As Jerry Tarkanian was in the midst of transforming UNLV into a basketball oasis in the desert, he concocted a plan to have Frank Sinatra help him land a coveted recruit.
Highly touted Mike O’Koren lived minutes from Sinatra’s hometown of Hoboken, N.J., and had a mom who was a fan of Ol’ Blue Eyes, so Tarkanian dispatched his good friend to make a recruiting pitch rather than going on a home visit himself.
“I figured if we got Frank into that living room in Jersey City, there was no way we wouldn’t get Mike O’Koren,” Tarkanian wrote in his 2005 autobiography “Runnin’ Rebel.”
O’Koren eventually chose North Carolina over UNLV in 1976 in spite of Sinatra’s best efforts, but Tarkanian’s audaciousness was still an early harbinger of a character trait that would lead to both championship glory and NCAA scandal. The polarizing coach was a maverick who did things his way and only his way, which is how he’ll be remembered in the wake of his death Wednesday at 84.
Tarkanian took UNLV to four Final Fours and won the 1990 national championship utilizing players contemporaries such as Dean Smith or Bob Knight never would have recruited. He gave second chances to talented prospects with rap sheets or checkered academic histories and taught them a high-scoring, action-packed style of play characterized by a stifling full-court press that fueled most of the offense.
UNLV’s rapid ascent made Las Vegas synonymous with something other than gambling and prostitutes and turned Tarkanian into a towel-chomping icon, but it also attracted scrutiny from NCAA investigators.
Tarkanian fought the perception he ran an outlaw program throughout his 31 seasons as a Division I coach, refuting allegations of grade-fixing, point-shaving and impermissible gifts for recruits and accusing the NCAA of undue harassment.
“I get upset every time I think about the NCAA,” Tarkanian wrote in a 2011 blog post for the Las Vegas Sun. “I just get so mad whenever I read or see something about the NCAA and how they treated me so unfairly.”
Tarkanian’s hardscrabble path to UNLV helps explain many of the decisions he made once he got there. The son of Armenian immigrants, Tarkanian was born during the Great Depression in working-class Euclid, Ohio, lost his father at age 10 to tuberculosis and subsequently moved three times before settling in Pasadena, Calif. He believed growing up poor in a single-parent home made it easy for him to relate to minorities from similar backgrounds at a time when some of his coaching peers were reluctant to recruit inner-city black kids.
Tarkanian also wasn’t quick to judge prospects with poor grades because he too was initially an indifferent student. It took him six years to earn an associate’s degree from Pasadena City College and a bachelor’s degree from Fresno State because he was more focused on basketball and partying than schoolwork, yet he later went on to earn all A’s and B’s while getting his master’s degree because by then his priorities were in order.
Education became more important to Tarkanian via the influence of his future wife, Lois, and because of his desire to pursue coaching. He climbed the Southern California coaching ladder one rung at a time, enjoying success at the high school level, winning four straight junior college state championships at Riverside City College and Pasadena City College, and amassing an unfathomable 122-20 record in five seasons at Long Beach State.
Tarkanian’s four straight Big West titles at Long Beach State caught the attention of UNLV boosters and administrators in 1973. They were eager to help the university boost its profile via a successful basketball program and they viewed Tarkanian as the coach to make it happen.
Jerry Tarkanian chews on his towel while watching UNLV play Duke in the 1990 NCAA championship game. (AP)
Before he could make the jump from Long Beach State to UNLV, Tarkanian first had to persuade his wife it was a good idea to move their family to a city with an unsavory reputation. Lois Tarkanian recalled her husband’s sales pitch during a speech she gave at UNLV in October 2013.
“Lois,” Tarkanian told her, “we’re here in Long Beach, and this is not a college town. It’s not a Long Beach State town. This is USC. This is UCLA. If we go to Las Vegas, I will tell you, that’s a college town.”
Responded Lois, “I’ve never read anywhere or heard from anybody that it’s a college town.”
Of course, Tarkanian had the last laugh because he turned out to be correct. Once Tarkanian made UNLV a perennial NCAA tournament team, a city with no pro sports franchises quickly became a Rebels town.
Demand for UNLV basketball tickets was so great after the Rebels reached the 1977 Final Four in Tarkanian’s fourth season that the school soon broke ground on the 19,500-seat Thomas & Mack Center. Las Vegas headliners Sinatra, Bill Cosby and Don Rickles were among the regulars at that time in UNLV’s courtside seats, famously nicknamed “Gucci Row.”
Because UNLV initially lacked the pedigree to compete with North Carolina, Duke and Indiana for elite high school players, Tarkanian sought out higher-risk prospects and mined his junior college connections for talent. Armen Gilliam, Moses Scurry, Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson were among Tarkanian’s success stories. Clifford Allen and Lloyd Daniels were two of his most prominent failures.
Allen, an ultra-talented 6-foot-10 former reform school inmate, never became academically eligible at UNLV and was sentenced to 45 years in prison on second-degree murder charges in 1989. Daniels, a New York high school phenom, was arrested for buying crack-cocaine from an undercover policeman before he became academically eligible at UNLV and also never played for the Rebels.
