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Rollie Massimino Couldn’t Have Anticipated It When He Moved From Villanova to Nevada Las Vegas, but Through Losses, Bitter Feuds and Desertion by Fans, His Program Quickly Has Been . . . : STRIPPED DOWN

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Who says they don’t make sagas like they used to? Have you seen the one percolating in the desert lately? Bright lights . . . greed . . . jealousy . . . parade permits--they’re all here.

Consider:

The basketball coach looks as if the Thomas & Mack Arena is strapped to his shoulders.

The school president, fresh from his job interview at Long Beach State, suddenly is very excited about the wonders of the Cal State university system.

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The towel-sucking ex-coach has his own call-in radio show.

The ex-fans have speed dial.

The remaining fans have plenty of leg room at home games.

That’s right, it’s viva , Nevada Las Vegas, the longest running cat fight since Siegfried & Roy started snapping whips. This isn’t high drama, it’s low comedy. It’s a B-movie with diplomas.

Everybody despises somebody here. And if they don’t, they will.

For instance, Runnin’ Rebel Coach Rollie Massimino, 59 going on beleaguered, fires up hotter than a Jenn-Air if you mention the UNLV “booster” who keeps writing nasty letters to Vegas recruits.

Then there’s UNLV President Robert Maxson, who shifts his frozen smile into cruise control whenever Jerry Tarkanian’s name comes up. Tark, who provided the school with lots of wins, as well as NCAA infractions, says he won’t give his seal of approval to the Massimino regime until Maxson is gone.

Meanwhile, the Tarkanian loyalists boycott the games. In response, the Massimino loyalists do the Tammy Wynette thing, but it isn’t easy. Just the other night at the near-vacant Thomas & Mack, they tried not to wince as the injury-riddled, mistake-prone Rebels lost to San Jose State.

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In the old days, which were less than three seasons ago, the Rebels used to treat teams such as San Jose like after-dinner toothpicks. Now UNLV (13-12) is reduced to hoping for the best, which in this case, would mean winning the Big West Conference tournament and the automatic NCAA postseason bid that comes with it. Otherwise, the Rebels miss out for the third consecutive year, twice by their own doing and once by NCAA probation. A string of 34 consecutive winning seasons is also at stake.

Anyway, the whole situation is a mess, enough so that UNLV Athletic Director Jim Weaver is at a loss to explain it. Or resolve it, for that matter.

“They haven’t written the book how to deal with this one,” he said. “It’s so, you know, extenuating. There’s nothing like it.”

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Stuck in the middle of all this is Massimino, who arrived from Villanova with a national championship ring on his finger, a sweetheart contract in his pocket and a squeaky clean record on his resume. What he didn’t have was an appreciation for the depth of the feud between the Tarks and the Maxsons.

Now he does. In fact, ask him if he would do it all over again and Massimino takes a deep breath and pauses several seconds before answering. After all, diplomacy takes time.

“Because of the challenge, because of the way Jim Weaver and the president presented it, if they did it again that way and told me what they told me . . . then yes,” Massimino said. “Because it’s probably the biggest challenge in my life and probably one of the biggest challenges of any person in sports. But what does that mean? Does it make me a martyr? No.”

However, it does make him an easy target for the Maxson bashers, who would have found something wrong with whomever the school hired. Mother Teresa could have gotten the job and someone would have complained about the length of her habit.

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Granted, Massimino is no saint. The fuse to his temper is snipped crew-cut short these days, and on occasion the explosions require ear protection. At best, his relationship with the local media is civil, but testy. He has exchanged words and glares with hecklers. He has performed some vintage sideline temper tantrums, including a memorable fit during an 59-39 January loss to Virginia.

Worse yet, he made the mistake, if you can call it that, of telling an ESPN interviewer recently that basketball was “only a game,” nothing more and nothing less.

Yes, well, that might make the deans in the Ivy League happy, but it didn’t go over real big on the Strip. Nor did it help when Tarkanian reminded viewers that it was a game, to be sure, but one that a UNLV coach had better win.

Also adding to Massimino’s public-relations problems is a statement made the day he was hired two seasons ago. Standing at the podium, stern righteousness dripping from every word, Massimino announced that “in no way will any student athlete ever embarrass this university . . . ever.”

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Oops. Not only did the comment anger Tarkanian supporters, who thought Massimino was taking a cheap shot at their hero, but it also proved untrue.

Earlier this season, sophomore center Kebu Stewart was suspended six games by the NCAA for accepting an airplane ticket from a booster. And last year, star forward J.R. Rider was charged with academic fraud, a nasty bit of publicity that didn’t subside until an independent investigation cleared Rider of all alleged wrongdoing.

Massimino says the infamous “will-never-embarrass” statement wasn’t meant to insult Tarkanian, nor was it meant as an absolute guarantee of no future athlete-related screw-ups. But the damage, unintentional or otherwise, had been done. Allegiances were established. Skirmish lines were drawn.

“When it hits you,” said Massimino of the UNLV dissension, “no one can understand fully the magnitude of the thing.”

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This is how petty the feud has become:

One Rebel fan, a 74-year-old retired dental equipment salesman named Ernie Baer, has written letters to UNLV recruits and warned them to play elsewhere. He has provided opponents, including USC, with videotape of Rebel games. He has sent scouting reports to opposing coaches, including UCLA’s Jim Harrick.

