For the past 14 years, basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, 56, has been fighting a bitter battle against the NCAA and the forces of public opinion. In January 1974, nine months after Tarkanian left Long Beach State for the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, the NCAA put Long Beach State's football and basketball programs on probation for violations the NCAA said were "among the most serious" it had ever considered. Two basketball players, Roscoe Pondexter and Glenn McDonald, were found to have fraudulent test scores. In 1977, citing 18 rules violations, the NCAA put UNLV's basketball program on probation and recommended that Tarkanian be suspended for two years from the school's athletic program. Tarkanian filed suit in Nevada's Eighth Judicial District Court, and Judge James Brennan granted an injunction to allow Tarkanian to remain in his job. In 1984, after a 10-day trial, Nevada District Judge Paul Goldman upheld that 1977 injunction, issuing a scathing denunciation of the NCAA's enforcement policies. Five weeks ago the Nevada Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the appeal.
Tarkanian remains a controversial figure. In February 1983, with UNLV vying for the No. 1 spot in the national polls, four coaches—St. John's Lou Carnesecca, Notre Dame's Digger Phelps, Washington's Marv Harshman and USC's Stan Morrison—omitted the Runnin' Rebels entirely from their ballots for the UPI's Top 20 amid speculation that those coaches regarded UNLV as an outlaw basketball school. But Tarkanian has his defenders. "I happen to like him," says George Raveling, the current coach at USC. "Some people think he's unethical. But I've recruited against him, and I've never seen it. He is willing to take a chance on the kid nobody else will, and I know he stood up for what he believed in."
At first glance, nothing seems to be alive in the desert, but a closer look will turn up some real surprises, growing right under our noses.
First of all, I cannot prove that Marlin Perkins said those exact words. That's the way I remember them, though, Sunday afternoon on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. In fact, I remember calling my brother Tom into the living room. I said, "You better come in here, Marlin Perkins is about to get bit by a snake."
I only bring Tom into this because he was three times as smart as I was, went to the University of Chicago for about 14 years and doesn't know anything, either. Which, I think, just about polishes off higher education.
Anyway, 20 years after Marlin Perkins spoke words like those above, I find myself in just such a desert, in a Cadillac with the basketball coach of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Jerry Tarkanian, who is more of a surprise than anything Marlin came up with that Sunday afternoon. We are following some unknown freeway that connects the university to Tarkanian's home in the West Charleston section of town when the subject of higher education comes up.
Now the plain truth is that Jerry Tarkanian and higher education do not cross-reference in anyone's dictionary. What they have together is a kind of marriage of convenience, which is not to say it is a marriage without passion. There is no kind of cheating Tarkanian has not been accused of publicly, and perhaps because of his response to those accusations—which is, essentially, yeah, I mess around a little, everybody does—he has been singled out as the godfather of college cheating.
"You ever wonder," he says, "the difference between some of those fancy places back East and a place like UNLV?"
I catch a glimpse of a bank's thermometer. One hundred and sixteen degrees. I take a stab. "Poodles die faster in parked cars here?"
"Naw, not dogs," he says. "The difference is that those are private schools. They don't have state support, they don't have to let anybody in to see what they're doin'. And they graduate people that can't talk. You cannot tell me that somebody that can't speak English is a legitimate graduate of a prestigious private university.
"You try that at a state university, there's half the professors that don't care about your [basketball] program, or they, resent the money you get for it. You try that here and you get murdered."
The subject of graduation is worrisome to Tarkanian. Of the 67 lettermen who used all their eligiblity in his 13 years at UNLV, only 17 have gotten diplomas. It is worrisome enough that he now has two full-time academic advisers on his staff responsible for keeping members of the basketball team academically eligible. One of the advisers tutors and counsels and meets with UNLV teachers. The other one, the "academic enforcer," knocks on doors and makes sure the players go to class. All six seniors on this season's team are on schedule to graduate by next summer.
