Olson recalls storied rivalry with Tarkanian

BY foxsports • February 11, 2015

TUCSON, Ariz. -- For nearly three decades, Arizona coach Lute Olson and former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian were bitter rivals. But 10 years ago or so, Olson would often be a frequent guest on Tarkanian's radio show and most recently as a year ago, the two found their respective soft spots -- and respect for one another - with a great picture of Tarkanian sitting in a wheelchair with Olson's arms over Tark's shoulders, with each smiling for the camera.

Tarkanian died Wednesday at age 84 -- and Olson, like many others in the college basketball community, expressed sadness at his loss.

 "Our relationship was good," Olson said on Wednesday afternoon about their relationship at the end. "He was very happy for us (Arizona) when we won the NCAA championship (in 1997) because he knew what it took to win it.

"Our relationship was very congenial at the end, there were no problems."

But there was plenty of history . . .  storied history. It was Olson who replaced Tarkanian at Long Beach State in the early 1970s after Tarkanian left for Nevada-Las Vegas. Olson was the coach at Long Beach City College at the time Tarkanian was at Long Beach State, and he said the two often would go out to dinner. Soon after, Long Beach State went on NCAA probation, and two years later Olson left for Iowa.

He wouldn't coach against Tarkanian until Olson came to Arizona. The rivalry started in the mid 1980s, and in four meetings, Tark got the best of Olson three times.

The biggest blow coming in 1989 (just months after Arizona beat UNLV in Tucson) when Anderson Hunt hit a shot over Kenny Lofton to advance the Rebels to the Elite Eight. Arizona was the No. 1 team in the country at the time.

Olson opted to curtail the series in the early 1990s, after UNLV players had autographed a decorative Arizona basketball while using UA's locker room in the 1991 NCAA tournament.

Lute Olson visiting with a wheelchair-bound Jerry Tarkanian.

Tarkanian said he was unaware that had happened. Olson called the move "classless."

Olson did acknowledge UA and UNLV were the powers of the West at the time, oftentimes vying for some of the same recruits. Tom Tolbert and Matt Othick where two of them. Tarkanian dubbed Olson "Midnight Lute" after he apparently swooped in to get Tolbert at the final hour in recruiting. But Olson said Tolbert had committed to UA long before UNLV thought they had him.

 "I was the first coach in (Tolbert's) house, and he committed but after that said he wanted to take the visit because he promised friends they could come," Olson said. Olson agreed to allow it, and Tolbert reportedly made a verbal commitment to UNLV.

Tark "thought he was going with them, when in fact he was coming with us way before," Olson said.

 Othick, a Las Vegas resident at the time, was the subject of another recruiting battle won by Olson in the late 1980s. In a column Tarkanian penned for a local paper, he wrote: "Matt Othick would have played much better for us at UNLV than he did for Arizona."

 Othick eventually did play for Tarkanian when he was coach of the San Antonio Spurs.

"Tark was always fair with me," Othick said in a message to FoxsportsArizona.com. "When I decided to go to Arizona over UNLV he was not happy, but he continued to support me and never held a grudge. He brought me in to San Antonio when he took the job to try out for the Spurs. I had a great camp and not a lot of people know this, but he kept me over three of his former UNLV players who were also competing for the guard spot. I always respected and loved him for that.

 "Growing up in Vegas, Tark was a legendary character. I am proud to say I had the opportunity to play for him. He was an incredible coach and great friend."

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