Jerry Tarkanian always liked a good fight, as NCAA learned the hard way

Jerry Tarkanian raises a glass in announcing his retirement as Fresno State coach on March 15, 2002. Tarkanian finished with a 778-202 career coaching record.
Jerry Tarkanian raises a glass in announcing his retirement as Fresno State coach on March 15, 2002. Tarkanian finished with a 778-202 career coaching record.
(Gary Kazanjian / Associated Press)

There was a time when you might have thought Jerry Tarkanian could not live long enough to get his justice and due.

Well, he did. Tarkanian died Wednesday at age 84 having outlasted nearly all his critics.

There are no reports of him passing on with a wry smile on his face, but it would not have been a surprise.

“I thought he had a pretty good life,” Ed Ratleff, who starred under Tarkanian at Long Beach State, said in a phone interview.


Tarkanian’s son, Danny, recalled in a statement to the Associated Press that his father “fought and fought.”

Tark fought the law, and Tark won.

Many of Tarkanian’s long-ago missives about dysfunction within the walls of the organization he so derisively called “the NC-two-A,” were incredibly prescient.

Just look at what a mess the NCAA turned out to be and how badly it bungled the Penn State and USC cases. See how foolish it looks on a regular basis as it capitulates on one pending lawsuit after another.


The only thing Tarkanian did not live long enough to see was the NCAA’s going out-of-business sale.

“What he was talking about years ago, that’s what you’re seeing today,” Ratleff said of the NCAA.

Tarkanian coached basketball at three universities — Long Beach State, Nevada Las Vegas and Fresno State — and each suffered penalties for breaking NCAA rules. But the coach never claimed he was a saint, only that he was surrounded by other sinners.

Ratleff said any violations committed at Long Beach were “penny-ante stuff” compared with other schools. “We didn’t have enough money at Long Beach to do anything,” he added.


Tarkanian exited college basketball with the last laugh, though: a payout and something close to an apology from the NCAA. To settle a harassment suit Tarkanian had filed, the NCAA paid $2.5 million and Cedric Dempsey, then the president of the organization, released a statement that said in part, “The NCAA regrets the 26-year ongoing dispute with Jerry Tarkanian and looks forward to putting this matter to rest.”

It was Tarkanian who railed that the NCAA adjudicated with vengeance and not justice.

Tarkanian never once claimed innocence. No man who pursued the likes of a troubled star such as Lloyd Daniels could have had more than a cursory interest in the NCAA manual.

Los Angeles Times columnist John Hall tagged Tarkanian with “Tark the Shark” when he was coaching Long Beach State in the late 1960s and early 1970s.


“Some people said he looked like a shark,” Hall, 86 and retired, said Wednesday. “I just put it together and it caught on pretty good.”

Hall said he genuinely liked Tarkanian, whom he described as a lovingly miserable character who was “always grumbling and moaning.”

Tarkanian, to his credit, never pretended to be anybody but who he was.

“He recruited anyone who could shoot a basketball,” Hall said. “He was loyal to everybody. He violated about every rule you could violate. But he wasn’t the only one. I thought he was a great coach. He got the best out of everybody.”


Tarkanian’s rolling mantra was that the NCAA had a double-standard for enforcement, that it picked on smaller schools but protected the sugar-daddy power programs. This produced variations of his most famous quote: “The NCAA was so mad at Kentucky they gave Cleveland State two more years of probation.”

Depending on his audience, he would often sub in UCLA and say the NCAA was going to “get so upset at UCLA, they’ll put Northridge on two years probation.”

Tarkanian would drive to your house to talk about UCLA basketball in the glory years under John Wooden. He admired Wooden but thought the NCAA had turned a blind eye to favors provided by Bruins booster Sam Gilbert.

Ratleff still thinks the NCAA “wanted to bring the hammer down” on Tarkanian because Long Beach had become a threat to UCLA’s dynasty. Tarkanian later turned UNLV into a sugar-daddy program, but his hypocrisy doctrine was born in the formative Long Beach years, in the shadows of UCLA and USC.


One of Tarkanian’s great yarns was his claiming he lost a Long Beach recruit to USC because the school sent a dentist on a house call to fix the tooth of the player’s mother.

Tarkanian dared the NCAA to chase him and it did — but not all the way to his grave. The coach retired in 2002 with this parting shot at the NCAA: “They’ve been tormentors my whole life.”

He lived long enough to see his basketball genius finally recognized with his belated induction, in 2013, to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

“To me that was the most important thing,” Ratleff said.


Tarkanian needed a walker to reach half court at the 2013 Final Four in the Atlanta, where he received a warm reception for his hall of fame induction.

Tarkanian lived a life of 10 men and had as many tales as Ulysses. He was a hell raiser, but also a trailblazer.

Lost in the paperwork of Tarkanian’s controversies was his brilliance as a coach. “You can recruit kids to your system, and coach your system,” Ratleff said. “But Tark coached the players he had. He made the offense and defense around his players.”

He was ultimately ours — a local from Pasadena who came up through the ranks of Redlands and Riverside.


Tarkanian won, and raised dust, everywhere he went. He never had losing record in 38 seasons and did not discriminate over race or creed.

In the early 1960s, he infused his Riverside City College team with cast-off African American players and won three state titles.

Tarkanian was a riddle wrapped in a paradox. If he was a cheater, well, at least he was honest about it.

He went to his final resting place knowing he was, at last, one with the basketball world.


It was a world that had finally come around to him.