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Jerry Tarkanian: Coach, Terror of the NCAA, and One of the Last Honest Men in Las Vegas

The life and powerful legacy of the man they called “The Shark.”

When Jerry Tarkanian died, a little less than a month ago, they dimmed all the lights along the Strip in Las Vegas. He was the eighth person so recognized. Elvis was another one of them. So was Frank Sinatra, and so were two presidents, Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy. Of course, there are a lot more lights to dim today than there once were, now that the old Vegas of the Flamingo and Stardust has been enfolded in neon, roller coasters, and Elton John. It was that place, the old lost place, of which Jerry Tarkanian was one of the last survivors. So they dimmed the lights — and while there were more lights for them to dim than there were for Elvis, those lights have no edge to them now. They are more of a single amorphous blob. It’s a softer place at their limits. There is no distinct and dark frontier.

On Sunday, in the Thomas & Mack Center, the basketball palace that Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels built as kind of an extension of the Strip in a sport that never was sure it wanted it, the city came out to honor him. There were former players. There were current players. There were people who knew him all along the way, from dusty California high schools to slightly less dusty California junior colleges. There were players from Long Beach State, where he worked his first miracle in the big time, and where his impolitic remarks concerning the whimsical authoritarianism of the NCAA first came to the notice of that august body. There were players from all of his great teams at UNLV: Reggie Theus from the 1977 Final Four team; Eldridge Hudson from his next Final Four outfit 10 years later; Moses Scurry from the great squad of 1990, the team that won him his only national championship; and Stacey Augmon from the 1991 squad, which had an undefeated season until they lost a national semifinal to Duke in a game that has come down through the years as the grassy knoll of NCAA-related conspiracy theories.

As it turns out, in one way or another, I saw all four of Tarkanian’s Final Four teams. In 1977, two years out of college, I went to Atlanta to watch Marquette compete for — and ultimately win — the national championship. UNLV lost to North Carolina in its semifinal, and I ran into a guy in a white suit and sunglasses1 on the steps of the Omni. He sold me his championship ticket for five bucks because he was taking a private jet back to Las Vegas that night. It was there that it struck me that UNLV had eliminated the middleman; the school had players and it had alumni, but no students.


1.

It was the middle of the night.

I was a working reporter for the next three tournaments. I remember being in New Orleans in 1987, waiting for the Rebels to arrive at their hotel. Tarkanian had preceded them there, and he was talking to himself in the lobby. Just as the team bus rolled up in front, the entire neighborhood erupted in sirens. Tarkanian saw 10 reporters writing down the same cheap joke at the same time. He grinned. “Jeez,” he said, “that’s all we need.” And I was there for the extended drama in 1990 and 1991. In Denver, as UNLV was dismantling Duke by 30 points — still the largest margin of any NCAA championship game — I was sitting next to a very prominent coach whose team had lost in a regional final that year. As Mike Krzyzewski called timeout after timeout, trying to stop the slaughter, I noticed that my seatmate had become pensive. I asked him what he was thinking.

“I was just thinking that, with a couple of breaks, that could be me down there,” the coach told me. “I’ll tell you, if it was me, I’d have somebody start a fight, because we’d need some kind of distraction.”

God, UNLV was good that day. And it was good the whole next season, when it didn’t lose until one evening in Indianapolis, when Duke triumphed and there was general exultation in the executive suites.

It ended badly for Tarkanian in Las Vegas. He was one of many casualties of the transformation of the city from the repository of the nation’s sins to a family-friendly collection of theme parks. It was the new Vegas power elite that convinced UNLV to build a case against its own coach, forcing Tarkanian out of his job after 1992. His was a personality built for the sharp beams of the spotlight, not for the undifferentiated wash of a thousand billboards and the rattle of a roller coaster. The town outgrew him, perhaps. Or it changed and he didn’t. I make that one a pick-’em.

UNLV Basketball Coach Jerry Tarkanian MemorialDavid Becker/Getty Images

On Sunday, the building was full of high-roller caricatures of the older Vegas, people who could be 50 or 250, their marrow-deep tans making exact dating impossible, the kind of people like the guy who’d unloaded his ticket on me in 1977. The guys in the black turtlenecks with the gray ponytails and the women drenched in bling and eye makeup, tottering and tipping on stiletto heels not designed for arena seating. You see them on the Strip every night, surrounded by families from Indiana and tourists from Beijing. They mixed easily with the grandfathers in T-shirts who were telling their grandchildren the stories of what this building once was, what this city once was, and how it got the only team it ever would love.

But there was more to the day than that. Underlying the whole thing was the undeniable truth that Jerry Tarkanian was the truest Rebel of them all, that he touched off a movement that now is being played out in courtrooms and in academic journals. Everybody at the ceremony knew it, especially the players, who remembered that by playing for Tarkanian they were putting themselves under a microscope and volunteering for a kind of revolution. Now grown old, with many more respectable allies in the cause than Tarkanian ever had when he was coaching, those players are well aware of the circumstances of college basketball today. This was the celebration of a revolution now slouching inexorably toward Yorktown. The world is turning upside down.

“I try to stay away from that,” said Reggie Theus, who now coaches at Cal State Northridge. “I have to be real careful about that.” Jerry Tarkanian never was.

Obit Tarkanian BasketballEd Reinke/AP

The cite is 488 U.S. 179. The case title is Tarkanian v. NCAA. In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled against Jerry Tarkanian, who had argued that by penalizing his team, the NCAA was a “state actor,” and therefore the lack of even a semblance of due process in the NCAA enforcement apparatus was unconstitutional. In writing for the majority of the court, Justice John Paul Stevens ruled that the NCAA was not a state actor. The NCAA used this conclusion as a shield against litigation for almost 30 years.

