Jerry-Built

Times Staff Writer

They call it the House That Tark Built, a $100-million palace that rises out of an old alfalfa field at the edge of Fresno State University.

That the patrons of this farming capital have dug deep in their pockets to erect not a concert hall or museum but a Taj Mahal for college basketball says something about the state of culture and entertainment here.

Fresno has a reputation in philanthropic circles as one of the nation's skinflints, but when it comes to the Battlin' Bulldogs of Fresno State, the town turns giddy with giving, each year raising $6 million to $7 million in a single month for the school's athletic programs.

When it opens in November, the Save Mart Center, named after a San Joaquin Valley grocery chain, will be the finest college basketball arena in the West, locals boast. But it carries a price tag far beyond the $74 million in bonds floated on the bold hope that a steady stream of cash, and championships, will come.

The shadow of Jerry Tarkanian, the legendary coach whose fame helped land the arena, hovers ominously over the 18,000-seat edifice in the city's heart.

A year after "Tark the Shark" retired from Fresno State, his men's basketball program has saddled the school with a far-reaching NCAA investigation. It has already resulted in the school banning the team from postseason play.

Over the last several months, even as a new coach has led the team to a 20-7 record and Western Athletic Conference regular-season championship, the Fresno Bee has detailed a long run of abuses under Tarkanian's watch, including star players committing academic fraud and accepting thousands of dollars from wannabe agents.

The school's administration, critics say, turned a blind eye to Tarkanian, a 1955 graduate of Fresno State who became one of the most successful, and most investigated, coaches in college history in a career that carried him from Long Beach State to Nevada Las Vegas and, finally, to Fresno State.

Last week, a grim-faced John Welty, the university president who had already pulled three scholarships from the program over the next two seasons, said the school's investigation had confirmed the newspaper's findings. He said he felt he had no choice but to impose the ban on postseason play.

The investigation and ban on postseason play have been enough to throw the nation's most fruitful farm county, already depressed over 17% jobless rates and a bust in the price of raisins, into collective despair.

Other than the Fresno Grizzlies, the triple-A farm team for the San Francisco Giants, this city of 410,000 boasts no professional sports franchise.

The legion of red-garbed fans known as the "Red Wave" live and die Bulldog basketball and football.

Some now fret that Coach Ray Lopes, a hard-working disciplinarian whose team has won in dramatic, last-second fashion several times this season, won't stick around for what they hope will be a ride to glory in the new arena.

Fresno has been dreaming about just such a season for at least a half century.

The faithful fear that the Save Mart Center, gleaming though it may be, won't be enough to keep Lopes in town or entice blue-chip players, not after the NCAA finishes an inquiry that probably will lead to more sanctions. They envision a half-filled, debt-ridden arena looking down on a mediocre team led by a coach not nearly as good as the 40-year-old Lopes.

"It's a shame that it had to come to this," Bulldog fan Mike McCrory said after a recent home victory. "They wanted a winning program and a new arena so badly that they were willing to see no evil and hear no evil when it came to Tark.

"The administration shut its eyes. Ray Lopes has proven that you don't have to be sleazy to win. It's too bad that his team is paying the price for what went wrong before him."

In announcing the postseason ban, Welty told a news conference that the ultimate responsibility rested with him.

But longtime professors and university staff say Welty, a hard-working administrator and skillful fund-raiser, had little time or inclination to bird-dog the basketball program.

The university president focused long hours on overseeing the school's transformation from a largely white student body to one of the most ethnically-diverse in the state university system.

Like all university presidents, he entrusted oversight of the basketball program to his athletic department, specifically then-athletic director Al Bohl and his assistant, Scott Johnson. Staffers in the athletic department said Bohl seemed intimidated by Tarkanian and his son, Danny, an assistant coach.

There were plenty of signs that the basketball program was a wayward ship, the sources said, but Bohl never bothered to intervene.

