Why superstitious Jerry Tarkanian was always chewing on a towel

The Dagger

Not long after Fresno State lured Jerry Tarkanian out of retirement two decades ago, the Hall of Fame coach's new equipment manager dialed the man who held the same position at UNLV.

He needed advice on how to prepare the white towels Tarkanian famously chewed during games.

Scroll to continue with content
Ad

"I actually had to draw a diagram on how the towel was folded and fax it to him," said Larry Chin, who was in charge of readying Tarkanian's towel for the final 16 years of the coach's UNLV tenure. "That's how crazy Tark was about it."

In the wake of his death on Wednesday at age 84, Tarkanian's trademark towel is as much a part of his legacy as the second chances he granted troubled recruits, the dynasty he built at UNLV or the personal crusade he waged against the NCAA. It was his good luck charm, his security blanket, the one superstition he never outgrew during a highly successful coaching career that spanned more than four decades and nearly 1,000 victories.

The towel habit dates back to the inception of Tarkanian's career when he coached high school basketball in Southern California. His Redlands High team played in a league title game on a sweltering day in Riverside, and the gym at Ramona High School only had one water fountain.

"I kept going to get drinks from the water fountain," Tarkanian once told Yahoo Sports columnist Dan Wetzel. "Back and forth, back and forth. Finally I got tired of doing that, so I took a towel, soaked it under the water fountain, and carried it back to the bench. Then when I got thirsty, I sucked on that."

UNLV alumnus Taylor Oblad takes a "selfie" at the Jerry Tarkanian statue near the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. Hall of Fame coach Jerry Tarkanian, who built a basketball dynasty at UNLV but was defined more by his decades-long battle with the NCAA, died Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, in Las Vegas after several years of health issues. He was 84.(AP Photo/The Sunm L.E. Baskow)
UNLV alumnus Taylor Oblad takes a "selfie" at the Jerry Tarkanian statue near the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. Hall of Fame coach Jerry Tarkanian, who built a basketball dynasty at UNLV but was defined more by his decades-long battle with the NCAA, died Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, in Las Vegas after several years of health issues. He was 84.(AP Photo/The Sunm L.E. Baskow)

Tarkanian's team won a league title that day. He never coached another game without a towel.

"Because I was a superstitious person, I kept sucking the towels the rest of my career," he told Wetzel. "It became my trademark.

"If that high school gym in California had been air conditioned back in 1960, I probably never would have started sucking on towels."

Preparing Tark's towel was a more challenging task than one might think for Chin because the coach was very particular about it. He'd scold managers who didn't do it properly.

Chin would first soak a white gym towel so that it was saturated but not dripping wet. Then he'd fold the wet towel so that no edges were showing and place it atop a dry one folded exactly the same way, one for Tarkanian to suck and the other essentially serving as a place mat. 

"Believe it or not, I would actually bite the bottom side of the towel to check that there was the right amount of moisture," Chin said."There were a couple times when he'd shout down to the end of the bench to tell me the towel was too dry, and I'd have to go and fix him a new one."

Though the towel was Tarkanian's most famous ritual, it was one of many superstitions he picked up during his career. The seat to his right on the bench became known as the "ghost chair" because he didn't like anyone next to him during games. Talking — even whispering — was impermissible during bus rides to games and pregame meals.

Tarkanian would sometimes throw away sport coats after losses if he thought they had bad mojo. He'd also vow never to return to the hotel his team stayed in if it lost a road game, which posed a problem in cities with limited options.  

"One time in the 70s we went to Wyoming and we lost there," Chin said. "On the bus ride to Denver, he told me, 'We can't afford to lose there again because the place only has two hotels."

Some of those superstitions faded over the years or got replaced by new ones, but the Tark towels endured throughout his career. They were always white and always generic with the exception of UNLV's 1987 Final Four matchup against Indiana when Taco Bell paid to sponsor the towel.  

Chin could see Tarkanian was nervous before the game, so he reassured the coach he had some regular towels in his equipment bag in case he wanted to switch. Tarkanian stuck with the Taco Bell towel and UNLV lost to the eventual national champion Hoosiers 97-93.

"I get on the bus after the game, and it's totally silent because we had just lost and nobody has anything to say," Chin said. "After about 30 seconds, [Tarkanian's wife] Lois turns to me and says, 'You know what lost that game for us? It's those damn Taco Bell towels.'"

Needless to say, Tarkanian was back to chewing on plain white towels starting with UNLV's 1988 season opener. 

In his 34 years as an equipment manager at UNLV, Chin has worked with virtually all of the 17 teams the school sponsors, but his best memories are from the time he spent alongside Tarkanian. He told Tarkanian as much while chatting with the coach at a UNLV game a couple years ago.

"You know coach," Chin said to Tarkanian, "I've had a pretty good career here at UNLV, but for the rest of my life, all I'll ever really be known as is your towel boy, and to tell you the truth I couldn't be more honored."

Tarkanian looked at Chin, smiled and said, "Larry, that's really nice. Thanks a lot." 

Jerry Tarkanian and Larry Chin, two men whose legacies will forever include a plain white towel.

- - - - - - -

Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

What to Read Next