"The way I look at it," Tarkanian says, "if you bring a kid in that can't read or write—somebody nobody else would touch—and you keep him here four, five years, teach him to follow the rules, make him responsible for what he does, and at the end, if he can read and write a little, you've done him a favor. Even if he doesn't have the piece of paper [the diploma], you gave him a chance to straighten out. I don't see anything wrong with that."
Not all of his former players would agree. Some of them have blamed him because they don't have degrees or better jobs. "I told Tarkanian when he was recruiting me that the main thing to me was to get a degree," David McLucas, who played for Tarkanian at Long Beach State, said to PEOPLE magazine for an article in March 1984. "He said, 'Don't worry about it. We've got help. You'll get a degree. You'll start. You'll play pro ball....' My whole world ended when my eligibility ended in 1972 and I quit school. I was almost suicidal. I couldn't face my friends. I dropped out of society for a year."
According to PEOPLE, McLucas sensed "that he has been deprived of a future.... When I came out of my depression I realized I had to make something of myself.... But the next step in the company is closed to me because I don't have a degree."
The reader, of course, can assign as much blame to Tarkanian as he wants, but another of Tarkanian's former players, Reggie Theus, who now plays for the Sacramento Kings, says, "He never lied to me, at least that I remember. I get mad when I hear all that stuff, how he exploits his players. You came to the wrong place for that. Look, college exploits athletes, that's a fact of life, but I don't think Tark ever did anything out of the ordinary. It's a trade-off. You trade your talent to the school for a shot at professional basketball or a chance at an education. Life is a trade-off, too. That's what work is.
"Everybody that ever played for him, that I know of, still likes him. I still think of him as my coach. There's always going to be a few guys that don't like somebody they played for, we're dealing with human beings here, you can't be close to everybody. But the idea Tarkanian cheated his players is bull——."
"Every time I say something like 'You can help a kid without graduating him,' it gets me in trouble," Tarkanian says, shaking his head as he drives. "That's the biggest problem you got with education today, the hypocrisy. You say what you think, you get murdered. You talk like that guy [football coach and athletic director] Vince Dooley at Georgia, they [the NCAA] leave you alone, at least until some newspaper or magazine investigates the program and makes them come in. You ever heard Vince Dooley speak? About building character, preparing kids for life, teaching honesty and values? He says, 'My kids are the kind of kids you'd want to go out with your daughters.' I never had a kid yet I'd want going out with my daughters.
"The program that guy runs, you'd think somebody would have to pull words like that out of his mouth with pliers. But that's how it works. The NCAA is always after some little guy, they never go after the big money-makers unless they're forced into it."
Of this last claim, David Berst, the NCAA's director of enforcement and a nemesis of Tarkanian's, says coolly, "The record, I think, indicates otherwise." But then, it is not impossible that at least some of Tarkanian's problems with the NCAA go back to a column he wrote in 1972 for the Long Beach Press-Telegram, while he was coaching at Long Beach State, in which he made much the same observation. The column provoked a letter from Warren S. Brown, former assistant executive director of the NCAA, to James T. (Jess) Hill of the Pacific Coast Athletic Association:
That letter was written in January 1973, and I do not think you can read it and believe Mr. Brown was smiling or amused. Shortly after it was written, Tarkanian became a subject of the official investigation of Long Beach State by the NCAA, which did not leave him alone when he went to Las Vegas. In 1977 the NCAA put UNLV on probation and recommended that the school suspend Tarkanian for two years.
The NCAA's recommendation to suspend Tarkanian led to nearly seven years of litigation and ended with Tarkanian embarrassing the NCAA in court. District Judge Paul Goldman, comparing the NCAA's investigative tactics to those of Adolf Eichmann and the Ayatollah Khomeini, upheld a previous injunction preventing Tarkanian's suspension. The NCAA has appeared to be more careful about its investigations lately. Although Berst denies that any changes in his organization's enforcement procedures were made as a direct result of the UNLV proceedings, Tarkanian takes obvious relish in believing otherwise.
