Jerry Tarkanian dies at 84; basketball coach turned UNLV into a force
It was dictated long ago that Jerry Tarkanian would be remembered as more than a basketball coach who won a lot of games.
He was collegiate sport’s champion of lost causes and hard-luck cases, an underdog fighting the alleged hypocrisies of the “Big Brother” establishment.
The man dubbed “Tark the Shark,” who famously chomped a wet towel on the basketball bench, transformed the University of Nevada, Las Vegas into a glitzy powerhouse as he waged a decades-long war against the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.
It was a war, many could conclude, that Tarkanian ultimately won.
He died Wednesday at 84, feeling vindicated by an NCAA court settlement, while also living long enough to savor his belated 2013 enshrinement into basketball’s hall of fame.
He had been fighting an infection since he was hospitalized Monday in Las Vegas with breathing difficulties, his family said.
Tarkanian never had a losing record in 38 seasons, finishing 988-228 overall, with a major-college mark of 778-202. He won four California junior college state championships and four times led UNLV to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament.
He claimed one NCAA title victory on the basketball court, with his run-and-fun UNLV team of 1990. And he split two in-court cases with the NCAA, losing a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision but later gaining a $2.5-million settlement.
Tarkanian’s coaching talents, particularly his brilliance as a defensive tactician, were overshadowed by off-court controversies surrounding alleged recruiting violations and a host of other infractions.
In 1991, at the height of his success, Tarkanian abruptly announced his retirement after a Las Vegas newspaper published a photo of three of his UNLV players in a hot tub with a convicted bookmaker.
Tarkanian briefly coached the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs before returning to college in 1995 at Fresno State, his alma mater. He retired for good in 2002.
He left three major-college schools — Long Beach State, UNLV and Fresno State — in varying states of infractions disarray, but he maintained that NCAA charges were trumped up by a governing body out to get him.
He once told The Times: “I’ll resent them forever. That’s in my blood.”
Tarkanian vs. NCAA was the legal version of Ali vs. Frazier, two combatants exchanging blows for decades. The feud’s origins date to the early 1970s when Tarkanian, while coaching Long Beach State, penned critical columns for the local newspaper alleging the NCAA targeted smaller schools.
Tarkanian would later famously quip, “The NCAA is so upset at UCLA they’ll put Northridge on two years’ probation.”
The coach never claimed he was a saint — his problem, he said, was the hypocrisy. “In major college basketball, nine out of 10 teams break the rules … the other one is in last place,” he wrote.
The NCAA denied ever singling out Tarkanian.
“The issue of a vendetta against Jerry Tarkanian is an absolute myth,” an NCAA spokesman once said. "… Jerry Tarkanian has essentially gotten the same treatment everybody else has gotten.”
In a 1992 profile of Tarkanian for The Times Sunday Magazine, Michael J. Goodman wrote: “Tarkanian has a perfect record of conceding little, admitting less, confessing nothing and denying what seems undeniable.… The person most responsible for Tarkanian’s troubles is Tarkanian.”
Tarkanian, with his droopy eyes and slouched shoulders, appealed to the downtrodden. He befriended high school coaches and wasn’t afraid to recruit after dark in the toughest neighborhoods. Low grade-point averages didn’t scare him, either. He was one of the first coaches to heavily recruit African Americans out of junior colleges, and he loved transfers from major programs.
“They already have their cars paid for … I’m not kidding,” he wrote in his 2005 memoir, “Runnin’ Rebel.”
Tarkanian had spectacular hits — Larry Johnson, the catalyst of UNLV’s national title team, was recruited out of Odessa College in West Texas — and one mind-boggling miss.
Tarkanian took his most misguided risk in the mid-1980s on Lloyd Daniels, a troubled prodigy from New York.
“The problem with Lloyd,” Tarkanian would write, “was he had a lot of problems.”
Tarkanian overcame obstacles of his own. He was born Aug. 8, 1930, in Euclid, Ohio, the son of Armenians who immigrated to the United States to escape persecution by the Turks. After his father died of tuberculosis when Jerry was 10, the family moved to Pasadena.
Tarkanian played basketball at Pasadena High and Pasadena City College, earning a scholarship to Fresno State, where he was mostly a practice player.
After graduating in 1955, he coached basketball at two high schools in Fresno and at Antelope Valley High in Lancaster before landing at Redlands High — where the legend of the towel-chomp was born.
Tarkanian said it all started at a 1960 league championship game, in a sweltering gym. Tired of repeated trips to the water fountain, the coach soaked a towel and used it to quench his thirst. Redlands won, and the superstitious Tarkanian continued the ritual.
At his next stop, Riverside Community College, he won three state titles in five seasons. His last three teams went 97-6, including a 35-0 season in 1963-64.
