|UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, right, watches with Mike Toney as boxes of evidence are wheeled into the courtroom of Clark County District Court Judge Paul Goldman in 1984. Tarkanian beat the NCAA in the Las Vegas courtroom and would eventually collect $2.5 million for beating the governing body of college athletics in another case.
Editor’s Note: Freelance writer Mike Henle covered UNLV basketball beginning with the 1977 NCAA Final Four in Atlanta.
There has been an orchestrated effort recently to have former UNLV Basketball Coach Jerry Tarkanian inducted into the James Naismith Hall of Fame.
Tark the Shark is more than mildly deserving of the honor for a many reasons. In the words of former UCLA All-American Bill Walton, the only real question is why Tark hasn’t been placed in the Hall of Fame long ago.
First off, the man with the droopy eyes is an absolute legend in the world of college basketball. He came to Las Vegas from Long Beach State in 1972 and brought with him a fascinating pizzazz that fit perfectly into the non-stop environment.
Tark turned the UNLV basketball program into the Runnin’ Rebels, but he did more than simply create a new name and an all-new level of excitement that even Vegas had never seen before.
It didn’t take long for Tark the Shark to take Vegas by storm. He went 20-6 his first year in 1972-73 and followed with a 24-5 mark the next year.
By his third season at UNLV, Tarkanian had the town buzzing like never before with a 29-2 mark in 1975-76; one year before setting countless records with a 29-3 mark and a berth in the 1977 NCAA Final Four in Atlanta.
UNLV would lose an 84-83 decision to the University of North Carolina in the first round of the 1977 Final Four at the Omni. In what should have opened the door to a final round showdown with Al McGuire’s Marquette, the Rebels settled for a consolation victory over North Carolina-Charlotte.
When Tarkanian took the Runnin’ Rebels into Atlanta, an estimated 10,000 fans came to watch the team just for a practice session. The entire nation had its eyes on a team that averaged 107 points a game.
While UNLV amassed the amazing totals during the 1976-77 season, many still wonder what the team would have averaged had the three-point line been part of basketball at the time. With an array of long-shot artists led by Las Vegas product Sam Smith, the Runnin’ Rebels were shooting the ball from anywhere and everywhere; and hitting the majority of their shots.
However, Tarkanian and his Running Rebels of 1989-90 would make good when it won the NCAA National Championship with a resounding 103-73 triumph over Duke in Denver.
Tarkanian reached the pinnacle of his career with the resounding triumph over the Blue Devils and Las Vegas celebrated along with him and his champions. In a city where PR is king, the Runnin’ Rebels did as much for the city by winning the 1990 National Championship as Frank Sinatra, Don Rickles, and Johnny Carson did during their hey days.
Twenty years prior, UNLV basketball was boring and it was played in the 6,200-seat Las Vegas Convention Center. Tarkanian’s drag-race style of basketball fit into Las Vegas like a ball in a glove and a city largely disinterested in college basketball suddenly caught on to the new-found firepower.
With a 30-year career record of 761-202 for a .790 percentage and four trips to the Final Four, Tarkanian also became a favorite of not only the UNLV fans, but the media, too. He was easy to talk with no matter what the topic and he preached the positive elements of Las Vegas at every opportunity.
To a degree, Tarkanian was tantamount to former Mayor Oscar Goodman. Over the years, both have never shied from an opportunity to not only cheerlead for Las Vegas but also defend the city at every opportunity.
The man was a refreshing addition to Las Vegas for both his coaching talents and also his wit. He was the hit of luncheons with talks that had everyone in hysterics.
Fans who might not have cared much for the lunches loved Tarkanian’s comedy. He’d joke about players and opposing coaches and once referred to University of Arizona coach Lute Olson as “Midnight Lute” for hiding players during the evening hours when the recruiting became intense.
On one occasion after a game played on the road, Tarkanian said during a television interview that his next stop was the University of New Mexico.
“If (New Mexico coach) Norm Ellenberger has any class, he’ll pick me up at the airport,” Tarkanian said.