Tarkanian, driving through the outskirts of Las Vegas, shakes his head and says, "That might be my greatest contribution, making the NCAA change their methods. And it might be my biggest thrill, watching Warren Brown stutterin' in court, backing up...."
Thrilling or not, Tarkanian has been stained for a long time with a dubious reputation in the minds of many of the game's purists. But Al McGuire. the broadcaster and former Marquette coach, says in his defense: "The trouble with Tarkanian is that he's Armenian and he's got those damn eyes, dark rings under them. And he works in Las Vegas. You hear Vegas and you think of gambling and the Mafia and cement shoes. Mother Teresa couldn't coach there without looking tainted. He is one of the finest defensive coaches in the country. He is one of the finest coaches, period. I've got no reason to say nice things about him, either. I don't run with him. If I see him once a year that's a lot. So many people judge you outwardly, and that's what hurt Tarkanian."
"I'd like to put all that NCAA stuff behind me now." Tarkanian says as he continues to drive while looking vaguely worried, as if something is missing. "I know you can't write something about me without going into all that, but there's a lot more to talk about than the NCAA...." His voice trails off as he looks from one side to the other, and then into the rearview mirror. Where he sees Las Vegas.
"Aw," he says. "I missed a turn, didn't I? I'm always doing that, I start to think and I forget that I'm driving. I start worrying about basketball and I look up. I don't know where I am."
He sighs, smacks himself in the forehead and says, "You know there wasn't anybody in Long Beach would get into a car I was driving?"
On the way back to town I tell Tarkanian about me and my brother Tom, and I ask if he's ever considered the possibility that nobody learns anything at college, anyway, except what they would learn a different way on the outside.
"Well," he says, "it took me six semesters to get through junior college and five more to get through Fresno State. Never missed a party. Then I met Lois, and she changed me. I got my master's—all A's and one B."
"You remember any of that stuff you had to learn?" I asked. "Anything?"
Tarkanian squints, thinking that over, driving past the turnoff again. "You know," he says. "I never looked at it like that."
Tarkanian's house is long and flat and set into the bend of a circular street of long and flat houses. It was part of the deal he got when he took over the UNLV job.
"Until I came here," he says, getting out of the car, "I never once asked what my salary would be, any job I took. When I went to Long Beach I took a $4,900 pay cut, and back then $4,900 was 20 percent of what I made. I just wanted the job. The truth is. I am a very poor businessman. Anytime I get near money, things turn out bad. When I came here, though, the kids were growing up, we were getting older, and Lois and I decided we had to ask what we'd make.
"I didn't want to come here at all, at first. They called every day, and I told them no, and they'd call again the next day. At Long Beach, though, they'd never done much for me or the basketball program, even after the success we'd had—and what we did in Long Beach is still the alltime miracle." What Tarkanian did in Long Beach was inherit a losing team and. without money or big-time facilities, compile a 122-20 record over five years.
"I never had an office to myself, or a secretary, or any kind of budget to recruit. There were no boosters, the alumni were all 30 years old. no help at all. When they finally saw I was serious about UNLV. though. Long Beach couldn't do enough for me. They offered me an office and a secretary, and a job as public relations director for the Queen Mary. You know, the boat?
"And I was going to stay there—I loved my team that year—but they pressured me for a decision, and then, when I called a press conference to say what I was going to do, the president of the school said I couldn't hold it on campus unless I was staying. That's what got me here.
"I called UNLV, and they said what did I want. Which is what they'd been saying ail along. I'm not a big thinker. Everything I threw out, they said all right. It makes you wonder, later on, what you should have said you wanted."
That was March 1973.
Four days after Tarkanian left Long Beach, Brown of the NCAA sent a letter to that school notifying it of an "official inquiry" into the football and basketball programs. Nine months later. Long Beach was put on indefinite probation.
