At UNLV, They Are Standing By Their Man--Tarkanian

The Hartford Courant

Seconds after the arena is plunged into darkness, a spotlight zeros in on a stuffed eight-foot white shark suspended from the ceiling. Fireworks snap and pop and another spotlight follows a student, dressed as a shark, as he chases a cheerleader around the floor.

Yet another spotlight hits each player as he is introduced and then, with the lights back on, the theme from “Jaws” blasts from loudspeakers as the two teams prepare for the tipoff.

Welcome to the “Shark Tank” and college basketball, Las Vegas style.


“The fans expect glitz and glamour because we’re Las Vegas,” University of Nevada-Las Vegas ticket manager Le Riggle said. “I think we give it to them. Once they see us, they’re hooked. They keep coming back.”

Not even a recent Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the NCAA’s right to order the suspension of the school’s basketball coach, Jerry Tarkanian, 11 years ago has tarnished the enthusiasm of UNLV’s basketball program. Season-ticket sales at the 18,500-seat Thomas and Mack Center topped 15,700 earlier this month.

Other than the failure to win a national title, UNLV’s only blemish under Tarkanian came in 1977 when the NCAA placed the program on a two-year suspension for 38 rules violations, many of them involving recruiting.

Whatever the NCAA decides to do with Tarkanian after its six-member Committee on Infractions meets Feb. 3-5, it won’t alter UNLV’s relationship with the coach, according to Athletic Director Dr. Brad Rothermel.

“The ball is in the NCAA’s court and we’re prepared to live with the results of their findings,” Rothermel said, “but whatever happens, Jerry Tarkanian will continue to be our basketball coach.”

Tarkanian, too, is confident he’ll be able to ride unscathed through the recent Supreme Court decision.

“There is nothing they (NCAA) can do to me,” he said Tuesday. “There has been tremendous support for me throughout my career here. The whole town is pretty much wrapped up in Rebel basketball. The town and state, for that matter, has been great to me the whole time.”

Tarkanian, in his 15th season, has his 12th-ranked Runnin’ Rebels off to a 5-2 start heading into this week’s UNLV Bud Lite Classic. The field includes the University of Hartford, Columbia, Pepperdine and San Jose State.

The tournament format had to be revamped when UNLV had to squeeze in a Big West game against San Jose State. UNLV’s original home date with San Jose State was scratched when it was discovered that that game interefered with an earlier commitment UNLV had made to play a televised game.

So Hartford will not meet the Rebels in the round-robin event. UNLV meets Pepperdine Wednesday night in the first game and, win or lose, the Rebels will play San Jose State in Friday’s nightcap. Columbia is playing only one game.

The Thomas and Mack Center, built in 1983, has been jumping again this season. Tickets, with a top price of $18 and a low of $5 for general admission, are hard to come by. There are 68 special front-row seats along one side of the court that sell for $1,000 a season.

The media calls the latter “Gucci Row,” where on any given night basketball fans can see some of the biggest show business and sports stars in town. The list of performers who have sung the national anthem before UNLV games is a who’s who of show business: Lou Rawls, Wayne Newton, Ronnie Milsap, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross ...

“We live in the show business capital of the world and we’ve capitalized on that,” Rothermel said. “Our basketball program is the single most unifying element in the entire community. It is a great source of pride for the 750,000 or so people who live in Clark County.”

It is also a great source of revenue.

“The basketball program generated $4 million last year, about two-thirds of our entire (athletic) budget,” Rothermel said. “That puts us among the top five revenue-producing programs in the country, right up there with Kentucky, Syracuse, North Carolina and Louisville.”

UNLV’s glitter also has attracted the lights of national television. The Runnin’ Rebels will be seen on the major networks six times and on cable 10 times, including six appearances on ESPN and two on the USA Network.

The man most responsible for UNLV’s national success has been the colorful “Shark,” as Tarkanian is affectionately called.

“He’s a round hole in a round peg,” is the way former UNLV play-by-play broadcaster Bob Blum describes Tarkanian. “He was an instant success when he arrived in 1973. This is a winner’s town and Tark kind of owns it now.”

Tarkanian is more famous than any of the entertainers on the strip, according to Blum.

“Celebrities ask to have their picture taken with him,” Blum said. “It’s good publicity for them and Tarkanian seems unfazed by it all.”

Tarkanian rarely ducks a question and never tires of talking basketball. “He tends to be very candid in his expressions -- to a fault,” Rothermel said.

“He’s the most one-dimensional man I’ve ever met,” sportswriter John Henderson of the Las Vegas Review-Journal said. “He hates baseball. He’s never read a book. He never goes camping. His idea of a vacation is renting a motel room with ESPN so that he can watch basketball games.”

Tarkanian’s recruiting success, particularly with inner-city kids, is no mystery to those who have watched his teams.

“Kids love to play for him because he lets them play,” Henderson said. “He won’t pull a kid for a bad shot, but he will yank him for bad defense. He is a master at building confidence in shooters.”

Winning, of course, helps in recruiting, and UNLV has had phenomenal success. Tarkanian has a career record of 391-91 at UNLV, which includes trips to the Final Four in 1977 and 1987. He is 76-5 in the Thomas and Mack Center. The last six seasons have produced records of 28-6, 37-2, 33-5, 28-4, 29-6 and 28-3.

“It’s not the arena that’s a problem, it’s the players and the coaching (of Tarkanian),” University of California, Santa Barbara Coach Jerry Pimm said. “I like going to Las Vegas. It’s a great experience for our kids.”

Tarkanian’s program has been controversial as well as successful. The Big West Conference has been investigating for 14 months UNLV’s recruitment of Lloyd Daniels, who was barred from playing at the university after being arrested for buying cocaine.

The players’ graduation record has been spotty although Tarkanian is taking a more serious stance. Nine basketball players have graduated in the last three years, including some enrolled in The Rebel Basketball Alumni Association.

It was formed a few years ago to help all former athletes return to the university and receive their degrees with tuition money generated through fund raising.

Rothermel said the school has two academic advisers for the men’s basketball team and seven for the whole athletic program.

The Supreme Court ruling, handed down two weeks ago, said the NCAA was within its rights to order Tarkanian’s suspension in 1977. Tarkanian, who never missed a game during the school’s probation, filed a suit that said as an employee of a public university he was denied full due process of the law.

As far as the school is concerned, the issue is dead. UNLV officials are quietly hoping the NCAA drops the matter, taking consolation in its court victory.

“Coach Tarkanian has surely been through enough during this period of time and I have every reason to believe the NCAA will honor our appeal that they not pursue this matter,” school President Robert C. Maxson said.

And, if the NCAA orders the suspension of Tarkanian?

“They can’t do it,” Rothermel said. “He has a permanent injunction to prevent such a thing, a situation the Supreme Court took note of in its ruling.”

Rothermel said he was as curious as anyone what the NCAA would decide to do after its February meeting.

“As an institution, we did everything to comply with the original ruling,” Rothermel said. “We were on probation for two years and we suspended Tarkanian before he sought legal action.”