Jerry Tarkanian: His defining moments

September, 3, 2013
9/03/13
11:15
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Editor's Note: Three legendary college basketball coaches -- Jerry Tarkanian, Rick Pitino and Guy Lewis -- take center stage this weekend as the trio is inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. We'll be devoting a day to each as we examine what made them HOF-worthy.

The good, the bad, the ugly ... here's a look at 10 defining moments in the career of Jerry Tarkanian:

1. Beyond the moments and the championships, beyond even the NCAA fight, one thing will stand alone as synonymous with Jerry Tarkanian -- the towel. He started chomping on one during his high school coaching days in Fresno, Calif., and, ever superstitious, never stopped throughout his coaching career. When UNLV commissioned a statue of the legendary coach in May, the artist posed Tarkanian on a chair, in his shirtsleeves and the ever-present towel near his mouth.

[+] EnlargeJerry Tarkanian
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeJerry Tarkanian began chewing a towel as a high school coach and it eventually became synonymous with the coach.
2. Tarkanian’s signature moment came in 1990, when UNLV won the national championship. Tark had assembled an embarrassment of talent -- Stacey Augmon, Larry Johnson, Anderson Hunt, Greg Anthony -- and the result was hardly surprising: a flat-out demolishing of Duke, 103-73. It remains the only time a team topped the century mark in a title game and the most lopsided championship margin. Brash and full of swagger, the Runnin’ Rebels were not exactly popular champions with the NCAA home offices. During the course of that championship season, the NCAA visited campus 11 times, and 10 players were suspended at different times.

3. Oddly, it is the team that didn’t win the national championship that many consider one of the best of all time. In 1991 UNLV ran its record to 34-0, barely challenged in the process, winning by an average 27.3 points per game. The Runnin’ Rebels seemed destined not only to repeat as champions but also to become the first team since Indiana to go undefeated. And then came the rematch against Duke in the national semifinals, a game that was completely unlike the title matchup in 1990. Older and tougher, the Blue Devils went toe-to-toe with UNLV and when Anderson Hunt’s 22-footer misfired at the buzzer, Duke avenged the loss and ended the Rebels’ run.

4. Before Tarkanian arrived in Las Vegas in 1973, people derogatorily referred to the school as Tumbleweed Tech. A university in the middle of Vegas? Why bother? In Tarkanian’s first season, UNLV was 20-6, and by the time he left, the school was so popular with movie stars it had its own Gucci Row, featuring such 1970s luminaries as Suzanne Somers, Don Rickles and even Frank Sinatra.

5. “The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky it will probably slap another two years probation on Cleveland State.’’ Tarkanian uttered the famous quip after Kentucky and coach Eddie Sutton found themselves in the NCAA crosshairs. But the line has stood the test of time, emblematic of not only Tark’s battles with the organization but also of the long-held belief that the NCAA practices selective enforcement.

6. Long before UNLV, Tarkanian was anti-establishment. He cut his coaching teeth at Riverside City College, long before adding junior college players to four-year rosters was an acceptable practice. Wildly successful, he parlayed that into a job at Long Beach State. When he led the 49ers to the 1970 NCAA tournament, he bragged that his roster was made up almost entirely of junior college transfers, immediately labeling him a renegade.

7. The nadir for Tarkanian came with a single picture, a photograph that changed his career arc long before smartphones with built-in cameras got everyone in their crosshairs. On May 26, 1991, the Las Vegas Review-Journal published a picture of three UNLV players in a hot tub with Richard "Richie the Fixer" Perry. It was Tarkanian’s undoing at the Las Vegas school, the proof that his team was operating outside the boundaries of an amateur program. Two weeks later, Tarkanian was forced to announce that 1991-92 would be his final season.

8. Vindication came for Tarkanian in 1998, when the NCAA elected to settle a lawsuit with the coach and his wife, awarding Tarkanian $2.5 million. In the suit, Tarkanian claimed the organization intentionally tried to derail his career, and rather than go to trial, the NCAA settled. Tarkanian’s reputation still carries the stigma -- a big part of why it took so long for his Hall induction -- which he acknowledged at the time of the settlement, saying, “They can never come close to paying me for the hurt they caused.’’

9. Forced out by UNLV amid the NCAA scandal (and after a very brief stint with the San Antonio Spurs), Tarkanian resurfaced at his alma mater, Fresno State, in 1995. He led the Bulldogs to two NCAA tournaments, but trouble seemed to follow him. Three players were charged with NCAA infractions, and the school was subject to a federal point-shaving investigation. In 2002, he retired from the school and the game.

10. At the 2013 Final Four in Atlanta, the Naismith Hall of Fame made an announcement many believed was long overdue, naming Tarkanian to its next class. The controversy that surrounded his entire career no doubt delayed his induction, but there is little arguing his impact. Credited with helping to introduce the fast break and the "amoeba" defense, and with opening up a world for junior college transfers, Tarkanian amassed a staggering 784-202 record in his 31 years as a head coach.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

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