"They had football nailed," Tarkanian says. "They didn't have anything serious on [basketball], but the school tried to shift the blame on me after I left. I laughed when I first heard they were investigating us. We didn't have any money to buy players with. The cheerleaders were making sack lunches for the team on road games...." Tarkanian apparently doesn't consider phony test scores to be serious.
Tarkanian opens the door and walks into the house and calls "Lois?" No answer. He moves from room to room, calling his wife's name, then opens the back door and calls her again. There is a large pool in back; behind it are piled huge slabs of granite. To one side of the pool is a statue of the Virgin Mary, who's got a little pool of her own.
"That's my wife's," he says. "She's very religious."
Lois Tarkanian comes into the house a few minutes later, carrying groceries, and Jerry is relieved to see her in a way that is out of proportion to the time she has been missing. He has depended on her a long time and in a lot of ways.
He refers questions about his own family's history to her, for instance, because it makes him sad to think of it himself. "The Turks massacred everybody but my mother," he'd said earlier. "She barely got out, she had to ride on a horse. My wife knows more about it than me. It's too sad, I don't think about it...."
His mother's name was Rose. She was Armenian. He does not know anything of her early life beyond the Turkish massacre. She came to the U.S. in the early '20s. His father was named George and worked in an automobile plant, and then he bought a little grocery store outside Cleveland that the family ran. George Tarkanian died when Jerry was 11, and Rose remarried and moved the family from Euclid, Ohio, to Pasadena. Jerry has a younger brother, Myron, with whom he is close, and an older sister, Alice, he rarely sees.
"My sister's one of those ladies that pull hair out of your face so it don't grow back," he says.
The brother is tennis coach at Pasadena City College.
And anything beyond that belongs to Lois.
Lois keeps track of all the business with the NCAA, probably all the other kinds of business, too. And all the details. Tonight she keeps Tarkanian from appearing at two different parties being held for politicians who are running against each other.
When she tells him that he says, "They are? Really?"
She is busy and quick, half out of breath, anticipating everything. In this way Lois resembles the teams Tarkanian puts on the basketball floor.
I am reminded, talking to her, that when she found Tarkanian, his only ambition was to coach basketball at Edison High in Fresno.
I am also reminded that this woman got Tarkanian through graduate school with almost straight A's.
You have to wonder what else.
A little while later I am standing at the window with her, looking out over the pool and the granite slabs piled on top of each other, trying to frame the question: How much of it has she done? It never gets asked, though, because in a moment I am choking back laughter.
"You should have been here the day they brought those rocks in," she says suddenly. "Jerry came home, he thought vandals had dumped them in the backyard. He was very upset...."
"From the day I got to Las Vegas, I loved it," Tarkanian says. "Except I hated my team. I didn't even have a banquet for them at the end of the year. I got a philosophy: No banquet if I hate the team. We were being considered for the NIT that year, I told them to forget it. I couldn't stand to spend another two weeks with those guys...."
Tarkanian is out on the freeway again, taking me back to my hotel. "But what I was saying, this is the greatest place in the world. You got super weather, it never rains. You can eat anytime you want to. You can go one way and get to the ocean, the other way you get to the mountains."
The mountains, for the record, are closer than the ocean. Some of them are framed in the window of his office at UNLV. I ask, "What are those mountains called, anyway?"
"Names? I don't know. The Mountains. You should of asked Lois."
"Do you get up there much?"
He shakes his head. "I'm not into sight-seeing. To me, you get a postcard and look at it, you saved yourself some time. Basketball is absolutely the only interest I have. Nothing else. Not golf, not politics, not sight-seeing.
"But what I was saying, this town is unique. Nobody charges each other for nothing. I never get charged, and I never charge anybody. In 14 years, I never charged for an appearance.
