The Jerry Tarkanian farewell tour is under way and the trail so far has been a lonely one.
No engraved rocking chairs.
Not even an embossed set of matching towels, folded twice and dipped in water.
Thursday night at Titan Gym, there was a plaque. And a handshake from Cal State Fullerton Athletic Director Bill Shumard, an old friend from their days together at Long Beach. And a brief standing ovation.
And, of course, a few minutes later, a touching, sentimental chant to buff the evening's ceremonies to a festive sheen:
Thanks, Tark, for the memories.
Tarkanian's Runnin' Rebels are presently on the road to nowhere--no NCAA tournament, no Big West Conference tournament--and when they get there, Tarkanian will have nowhere to coach, at least not in the vicinity of his pride and joy and ball and chain, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
Tarkanian is on the way out, his defense finally broken by a bruising NCAA-UNLV double-team, and though he's loathing every minute, he's going out the only he knows how.
By suing the NCAA, which he did Monday, for defamation of character.
And by winning basketball games, which he did Thursday, 86-74, after many minutes of uncertainty.
This is not a great team escorting Tarkanian to the door. It's Jan. 3 and these Rebels have already lost twice. Between Jan. 28, 1990 and March 30, 1991, the Rebels didn't lose at all. This team has lost twice, lost two in a row, and did it at Rutgers and at Missouri. It was behind at halftime at Fullerton.
Yes, these Rebels are down, way down, a mere shadow of the group that sent four players to the NBA in the first round last year.
This team will send only two, max.
Tarkanian is hang-dogging in the halls right after the final buzzer, commiserating with a small media cluster. By now, he should have a patent for it. He was born with a face for it.
Oh, our defense, Tarkanian cries. UNLV tried to play man-on-man against Fullerton but when Titan guard Joe Small hit his first three shots, the Rebels had to crawl back into a box-and-one zone. Tark hates that. "We tried to play man," he says, shaking his head, "but we couldn't do it well."
And how about those free throws? UNLV entered Thursday's game shooting barely 60% from the line, but closed out this one with 11 successes out of 12. Tarkanian rubs a hand over the stubble that passes for his scalp. "We have been shooting free throws for 40 minutes every practice," he says. "Dedan Thomas (a 58% shooter) must've shot at least a thousand. We've shot more free throws this year than any team in the country.
"That's why we need a good lead at the end of a game. They send us to the line, we might not be able to make a free throw."
Now, this could have been an altogether different situation, Tarkanian explains, if the NCAA hadn't scared Shon Tarver and Ed O'Bannon to UCLA and greedy low-life agents hadn't convinced Anderson Hunt to come out for the draft a year early. That piece of advice landed Hunt and his rapid-load jumper in France--and left Tarkanian without a shooting guard for his 9-2 team.
"If we had Tarver, O'Bannon and Anderson Hunt," Tarkanian says, "we'd be as good as last year.
"If we had Hunt alone, we'd be in the top 10."
The Rebels now have to make do with seven-foot center Elmore Spencer, who's averaging 15.7 points and eight rebounds and bettered both of those marks against Fullerton (20 points, 11 rebounds), and looks like nothing so much as a lottery pick in waiting. The Rebels have him and 6-5 forward J.R. Rider, who sank seven of 11 shots Thursday, scored his routine 22 points and has been called a better talent than Mitch Richmond was at a similar stage in his development.
You're tempted to say this team could win the Big West Tournament in a walk, but there's no chance. By vote of the Big West athletic directors last fall, UNLV was deemed ineligible from the tournament, which represented the only postseason action on the Rebels' 1992 schedule.
For that, Tarkanian will neither forgive nor forget.
"Why don't you ask the other coaches why we're not going to the tournament," he brays. "All we ever did was make the conference money, represent it in the playoffs, pack gyms everywhere. . . . and we never poured it on. We're not like Billy Tubbs, Oklahoma, and all that. We never poured it on.
"So you ask the coaches why we're not in. They didn't make the vote, but they could've influenced their athletic directors."
Seeking motivation for a seemingly pointless season, Tarkanian and his players have latched onto this.
"Other (Big West) teams are licking their chops when they play us after the last two years," forward Evric Gray says. "But we're licking our chops, too. All of the Big West schools voted to keep us out of the Big West tournament. They tried to stick it to us. So, we're going to stick it to them."
That, and 19 victories. That's the magic number in Las Vegas, the number of triumphs Tarkanian needs in his final season to resign with the best winning percentage in NCAA history.
"We want him to go out with the record," Gray says.
Tarkanian claims he simply wants to go out with this: "I was a players' coach and I was a coaches' coach. I had a good, if not the best, relationship with my players and the other coaches."
Then, with images of NCAA hounds flashing through his head, he added, "Those are the two people who matter the most."