"Al Bohl became a 'yes' man for Jerry Tarkanian," said one employee, who still works inside the department and requested anonymity because of concerns about job security. Bohl, now the athletic director at the University of Kansas, did not return phone calls seeking comment. Scott Johnson, who became athletic director after Bohl left in 2001, denies that he failed to follow through on leads pointing to academic fraud.

As for Tarkanian, the 72-year-old former coach sits in a funny position -- literally. His office is located inside the near-completed Save Mart Center and his new job, which pays $120,000 a year, is to schmooze bigwigs into parting with some of their fortunes for luxury arena suites and other choice seats, as well as donations.

Yet it is the misdeeds of the players he recruited and coached that now complicate his fund-raising and cloud the new arena with questions: When the complex opens next season in what promises to be a huge civic unveiling, will the Bulldogs be banned by the NCAA from national television and championship play? Will the team even be able to compete in the WAC championship tournament, scheduled for next March in the new arena?

Tarkanian takes no blame for the situation. He alternates between denying that academic fraud and other abuses took place and pointing out that college basketball programs far more revered by the media than his have committed even worse violations.

"Even if you believe academic fraud took place, and I'm not saying it did, it happened in their last semester of college," Tarkanian said in an interview. "We coaches had no reason to know about it."

He says the NCAA investigating committee has had it out for him since he coached at Long Beach State in the 1970s and he points to a $2.5-million payment -- an out-of-court settlement from the NCAA -- as proof that he has been harassed.

"We had some problems here early on but we rectified them and my last few years were real smooth," he said.

"We graduated 10 of our last 16 players and our grade-point average was the highest a Fresno State basketball team had in a decade. We did a great job in academics."

But many Bulldog fans, even Tarkanian's staunchest supporters, say that, from the opening tip-off to the final buzzer, his players took this town on a wild and sordid ride.

Every summer, the coach had basketball fans believing that the Bulldogs would be among the nation's elite.

Every winter, like the tule fog, the shame of another inglorious season sat over this city and refused to lift.

Half of Tarkanian's players used drugs. Two players were arrested for breaking a man's jaw. His center was jailed for assault with a samurai sword. Two of his guards became the focus of a four-year federal probe into point shaving, although no one was charged. The Bulldogs' reputation for lawlessness extended so far that the team even became fodder for Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes."

At the time, with his teams still winning -- though never ranked among the top 20 -- few among the Red Wave were willing to hold the coach accountable. He was old and lovable and who couldn't admire his penchant for giving inner-city black athletes, even ones with criminal records, a second chance?

If bringing Tark to Fresno and giving him a last hurrah was a Faustian bargain, they say, his fame did jump-start the arena project and pave the way for a promising young coach to follow.

But the Bee, which had supported Tarkanian's hiring and treated him with reverence early on, kept chipping away. First came stories about players getting free food at a local Japanese restaurant, a contretemps that Tarkanian derided as the "$3.45 rice bowl investigation." The university made the players pay back the restaurant.

Then last November, the Bee quoted two players saying they accepted a total of more than $30,000 and other benefits from representatives of two Las Vegas-based sport agencies.

Last month, in a blow to the academic integrity of the school, the Bee detailed how a former team statistician wrote 17 term papers for three players and was paid $1,500. The payments came in part from the basketball program's academic advisor, Katie Felton, the former girlfriend of one of the basketball players at the center of the point-shaving scandal.

"It is imperative that this institution guarantee its academic integrity," Welty said, in announcing this season's postseason ban. "I simply will not tolerate academic misconduct in any form."

If Lopes has led the Bulldogs to one of their best seasons -- a season that didn't include a player getting arrested -- he can't quite shake the shadow of Tarkanian. He says the sanctions, while making his job more difficult, won't sour him on Fresno State. He vows to stay on and build the program.

That's welcome news to an elderly Red Waver who sat outside the old Selland Arena last week in her red beret and red sweatshirt, celebrating another victory.

"I liked Tark, but he wasn't a disciplinarian," Colleen Sethre said. "He'd give anybody a second chance. And sometimes second chances come back to haunt you."

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