"I had coaches tell me that was bad for the profession. I don't care. Yesterday there was some big deal for child abuse. I went there, stayed five hours. I enjoyed it, I learned things. I never turn anybody down if I can help it. Except I won't play golf. I got a philosophy: If it's a charity, I'll go and drink beer, but I won't play.
"I never hired an assistant coach that had a set of golf clubs, either. It just takes too much time. I want us here for our kids. The kids see we care, they play a little harder. They win, and everybody in this town is a booster. Everybody loves the Runnin' Rebs.
"We got tickets cost more than the Lakers'. We get 16,000 people every game. It's a status thing, to have good seats. Some of those tickets, they're $1,300 for the season. I think it's crazy.
"The thing is, though, Las Vegas doesn't have anything else of its own. You know, they got things coming in all the time, the greatest entertainers in the world, but everything else leaves after the show. UNLV is part of the town.
"No, none of the boosters' kids go here. They go to USC or Stanford. The boosters never went here, the alums didn't even go here. But they love us."
As we drive, the houses are beginning to thin out again. I ask Tarkanian what happens when the team loses. "Everything depends on winning," he says. "We lose a game or two on the road, the building will be a third empty until we start to win again. The seats will be paid for, but we don't get the crowds when we're losing."
"Does that bother you?"
"Well, you've got the kind of situation here that Shula has in Miami," I say. "The town loves you, but it depends on winning, on five kids you took out of junior college somewhere playing good basketball. If you lose, the town doesn't love you anymore."
"When I lose," he says, "I don't love me anymore, either. Losing just kills me."
And that is probably true. Tarkanian does not lose much—among active coaches, not even Dean Smith at North Carolina is close to his winning percentage of .816 (he is 324-81 at UNLV)—but when it happens, he takes it hard. He takes the possibility of losing hard.
"I always think the other team is better," he says. "I always think there's a good chance we're going to lose, even when we're better.
"I never talk to the players about that, though. In all the years I've been here, I never talked about winning or losing. Before a game, I just go over the other team, talk them up if they're bad, try to give our players confidence if they're better than we are. I talk about responsibility, and I tell them there's no disgrace in losing if you don't take short cuts to get there."
"Tark is a mess before a game," a writer who has watched him over a lot of years told me. "And he's worse after a loss. He doesn't shout and blame the referees or the players, he doesn't throw things around the dressing room. I do remember watching him come in after the loss to N.C. State [in the '83 NCAAs], though. He just walked past the writers and players and dropped his forehead into the lockers. But mostly, he suffers. Tark comes from suffering people, and he does it as well as anybody."
Tarkanian will also throw away pants after a loss, and shoes and his shirt and jacket, not wanting the bad luck hiding in those clothes to visit him again. It is possible, a friend of his observed, that all across Las Vegas there are guys walking around in green-and-yellow checkered pants they got at Goodwill, wondering why they can't get their jump shots to fall anymore.
"The worst thing you can do," Tarkanian says, looking out over the steering wheel at the mountains, "is blame your players when you lose." He looks from the mountains to the rearview mirror, then out both sides of the car.
"When you win, give them the credit. When you lose, take the blame yourself. These are kids, you're grown up. Not that it helps. Losing—you never get used to it. Every time I win, I always say something good about the other coach, because I know how he feels. I especially do that if he's taking some heat at his school.
"That's why I only hire assistant coaches that were fired someplace else. Seven of them in the last five years. You know, the NCAA tried to get me fired, and I remember that feeling...."
He is looking back in the rearview mirror as he says this, shaking his head in a disappointed way. "Where the hell are we now?"
Thomas and Mack Center, in fact, where the Runnin' Rebels play home games and Tarkanian keeps his office, is only a couple of miles off the strip. It is a beautiful building and a beautiful office. On one wall are pictures of Tarkanian in the embrace of most of the famous people in the world, on another wall are pictures of Tarkanian and all of the teams he has coached at UNLV.
All except three, '73-74, '80-81 and '81-82.