It all began when Tarkanian was at Long Beach State. He began to talk openly of the capriciousness with which the NCAA enforced its rules. He would talk about how well-dressed John Wooden’s imperial UCLA teams of the time were compared to his own players. (Much later, when Kentucky was discovered to have been paying players, Tarkanian cracked that the NCAA was so upset that it would probably put Cleveland State on probation again.) The NCAA opened a file. Tarkanian moved along to UNLV. The NCAA’s file got fatter. The war got nasty; the NCAA’s lead investigator, David Berst, admitted that he once had referred to Tarkanian, the son of a woman who had survived the Armenian genocide, as a “rug merchant.”

“He admitted it on the witness stand,” said Danny Tarkanian, who played point guard for his father from 1981 to 1984. “He said he’d said it as a comment of appreciation. Anybody who knows what that means to an Armenian knows what that was.

“The NCAA was a faceless, powerful organization, and they were very vindictive. They didn’t like anyone to challenge them, which my dad did. At the time my dad started speaking about it, they took care of the power schools that made money for the NCAA, and my dad coached at schools that won, and they didn’t like that.”

In his time, and in his own way, and while he was coaching some of the best college basketball teams the game ever saw, Jerry Tarkanian rehearsed all the arguments that now are being made by people like Taylor Branch and Joe Nocera. He became the de facto ur-plaintiff in all the subsequent lawsuits, because all of them were based on what Tarkanian had been saying for decades. And he lived long enough to see those arguments begin to chip away at what had been for decades an unyielding cartel.

In 1998, Tarkanian sued the NCAA again, this time over the curious circumstances surrounding how he’d lost the job at UNLV. He won a $2.5 million settlement. There was a lawsuit filed by Tim Cohane, the former coach at SUNY Buffalo, that directly challenges the “state actor” loophole that John Paul Stevens bestowed upon the NCAA in 1988. Cohane’s case included charges that university officials, with the full knowledge of the NCAA, coerced Cohane’s players to lie about infractions of NCAA regulations so the school would have an excuse to fire him. Cohane lost in district court but won an appeal, and the NCAA was granted a motion for summary judgment last year. But the revelations provided by the legal process in that case about how the NCAA conducts its investigations, as the late Molly Ivins once put it in another context, would gag a maggot. However, they would not have surprised Jerry Tarkanian at all.

There’s a great scene in Patton in which, confronted by a change in priorities by the Allied high command, and watching as his supplies are rerouted to the British Army under Bernard Montgomery, General Patton fumes, “Hell, I know I’m a prima donna. I admit it. The thing I don’t like about Monty is that he won’t admit it.” I have no illusions about Jerry Tarkanian because he had none about himself, or about the business he was in. He was in it to win and to make money, and so was every other college coach in America, and so was the NCAA. He admitted it. What he couldn’t stand about everybody else was that they wouldn’t admit it. Shortly before he took his last job, at Fresno State, Tarkanian was holding court at the Final Four in Seattle. It was a Sunday. A press conference was scheduled for Thursday to announce Tarkanian’s appointment. “I don’t know,” he said. “If I can’t get five players before then, I’m not sure I’m taking it.” He got some players. One of them was Chris Herren, and Herren was the last great story of Tarkanian’s career.

UNLV Basketball Coach Jerry Tarkanian MemorialDavid Becker/Getty Images

In 2004, Chris Herren died. He was in the back of an ambulance, having overdosed on heroin, as dead as Tarkanian is today. His was the classic case of the downward spiral of a talented athlete. In high school, in Fall River in Massachusetts, Herren was as highly ranked a prospect as Allen Iverson, his contemporary. But Herren washed out at Boston College, expelled for drug use. It was then that Tarkanian gave Herren a call and another chance. It did not work out in the end. Herren relapsed at school, and his drug addictions cost him a chance at a long NBA career. He bounced around the world, from China to Iran, scoring dope in Turkey. And then, one day, he was dead, and then he was alive again.

His astonishing recovery already has been fashioned into a book and also into one of ESPN’s finest films. But he brought the house down on Sunday, his voice cracking like a wound reopening, when he spoke of the awful day on which Tarkanian stood with him as he temporarily left the Fresno program. “I remember going back home for the first time, to play against UMass on ESPN. I remember walking through that tunnel, scared to death, into a sold-out arena. I knew in my heart I was ready and prepared, with Coach Tarkanian by my side. He knew how important it was for me, and he coached me through it.

“But during one of my darkest moments, as I was announcing at a press conference that my struggles with substance abuse had once again got the best of me, he walked in and sat down by my side and he looked with me into the cameras. He never looked down on me. He never talked down to me. Nobody believed in me the way Coach Tarkanian did.”

This is the story that so many people take away from the life of Jerry Tarkanian, the guy who gave second chances to outcasts and to players gone renegade elsewhere. Joining Herren in tribute was Moses Scurry, a stalwart on the 1990 national championship team who subsequently did time for a carjacking in which somebody ended up shot. Are these two stories of a piece, or is that too much easy moral clarity? Is it too shallow a judgmental hindsight? Who looks into the human heart with that much confidence in how things will turn out in the end? That was a gamble Tarkanian took over and over again. He fought the NCAA because he thought the game was rigged. Sometimes it paid off. Sometimes it didn’t.

Giving someone a second chance means you’re taking an awful chance, too. The risk of a debt runs both ways. Las Vegas was built on that notion. It has been camouflaged by Ferris wheels and roller coasters. It has been softened by the appearance of volcanoes and pirate ships and dancing waterspouts on the half-hour. It was no less true now than it ever was, as people filed out of the arena, the lights of the Strip becoming vivid in a sudden evening rain. In a place built on risk, human beings can be the longest shot on the board.