“This isn’t about sabotage or being a hero,” Baer told the Las Vegas Sun. “This is about the truth.”

The truth of the matter is that Weaver and Massimino would like to insert Baer’s head into a VCR and press rewind. But they can’t, so Weaver, a former football coach and recruiter, frets about the potential damage Baer could do. Massimino bites his lip and tries to put on a happy face.

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“I’m a very sensitive person and it’s been very difficult for me,” Massimino said. “But I got up early one morning, as I always do, and said, ‘That’s it. We’re going to get this thing done. We’re going to do what we’ve got to do.’

“I was fed up. I was just fed up. I’d had enough. And I’ve taken the high road, I really have. Criticize me, but just keep the kids out of it.”

Easier said than done. No UNLV player can help but notice the darkened luxury suites and empty seats at the Thomas & Mack, capacity 18,500. At last Thursday evening’s game against San Jose State, only 5,053 fans showed up. The town’s minor league hockey team, of which Tarkanian is retained as “director of community relations,” draws bigger crowds.

During the glory seasons of Tarkanian’s 19-year reign, Rebel tickets were prized possessions. One former Big West opposing coach tells tales of trading his personal allotment of UNLV tickets for rooms at casino hotels, dinners at the ritzy restaurants, seats at the best shows.

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Nowadays? Maybe a Happy Meal out of it.

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“I think if Maxson is gone, things will straighten out in a hurry,” Tarkanian said. “There’s too much bitterness. People won’t support the university.

“I think it’s really been unfortunate for Rollie. He’s a good coach, he’s a proven coach. But he’s caught in the middle of a buzz saw. The community absolutely despises that man (Maxson) more than anybody.”

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Tarkanian, who said he won’t return to a Las Vegas game until Maxson leaves, hasn’t exactly aided the healing process. He does a twice-a-week radio show on one of the local AM stations, and it isn’t long before the program becomes an anti-Maxson manifesto.

If he wanted, Tarkanian could call off the dogs and Massimino’s program would be forever grateful. But that would mean letting Maxson go free and on this point, Tarkanian and his supporters refuse to be swayed.

So Tarkanian does what he can. He deflects all criticism of Massimino, but continues to deliver verbal body blows to Maxson.

“Hey, I defend Rollie all the time,” Tarkanian said. “I like Rollie.”

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Last Thursday night, less than an hour before tipoff, Tarkanian took his first call of the night. It was Bob, from who knows where. Bob, leader of the Citizens for the Removal of Robert Maxson, was calling to announce to the listeners that he held in his hand a city-approved parade permit to celebrate the departure (whenever that might be) of the UNLV president. Bob wanted Tarkanian to attend.

“If I’m in town, I would definitely be there,” Tarkanian assured Bob. “I think it’s a tremendous idea.”

And so it went, caller after caller sticking pins in a make-believe Maxson doll.

Later, at the Thomas & Mack, the glitzy pregame fireworks and light show seemed out of place. So sparse was the audience that the “crowd meter” barely broke a sweat.

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As usual, UNLV lineup introductions were a treat. The players received polite applause, but Massimino wasn’t so lucky. The moment his name was announced, the boos rained down from the stands. The UNLV pep band leaped into action, but by then it didn’t matter.

The Rebels didn’t break into double figures until 8:40 remained in the first half. It took them until 4:43 to reach the 20-point mark. By then, members of UNLV’s own pep band were taking shots at Massimino.

“It’s only a game, Rollie!” yelled one band member.

“Hey, Rollie, put me in!” yelled another.

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Massimino, his knee resting on a white towel to keep his suit pants clean, stared straight ahead. If he had heard the jeers, he didn’t acknowledge them.

Afterward, when his team had committed 18 turnovers, made three of 17 three-pointers and lost by six points, Massimino congratulated San Jose State and offered no excuses for the Rebels’ uninspired play. He didn’t say it, but his son, Tom, an assistant coach on the staff, does: Beating Georgetown in the 1985 Final Four championship wasn’t this tough.

“There you knew what you were up against,” said the younger Massimino, whose father was his best man at his wedding. “Here you don’t know what you’re up against sometimes.”

The battles have taken their toll on Rollie Massimino. His friends have noticed. Dave Gavitt, senior executive vice president of the Boston Celtics and a buddy from their days together in the Big East Conference, made a special trip to a recent Long Beach State game just so he could give Massimino a hug. Alabama Birmingham Coach Gene Bartow has called. So has Cleveland Cavalier Coach Mike Fratello. So has former Marquette Coach Al McGuire. So have former players.

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Even Maxson, who might have his choice of jobs at Long Beach or Oklahoma, said the pressures on Massimino to succeed are enormous.

“I worry more about him, I worry more about the players,” said Maxson, who sat four rows up from midcourt last Thursday night. “They aren’t getting the total support that they should have.”

As for solutions, Maxson said he won’t accept another offer just to appease Tarkanian’s legions.

“Time is probably the best healer of all,” he said.

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Massimino has lots of that. His contract runs until the turn of the century and he said he isn’t leaving until the program is returned to its rightful place near or atop the polls.

“It’s going to be great,” he said, perhaps for his own benefit than anyone else’s. “We just need a chance.”


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