"I hated three teams since I've been here," he says. "When I hate a team, I tell them. Not only do I not have a banquet when I hate the team, I don't put up pictures. I don't like being reminded of being around those guys."
He sits behind a large desk in designer sun glasses, looking younger than he does in any of the pictures around him. Tarkanian has a face that belongs to a hundred hitchhikers you have passed on the highway—you think about them for the next hundred miles because up close they looked so sad.
The top of the desk is arranged in a careful, symmetrical sort of way—one pencil on this side, one pencil on that side; a note pad here, a note pad there. Jerry Tarkanian does not do his work on a desk.
He also doesn't do much of it on the road. "I don't recruit a lot," he says. "One of my assistants does that, because it drives me nuts. There's so much lying. The kids lie to you. One week he's definitely coming to UNLV, the next week he won't answer the phone.
"I got unlimited funds [to recruit] here, but I rarely bring in as many as 12 kids a year. We'll zero in on eight or 10, and try to get five." And the five he gets will, more often than not, come from junior colleges—more often than not, junior colleges Tarkanian himself got them into because they did not have the grades necessary to make them eligible for scholarships to UNLV.
"A lot of coaches say you can't win with junior college athletes," he says. "I don't look down on them. I like junior college kids, I was one myself. I take kids nobody else will touch, and, yeah, a lot of them don't belong in Harvard.
"But basketball is instincts. The way we play the game, we get up and down the court fast, we shoot quick, play pressure defense. I'm not into passing up shots, I'm not into patience. We will try to take you out of your game, and I think we do that pretty well. Very few teams take the ball where they want it against UNLV. We deny them the spot they want, we deny them the ball.
"I always try to let the kids use what they have. You give our players too much to think about, it affects their shooting."
I ask if too much thinking is what makes him hate a team.
"It's an attitude," he says. "A good attitude is something you've got to nurture. It doesn't just happen because you tell some kid it's important, you got to show him you care. I never start out a season making goals. The only thing I tell my players is, 'Play as hard as you can.' You got kids that try, that's a good attitude. They don't, you hate the team."
Back at Fresno State, Tarkanian was exactly the kind of player he likes to put on the floor now—one who would kill to win—except he does not like small, slow guards who shoot set shots from outside.
"I wasn't any good," he says, "except for running the team, playing defense. I sometimes think if I'd been a better player. I would've been a worse coach. I always wanted to be this, but only after I realized what kind of player I was."
I ask Tarkanian if he ever thinks about what he will be when he is through coaching. He looks at the ceiling of his office and then out the window at the mountains. "I got no idea whatsoever," he says. "Seven months a year, I'm going 100 miles an hour. I go home and watch television, I can't follow the plots. I go to bed at night, I'm thinking about how to beat somebody we got coming up. The first thing in the morning is, You can't do that, you'll get murdered." He looks out the window again. "I don't have anything in mind to replace it."
"What do you think about when you think about getting old?"
Tarkanian smiles at that. "I think about getting back into the Final Four."
It is not impossible. Two of the best young players in the country are out there, just out of reach, trying to find a way into UNLV(see page 60). One of them, a kid named Lloyd Daniels, has made five stops at four high schools in the last three years. Tarkanian has Daniels set up in a Southern California junior college.
The other kid, Clifford Allen, is in a detention home in the Los Angeles area for armed robbery. "This kid's had a lot of trouble," Tarkanian says. "He was orphaned at five. He's a mess, and he's been like that since he was born. If it was you or me, who says we'd be any different? You find a way to give a kid like that a chance, who knows?"
There are a lot of people, of course, who aren't going to like that. Some of them are probably in the NCAA, some of them are probably teaching college. I know the argument—it isn't what college is for.
They may be right.
But in the end, academics isn't what's most important to Jerry Tarkanian. If it were, Jerry Tarkanian would not be one of the best-loved men in Las Vegas. If it were, Jerry Tarkanian would never have found his way out of Fresno.
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