He moved on to Pasadena City College in 1966 and then, in 1968, to Long Beach State, a commuter school that enlisted Tarkanian to make basketball viable in a market dominated by UCLA and USC.
His five-year record was 116-17— and 65-0 at home. Long Beach’s 1971 team, led by All-American Ed Ratleff, nearly upset UCLA in the West Regional finals.
Tarkanian was dubbed “Tark the Shark” by Times columnist John Hall, but he never thought he was competing in an equal tank. He alleged he lost a recruit to USC when, after the prospect’s mother complained of a toothache, USC sent a dentist to her house.
Tarkanian seethed over UCLA, which won 10 national titles in 12 seasons. He respected Coach John Wooden but thought the NCAA turned a blind eye to booster Sam Gilbert, a contractor who befriended many Bruin stars.
In his memoir, Tarkanian wrote that Gilbert put UCLA “so far over the salary cap it was ridiculous. He was the biggest cheater out there.”
In March 1973, only days after Tarkanian had accepted the UNLV job, the NCAA accused Long Beach State of dozens of violations, including improper recruiting practices and academic fraud.
Tarkanian fought back, producing affidavits from players alleging the NCAA used strong-arm tactics to coerce statements. David Berst, the NCAA’s lead investigator, was portrayed as a man obsessed with Tarkanian and even admitted referring to the coach as a “rug merchant.”
The NCAA in those days didn’t use tape recorders during interviews, relying on notes and recollections — methods that would be revised because of its handling of Tarkanian.
Tarkanian left Long Beach State on three years’ probation. In 1977, the NCAA then targeted UNLV for alleged violations, ordering Tarkanian to be suspended two seasons. He received a court injunction to remain coach as the case worked its way through the system. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 against Tarkanian, saying the NCAA was a voluntary organization and that if he didn’t like the way it operated, he could quit.
Tarkanian didn’t quit. The ruling did not require him to serve his original suspension, so he continued his battle against the NCAA, while forging a basketball dynasty at UNLV. UNLV’s success led to construction of a 19,000-seat arena, the Thomas & Mack Center, with the local glitterati convened in a section called “Gucci Row.”
Tarkanian was on the verge of becoming coach of the Lakers in 1979 when his agent, Vic Weiss, was found slain and stuffed in the back of his Rolls-Royce. Police suspected ties to organized crime, but the case remains unsolved. A shaken Tarkanian turned down the Lakers.
His UNLV teams kept winning through the early ‘80s. Then, in 1986, the coach became infatuated with Daniels, whom Tarkanian said was Magic Johnson with a better jump shot.
But Daniels never played a minute at UNLV after being arrested on suspicion of buying cocaine from undercover officers in Las Vegas.
After UNLV’s 1990 squad — led by Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon, Anderson Hunt and Larry Johnson — routed Duke by 30 points to win the national title, Tarkanian insisted the banner read “national,” not “NCAA,” champions. The euphoria was short-lived after the NCAA sanctioned UNLV for violations related to Daniels’ recruitment. The team was banned from defending its national title but ultimately was permitted to defer punishment until 1991-92.
UNLV was 34-0 and riding a 45-game winning streak into the 1991 Final Four when Duke shocked the Runnin’ Rebels in the semifinals en route to the title.
A month later, the Las Vegas Review-Journal published the photo of UNLV players in a hot tub with Richard “the Fixer” Perry, who had been convicted of sports bribery in a point-shaving scandal involving basketball players at Boston College.
Perry had helped Daniels get to Las Vegas from New York and posted bail after Daniels’ drug bust.
Tarkanian, who said he hadn’t known the true identity of Perry, announced that he would step down after the 1991-92 basketball season. His last team, banned from the NCAA tournament, finished 20-6. In 19 seasons his UNLV teams went 509-105.
The San Antonio Spurs hired Tarkanian in 1992, but he lasted only 20 games before he was fired.
In 1995, his alma mater, Fresno State, wooed him back. Although he led the Bulldogs to two NCAA tournament appearances in seven seasons, his last coaching stop was tainted by point-shaving accusations.
In 1998, Tarkanian won $2.5 million from the NCAA to settle his suit accusing the organization of harassment. Without any admission of wrongdoing, the settlement did include a statement from NCAA President Cedric Dempsey that read, in part, “The NCAA regrets the 26-year ongoing dispute with Jerry Tarkanian and looks forward to putting this matter to rest.”
The settlement also stated Tarkanian’s case contributed “in a positive way” to changes in NCAA enforcement procedures.
Tarkanian is survived by his wife, Lois; their children Pamela, Jodie, Danny and George; his sister, Alice; his brother, Myron, and 11 grandchildren. Danny played point guard for his father at UNLV.
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