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Former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian died Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. This story was originally published in the the Fall 2010 issue of UNLV Magazine. Read the obituary and share your memories of #Tark with us in the comments section.
The trophies and photos from Jerry Tarkanian’s 30-plus years of coaching sit off to the side in the family room of his home off Rancho and Alta drives. The focus is on the three scaled-down rocking chairs for the younger of his 11 grandkids. They all live within two miles of the two-story he has shared with his wife, Lois, since 1974. It hasn’t changed much — with its wrought iron banisters and lava rock fireplace — and neither has Tark.
Sure, he’s slowed by age — he is 80 now — but the Runnin’ Rebels coach from 1973-1992 rattles off player names and moments from those glory days with ease.
There’s the 1990 squad. Heading into that season, Tark expected them to be good. They had momentum after reaching the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight the previous season. They returned all five starters in 1990, including future NBA players Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony, and had signed junior college phenom Larry Johnson.
“You never know you’ll win a national championship, but …” he says.
The rest of that sentence is easily filled in by anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Runnin’ Rebels. On April 2, 1990, the Rebels routed Duke University’s Blue Devils, 103-73, and set a championship record for widest margin of victory that still stands today.
Great as they were, Tark says, the ’90 team wasn’t the greatest Rebels team ever. That honor goes to the following year’s team. He throws out some more stats: “Our closest game was 7 points (a 112-105 win at Arkansas; the Razorbacks were No. 2 in the country at the time), and we led that game by 23 late.” And: “We played Michigan State that year (a 95-75 win), we went to Louisville (97-85). We played everybody.”
But one potential opponent concerned Tark: “Duke was the one team I didn’t want to play.”
UNLV was 34-0 and on a 45-game win streak when they met Duke in an NCAA Tournament rematch at the 1991 Final Four in Indianapolis. The Blue Devils beat UNLV, 77-75, spoiling dreams of an undefeated, two-time national champion.
Tarkanian is reluctant to say where the ’91 Rebels fall in history’s rankings. The coach mentions North Carolina’s 1982 squad with James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and a certain shooting guard who would go on to some success with the NBA’s Chicago Bulls. Still, coach says of his ’91 team, they “probably played better than any other team.”
TARK LEFT UNLV at the end of the 1992 season. His battles with the NCAA already were well-publicized and dated back to his time at Long Beach State in the early ’70s. Then, he felt the major institutions were treated different from up-and-coming small programs. “They had total immunity,” he says. “I get older, but I still get upset when I really think about it.”
Recent NCAA sanctions against schools such as Southern California have somewhat softened Tarkanian’s views of the organization. “I really believe the NCAA is fairer today than it’s ever been.”
In 1995, Tarkanian took over head coaching duties at his alma mater, Fresno State, and led the Bulldogs until his retirement in 2002.
He returned to his Las Vegas home after the Fresno stint and remains active in the community. In 2005, UNLV named the Thomas & Mack Center’s court for him. At this year’s homecoming — 20 years after bringing the NCAA title to Las Vegas — he’s being honored with the UNLV Alumni Association Silver State Award. It’s the top award given to a nonalumnus for contributions to UNLV and the community.
He spends his summers in Del Mar, Calif., in north San Diego County, where he has a condominium. Most days he heads to the racetrack. But he’s not much of a horseplayer, he says: “Even when a wise guy gives me a tip, I still lose.”
He keeps in touch with his former players. Greg Anthony also will be recognized at this year’s homecoming with the association’s Alumnus of the Year Award. He is now a college basketball analyst with CBS, and he’s featured Tarkanian as a guest on his radio show.
Tarkanian calls Anthony his toughest player. His leadership on the court was solidified when Anthony broke his jaw in a February 1990 game against Fresno State. He played the rest of that championship season with his jaw wired shut. “The doctor said he’d probably be able to play 12 minutes a game. Greg played 32 minutes.”
After a successful NBA career, Johnson returned to UNLV and finished his bachelor’s degree in social sciences in 2007. He now splits his time between Dallas and Las Vegas. He and Tark frequently have lunch.
It is suggested to Tarkanian that his friendship with another basketball personality would surprise some longtime Las Vegans. “Coach K and I have been friends for years,” he says.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has a radio show, on which Tarkanian is a frequent guest. “He’s a great coach and a great guy. We talk about basketball all the time,” Tark says. “I tell him, ‘My guys were better guys than your Duke guys.’”
The UNLV program, Tarkanian likes to say, was based on loyalty.
BACK IN HIS RANCHO NEVADA ESTATES two-story, Tark spreads out the sports section at a small breakfast table off the kitchen. There’s a story on the Runnin’ Rebels prospects this season.
“I think he’s done a heck of a job,” Tark says of current coach Lon Kruger.
UNLV basketball has experienced something of a renaissance since Kruger arrived in 2004. The Rebels have made three trips to the NCAA Tournament, including a spot in the Sweet 16 in 2007 along with a 30-win season.
Kruger, for his part, is also appreciative of Tarkanian’s legacy.
“Coach Tarkanian and his teams are at the heart of the tradition of UNLV basketball,” Kruger says. “He means everything to the program. He took it to another level.” In its 2008 “Prestige Rankings” of basketball programs since 1984-85, ESPN ranked UNLV No. 8. (Topping the list is Duke.) Kruger’s current student-athletes weren’t yet born when Tarkanian’s teams were establishing UNLV’s place on the national stage, but his legacy continues to attract top players to the university.
“The national reputation (for the men’s basketball program) at that time was as good as any in the country. It (still) has a huge impact on recruiting efforts.”