Ellenberger heard the challenge and fittingly had a Rolls Royce limousine awaiting Tarkanian when the team arrived at the airport in Albuquerque.
When the man spoke, people listened. Tarkanian had a way with words that added a shot-in-the-arm to college athletics; and especially college basketball.
Prior to Tarkanian’s arrival in Southern Nevada, getting the city of Las Vegas to focus on any one particular topic was difficult, to say the least.
However, when it was evident that the UNLV basketball program was for real en route to the NCAA Final Four in 1977, Las Vegas suddenly found itself with one focus; that being a college basketball team so dominant that it almost upstaged everything else in Vegas.
All of a sudden, a city that seemingly had Attention Deficit Disorder concentrated wholly on a college basketball team. When Tarkanian took his game on the road during the playoffs, the streets of Las Vegas were noticeably void of traffic; and those who were driving all had their radios tuned in to the game.
However, the threat of an NCAA investigation was also evident in Atlanta as reporters dogged the team at every opportunity. The NCAA had attacked UNLV in what was nothing less than an orchestrated public relations attack.
Tarkanian and the players dealt with the never-ending questions about the threats of probation. When UNLV visited Pepperdine in Southern California during the 1977-78 season, Runnin’ Rebel Reggie Theus was interviewed by NBC’s Bryant Gumbel.
Like every other reporter who had heard the stories about “Sin City” and the supposed endless violations, Gumbel walked away wondering, too.
As he had done countless times before, Theus explained that the accusations were bunk; and Gumbel seemed to listen.
However, equally as important was the fact that Tarkanian didn’t just win on a basketball court. He was also fearless when he found himself in the court of law.
Tarkanian won a huge decision in a Clark County District Court in 1984 when he challenged the powerful NCAA and beat the giant so soundly that it could be said that he slam dunked a giant with daunting powers.
With his very cagey attorney Sam Lionel leading the way, Tarkanian defeated the NCAA in the court room of District Judge Paul Goldman. While Tarkanian would later pocket $2.5 million after suing the NCAA in 1992, he also set a precedent by proving the NCAA had overstepped its bounds.
Lionel carefully presented the facts and a jam-packed courtroom listened in amazement as NCAA attorneys scrambled to protect their investigators from Lionel’s attack.
Goldman was so incensed at what he heard about the practices of the NCAA investigators that he stormed out of the courtroom and slammed the door behind him. He would later say he was worried that the public would think he lost control of the courtroom, but when Goldman heard that one investigator referred to the Armanian Tarkanian as a “rug merchant,” he became furious.
It wasn’t so much that Goldman, too, had to be a UNLV basketball fan, but rather that the NCAA was so wrong that if Goldman had a whistle in his mouth, he would have stood up and blown the loudest technical foul in the history of college athletics.
Once referred to as being “Dumb like Columbo” by Marquette Basketball Coach Al McGuire, Tarkanian not only proved he was tenacious, but stubborn, too. He refused to give up until he won whether it was on the basketball court or in the court of law.
Tarkanian was relentless. Interestingly, the same coaches that tried to beat him on the court rallied behind him when the man called the Pied Piper of College Basketball took on the NCAA – and won with a legal slam dunk so powerful that it shook the rafters of every gym in the country.
Tark was also referred to as the Father Flanagan of the sport considering that many kids who were ignored by other coaches got a break at UNLV. When Tarkanian would wander into poorer neighborhoods of cities like New York City, kids would run up to him saying “Tark the Shark!”
Give the man his just due and name him to the Basketball Hall of Fame. For God’s sakes, Tarkanian is now more than 80 years old and he’s frail; and he’s damned sure deserving of the honor.
The honor should be bestowed of him not only for the players and the city of Las Vegas, but what he did for the game by taking on the NCAA and righting some wrongs that drove many other coaches out of the game.
Few will argue that Bill Walton was right when he said the only problem is that Tark wasn’t named to the Hall of Fame earlier.