The more Tarkanian won, the more notoriety he gained and the more outspoken he was in his criticism of the NCAA, its investigators became even more determined to try to take him down. They had put his programs on probation twice before and even urged UNLV to suspend him for two years, but the 1986 recruitment of Daniels triggered another investigation.
In the nine months before the 1990 NCAA tournament, investigators visited UNLV almost weekly and 10 different Rebels players were suspended at least one game for not paying incidental hotel charges on road trips the previous year or for other minor infractions. Nonetheless, Tarkanian kept his team focused through the turmoil, paving the way for UNLV to reach unprecedented heights.
When Johnson, a coveted junior college prospect, joined a team that defeated Arizona in the 1989 Sweet 16, UNLV instantly became a favorite to reach the Final Four the following season. Johnson, Augmon, Greg Anthony and Anderson Hunt helped the Rebels earn the No. 1 seed in the West Region, demolish sentimental favorite Loyola Marymount University in the regional final and clobber Duke by 30 points in a national title game many in the media billed as a battle of good vs. evil.
The NCAA banned UNLV from defending its crown the following summer, but the school managed to negotiate an 11th-hour deal allowing the Rebels to participate in the 1991 NCAA tournament but prohibiting it from the postseason the following year. As a result, UNLV picked up where it left off during the previous spring, dismantling opponents during an undefeated 1990-91 regular season and gaining national popularity in the process.
“It was like we were the present-day Miami Heat,” Dave Rice, UNLV’s head coach who was on that 1990-91 team, told Yahoo Sports last February. “When we traveled across the country, when we checked into hotels, when we arrived in airports, it was a pretty crazy time in terms of the national attention we were getting. There was a charisma about that team and a style of play that had everyone excited.”
UNLV was still unbeaten entering a Final Four rematch with Duke, but the highly motivated Blue Devils weren’t as intimidated facing the Rebels a second time. They dealt Tarkanian the most heartbreaking loss of his career as Anthony fouled out in the closing minutes, UNLV unraveled and blew a late lead, and Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner celebrated a monumental upset at the Rebels’ expense.
Tarkanian coaches his team during his time at Fresno State. (AP)
Painful as the loss was for Tarkanian, he figured at the time that UNLV would have plenty more chances to capture championships in the future. He had commitments from future UCLA stars Ed O’Bannon and Shon Tarver, and he wrote in a 2008 blog post for the Las Vegas Sun that he anticipated other top prospects would follow.
“We would have been so good, if we had been able to continue, it would have been frightening,” Tarkanian said.
“It would have been a dynasty. Jason Kidd alone would have put us over the top. Shawn Kemp definitely wanted to come. Jason Kidd was coming, too. Jalen Rose said he was coming, but I don’t know if we would have gotten him. Everywhere I go, people come up to me and say they wanted to come.
“Jason Williams, the college player of the year when he was at Duke, told me he had wanted to come since the eighth grade. His wall at home, he told me, was plastered with UNLV stuff. He was the No. 2 player picked in the NBA draft. It was unbelievable. We would have ruined college basketball.”
Of course none of that happened because Tarkanian’s UNLV tenure didn’t last long enough. Two months after the loss to Duke in the 1991 Final Four, the Las Vegas Review-Journal published a photo of UNLV players David Butler, Anderson Hunt and Moses Scurry in a hot tub with convicted game fixer Richard Perry.
The photo only proved the three players knew Perry – not that they were shaving points – but that alone was too much for Tarkanian to come back from. Already tired of the NCAA investigations and negative publicity Tarkanian’s program had brought the university, UNLV president Robert Maxon used the photo as the ammunition he needed to force the longtime coach to resign, effective at the end of the 1991-92 season.
“Nobody has had to go through what we had to go through during those years at UNLV,” Tarkanian wrote in a 2011 Las Vegas Sun blog post. “It’s hard to believe your own administration would try to sabotage your program. A lot of people still remember those years and are still outraged.”
Tarkanian coached twice more before retiring for good – an ill-fated 20-game stint as head coach of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs in 1992 and a seven-year stint at his alma mater Fresno State from 1995-2002. The Bulldogs won 20 or more games in six of Tarkanian’s seven seasons, but they only won one NCAA tournament game, endured a rash of off-court problems and later landed on probation for a handful of violations under Tarkanian’s watch.
Constantly running afoul of the NCAA probably prevented Tarkanian from receiving the recognition for his accomplishments that many of his contemporaries did. It wasn’t until after Tarkanian’s health started failing him the past few years that UNLV finally erected a statue of him with his trademark towel in his mouth outside the Thomas & Mack Center and he was finally inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame.
That such accolades didn’t come sooner was a disappointment to Tarkanian’s family, friends and former players, but they also weren’t blind to the circumstances.
It was the price Tarkanian had to pay for unflinchingly doing things his way and only his way.