said. “He looked at what his players struggled with as an illness and he also looked at the whole picture — where you were coming from socially, what neighborhoods we grew up in, family backgrounds. He put that all into place and that’s why he was very empathetic towards his players.
“It’s sad that his interactions with the NCAA put a black eye on his legacy, but I think people have come to their senses and realized that that’s a huge mistake.”
A NEW RING
Maybe the biggest shame of all isn’t the time it took for Jerry Tarkanian to be inducted to the Hall of Fame, but rather that, when the recognition finally came, it was too late for the wilting legend to truly appreciate it.
Sure, the moment was significant for Tarkanian’s wife, Lois, who read most of a speech during his enshrinement ceremony, and it was important for his four children and 11 grandchildren to see him honored. But how much more special could it have been had Jerry been able to truly revel in a moment that was decades in the making?
“If you ask what Jerry Tarkanian’s legacy was when he left Fresno State and the NCAA was still considered this lily-white organization and they were still ripping him, it probably wasn’t as good as you’re seeing now that he’s getting more accolades,” Danny Tarkanian said. “But what’s it going to be in 10-15 years when people understand (his accomplishments)? Your legacy changes over time as more people get to filter through and see what you actually did.”
Though Danny says there’s no validation in his father being inducted to the Hall of Fame, one can’t help but get the sense that maybe, deep down, the recognition does provide a sense of affirmation for his father, a man who spent a career unconcerned with earning the approval of the world at large.
In fact, Jerry Tarkanian wears his enshrinement, quite literally, with pride.
At one point near the end of our conversation, I notice a large ring on Jerry’s right hand, with a sparkling red stone in the middle. I ask, ignorantly, if it’s his championship ring from UNLV, but am informed that it’s actually his Hall of Fame ring. His UNLV ring is — of all places — in the Hall of Fame, on a loan.
“Was it hard to part with your championship ring?” I ask, not necessarily expecting a response. “No, it wasn’t hard at all,” Jerry replied, softly, but surely. Danny then chimed in, “… because you got a better one in its place, right Dad?”
And as Jerry closed his eyes once again and sunk deeper into the couch, a sweet, knowing smile crept across his face.