Tarkanian long overdue for HOF honors
When the announcement came that legendary college basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian would be admitted with the 2013 class into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, those in the Big West Conference collectively asked, ‘what took so long?’
Before Tarkanian became “Tark the Shark” and fought his nearly career-long battle with the NCAA, he brought his pioneering ways to Long Beach State. He pushed the envelope and broke the unwritten rules right from the start, finding instant success with junior college transfers and African American starters.
In five seasons at Long Beach (1968-73) – his first five as a Division I head coach – he went 122-20 to become the winningest head coach in program history. Tarkanian took the 49ers to four straight NCAA tournaments and created a regional rivalry of sorts with UCLA, so much so that John Wooden refused to schedule Long Beach State during the regular season.
“I think it’s way long overdue, he should have been in there some time ago,” said former Long Beach State forward Ed Ratleff. “I think the NCAA has their thing against him but I think people see him for what he really is.”
Tarkanian was one of the most polarizing figures in the sport. His 990 career wins, including an NCAA championship game, speak volumes of the caliber of teams he fielded, but his nearly career-long battle with the NCAA, the lawsuits and the cheating allegations and scandals damaged his reputation and kept him out of the Hall of Fame.
Ratleff, Long Beach’s only two-time All-American and a first-round pick of the Houston Rockets in 1973, likens the situation to Pete Rose’s exclusion from the baseball Hall of Fame, but feels that the NCAA overlooked the contributions that Tarkanian made to the game.
“Tark didn’t care what color you were, what nationality you were – he didn’t care about that,” Ratleff said. “Tark just wanted to win and give whatever player he thought was a good kid a chance.”
Some of those kids were almost as embattled as the coach. Tarkanian had a reputation for taking players that were involved in drugs and had checkered backgrounds. During his run at UNLV it was gambling and Las Vegas debauchery. But the notion that he thrived off of controversy was misleading, according to his former players. Tarkanian just simply wanted to help the kids that were talented but troubled; the outcasts that the big programs wouldn’t touch.
“He wasn’t going to back down to what anyone would say,” said former Long Beach forward Glenn McDonald. “Jerry wasn’t really going to shy away from anyone, when supposedly you say (someone was) a bad person or anything like that, he felt that they could get on the straight and narrow by being involved with his basketball program.”
One of the coach’s biggest strengths was the ability to take almost any player and find a way that he could utilize his talent and get the most out of his players – a mark of a truly great coach.
“Tark was a chameleon,” said former Rebel Reggie Theus. “Tark taught me as a player that it’s never about what the coach wants, you develop the program around the pieces that you have,”
Theus, who was recently named the head coach at Cal State Northridge, was one of the best players to ever play on one of Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels teams and is trying to bring the influence of the coach back to the Big West where it all started.
“The one compliment that I can always give Tark is that I played as hard as I possibly could and that is something that has carried with me the rest of my life,” Theus said.
Tarkanian gave mid-majors a name. The Florida Gulf Coasts and George Masons of the world have Tarkanian and his teams at Long Beach State and UNLV to thank for paving the way.
“If it wasn’t for him winning like he did, nobody would have heard of Long Beach State,” Ratleff said. “Now, when I mention I went to Long Beach (people) say, ‘Oh, you played for Tark didn’t you?’ because they know.”
These days, the battle he fights is with his health. But come September, Tarkanian will finally see that he was victorious in his epic battle with the NCAA.
“I just had tears in my eyes,” McDonald said. “He deserves this so much and I didn’t know if it was going to be one of those situations where after he passed away or 10 years from now he got inducted and didn’t get to see it…
“This is how it should be.”