It's an extremely sad time not just for fans of UNLV basketball, but for fans of the game in general as legendary hall of fame coach Jerry Tarkanian died yesterday after being hospitalized earlier this week with breathing problems.
There are not many men who have had such a profound impact on the culture of a city as Tarkanian did on Las Vegas. In a city that was built on losers, Tarkanian took an obscure basketball program and transformed it into a powerhouse that did almost nothing but win during his 19 years with the program.
Tarkanian's influence on basketball programs was almost always felt immediately. After his first year of winning less than 20 games during the 1980-1981 season, Tarkanian managed to win at least 20 games up until his final season at Fresno State in 2001-2002. He is one of few coaches to lead three different schools to 20 win seasons.
Coach Tarkanian also finished his coaching career with an overall record of 706-198. Ranking in the top 21 in collegiate wins among all men's coaches across all divisions. At 78.4%, currently only four other coaches have a higher winning percentage than him.
And yet for all the success and popularity that Tarkanian had brought to the University of Nevada Las Vegas, his well documented lifelong battle with the NCAA is what many people first associate with the coach when discussing his legacy.
It began all the way back when he was coaching Long Beach State. After leading the team to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances and making it to the West regional final in 1971, Tarkanian wrote a newspaper column that rightfully questioned why the NCAA investigated a smaller school like Western Kentucky and not a big name university like Kentucky.
Perhaps one of the most famous quotes Tarkanian ever gave was when he said:
"The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky, it's going to give Cleveland State two more years probation."
With a willingness to recruit players with checkered backgrounds that other coaches wouldn't touch, Tarkanian built UNLV into a national powerhouse that competed year in and year out. And as a result the NCAA kept a close watch on the Runnin' Rebels as they became a big name in college basketball. Tarkanian's criticism of the NCAA didn't make things easier.
Years into his tenure at UNLV, it appeared as though Tarkanian would be able to weather the constant scrutiny from the NCAA. But with the signing of Lloyd Daniels, a talented shooting guard with a troubled past, the first domino in what would ultimately result in the departure of coach Tarkanian had fallen.
In 1987, just a few months before he was due to arrive on campus, Daniels was caught buying crack cocaine from an undercover police officer. Tarkanian's tendencies to take in troubled players had already been well established, but even for himself, this was just too much. After learning of the news, Tarkanian announced shortly after, that Daniels would never play for the Runnin' Rebels.
Following Daniels arrest, it was discovered that he was led to UNLV by Richard Perry, a notable gambler who had already been convicted twice for sports bribery. This would result in another investigation by the NCAA which led to the Rebels being banned from the 1991 NCAA Tournament just months after winning the title.
Luckily, the NCAA agreed to compromise, allowing UNLV to defend it's title while pushing the ban forward a year to the 1992 NCAA Tournament. Amid all the controversy, Tarkanian managed to lead the Runnin' Rebels to an undefeated season in 1991-1992 heading into a rematch with Duke in the National semifinals. The Rebels ultimately lost in what is considered one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history.
Several months after the loss, the Las Vegas Review-Journal published a picture showing three of Jerry Tarkanian's players in a hot tub with Richard Perry, just months after he claimed he had warned his players to stay away from Perry. This was the final straw for UNLV president Robert Maxon, who then forced Tarkanian to announce his resignation that would come at the end of the 1991-1992 season.
Not long after his departure from UNLV, Tarkanian was hired as the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs in 1992. But due to a dispute with owner Red McCombs over player personnel, he was fired after just 20 games. However, Tarkanian would receive a 1.2 million dollar settlement that he and his wife would use to fund a lawsuit against the NCAA.
Tarkanian made his return to college coaching at his alma mater of Fresno State University. During his tenure from 1995-2002 he led the Bulldogs to 6 straight 20 win seasons. This included appearances in five NIT Tournaments and two NCAA Tournaments. Unfortunately, following his retirement in 2002, Fresno State was placed on probation by the NCAA for violations committed by the team during Tarkanian's tenure.
Due to all his disputes with the NCAA over the course of his career, Tarkanian had to wait quite sometime, but finally in 2013 he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. An honor that many coaches felt was long overdue.
Many cited Tarkanian as an innovator who helped shape college basketball into what it is today. With his use of a pressing defense that forced turnovers which in turn triggered his run and gun offense. His style of play on both offense and defense has been emulated by many coaches to this day.
Perhaps even greater of an impact he had roaming the sidelines was the impact he had as a husband and a father. He was married to Lois Tarkanian for 59 years. They had four children and 11 grandchildren. It's pretty clear that the love and admiration Tarkanian's family had for him was insurmountable. One of his children, Danny Tarkanian had this to say following the death of his father:
"To me, he's the greatest man I've ever met. I mean that not only about what he did in his profession, but also what kind of family man he was. He was great with the media, was great with the players, and other than one or two other coaches, he was great with the coaches. He got along with everyone. I will miss him every day of my life."
I can say with all honesty as I started writing this article, I began to tear up a bit. I've spent my whole life in Las Vegas and grew up loving sports. Without a pro team, I dragged my parents to see all the arena football, minor league football, hockey and baseball teams that came and went. Not big on college sports, by the time I turned 12, I finally got an opportunity to see the Runnin' Rebels play at the Thomas and Mack Center.
It wasn't just a team playing in my city, it wasn't just a game that I enjoyed to watch, it wasn't just something to entertain me for a couple hours. It was a something I didn't expect. It was a spectacle.
As I sat in my seat waiting for the game to start after watching the players warm up, the lights went out and the crowd began to cheer. Fireworks began shooting out from each side of the court and the band started to play the fight song. The spotlight shined on the players as they ran out onto the court and the crowd continued to scream.
I started to join in with the crowd, learning different chants as the game went on. Feeling the emotion of a game that I had never experienced in person. The Runnin' Rebels won, and by the end of the game I truly felt as though I was a part of something. A fan base, a city, and it wasn't just any city, it was my city. That day I learned what college basketball was all about.
And the more I learned about the history of UNLV basketball, the more I began to appreciate Jerry Tarkanian and what he did for the program. Why was the team so popular? Why was the Thomas and Mack Center so loud? Hell, why was it even built? Why are they called the Runnin' Rebels?
It's because Jerry Tarkanian came to Las Vegas and did things his way. He was never afraid to think outside the box. Tarkanian took players from diverse backgrounds, brought them together and found a way to win. He gave the city a team they could truly be proud of.
A National Championship banner hanging in the rafters is a reminder of what was and what can be accomplished. It's the reason people still attend UNLV games to this day. If Tarkanian never came to Las Vegas, this would not be the same university. He helped write a program's history and left his mark on the game of basketball for years to come.
History isn't made by people who do what's expected, it's made by Rebels, and Jerry Tarkanian was the very definition of a Rebel.
Rest in peace, Jerry.