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Las Vegas Strip lights to go dim for coach Jerry Tarkanian

In a rare event, Las Vegas Strip casinos will dim lights in honor of the late UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian

The lights along the fabled Strip and outside other casinos around this desert gambling mecca will do something Wednesday night they’ve done only a handful of times in the last few generations.

They'll go dark for several minutes, in honor of the late UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, who died last week at age 84.

At 10:30 p.m., after the finish of UNLV’s home game against Boise State, those beckoning lights will momentarily surrender their luster, in recognition of "Tark the Shark," the college basketball coach-turned local hero who embodied the spirit of this city for his love of the game, and let what critics said be damned.

This uniquely Las Vegas tribute has been done sparingly over the decades – honoring such social and political icons as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy.

And now there’s Tark; that controversial, sad-eyed, towel-chewing court-side pacer who for years battled the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. over how it issued sanctions.

But around Las Vegas, he was more than a Hall of Famer. He was the guy everybody around here called Coach.

The light-dimming gesture was driven by a social media campaign waged by Tony Cordasco and Scott Gulbransen, two UNLV alumni who rallied fellow alumni around Las Vegas and the state, creating enough momentum to convince the normally bottom-line-oriented casino bosses to agree.

Casinos such as Caesars Entertainment Corp., MGM Resorts properties on the Strip, the Cosmopolitan, Stratosphere, Tropicana, the Venetian and the Palazzo, have agreed to dim their non-essential exterior bulbs for a few minutes.

But the lights will dim elsewhere as well, including such off-Strip resorts as the Hard Rock Hotel and South Point casino; locals-only Station Casinos and even the digital canopy above Fremont Street. PTs pub will also lower the exterior lights at many of its 46 locations locally.

Gulbransen, an online marketing expert and 1995 UNLV graduate, said he conceived the idea  Wednesday, late at night on the day Tarkanian died. “I was on my computer at home when Tony texted me about what a terrible day it was,” he said.

“We were commiserating in our moment of grief and the talk eventually turned to getting the lights dimmed on The Strip. It was like ‘It’s only been done a few times. Yep, this is what we should do.’”

That night, they set up a Twitter account and Facebook page asking casinos to honor Coach Tark. They showed a picture of Tarkanian, hands clasped before him, wearing his national championship ring, before a view of The Strip lighted up at night like a galaxy of stars. The hashtag read “#DIMLIGHTS4TARK”.

The response on social media was immediate and sizable. “The whole thing kept me up until 3 a.m.,” he said. “The next day we both began calling people we knew.”

Both Gulbransen and Colasco dusted off their mental Rolodexes for UNLV alumni with political pull. That included Trevor Hayes, a member of the Nevada Board of Regents. They reached out to both the Nevada Resort Assn. and Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Even here in the desert, the momentum began to snowball, showing both men the reach of UNLV graduates here. “the university has grown; there’s well over 100,000 alumni now,” said Cordasco, a 1982 UNLV graduate. “The school also has a hotel management school, so there are people working in town. But the biggest reason we all got this done was that Coach was so revered. People were willing to help.”

In recent days, the Tark tributes have been constant. ESPN called Tarkanian’s most successful teams a latter-day Rat Pack that owned the heart of The Strip. He was a renegade coach who took athletes rejected by other schools and won a national championship in 1990.

In all, Tarkanian won 729 games as a coach at Long Beach State, UNLV and Fresno State. Fans called him a brilliant recruiter dogged by controversy that his programs were tainted by graft.

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FOR THE RECORD

4:45 p.m.: An earlier version of this post said Tarkanian was a coach at the  University of Nevada, Reno. It should have said Fresno State.

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“We were the outlaws,” said Colasco, who worked as a reporter covering many UNLV basketball games. “Coach embraced that role. People gravitated to him. We were the underdogs and they wanted the underdogs to win. Even the bellmen and airport workers, they all rooted for Coach, and he embraced them all.”

Colasco said he recalled Tarkanian as a coach who allowed his superstitions to run as wild as his Runnin’ Rebels.

“I broadcast many games and one day he walked up to me and said: ‘You’re doing a good job. We’re 5-0. Keep up the good work, as though I was somehow responsible,” Colasco said.

When Colasco sat with the team for pregame meals, he recalled that Tarkanian never allowed anyone to talk – another superstition. And if he won on the road, he stayed in the same hotel year after year.

“We stayed in this dumpy hotel in Las Cruces, N.M., because we continue to win against New Mexico State,” Colasco recalled. “When we finally lost, one of the team said on the flight home ‘Well, at least we won’t have to stay at that hotel anymore.’”

If Tarkanian were alive, he said, he’d certainly see the dimming of the Las Vegas lights as another good omen.

john.glionna@latimes.com

Follow @jglionna on Twitter

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