Decades before the Super Bowl arrived, Jerry Tarkanian and his UNLV team turned Las Vegas into a sports town

LAS VEGAS — The Super Bowl will be played here Sunday, some 51 years after Jerry Tarkanian drove his wife Lois into what was then an old military outpost turned mobbed-up Sin City oasis.

Tark was, at the time, a 43-year-old basketball coach who had just led Long Beach State to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. He felt if he could get a school in the right location — a college town, a sports town with a passionate fan base — he could win a national title.

Sure, but UNLV? Las Vegas? In 1973? People came here for the slot machines, showgirls and heaven who knows what else. The school had just a few buildings. The basketball team had just gone DI and had almost no fans.

A statue and display honoring Univerisity of Las Vegas Runnin' Rebels basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian,  June 2, 2016, is seen outside the Thomas & Mack Center, in Las Vegas, Nevada. / AFP / PAUL J. RICHARDS / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION - TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION        (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images)
Jerry Tarkanian turned UNLV basketball into a national brand while navigating the complicated politics of 1970s Las Vegas. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images)

“I may have been the only person who thought Las Vegas, Nevada was a sports town,” said Tark, before his passing in 2015. “People laughed at me.”

That included Lois, who was hesitant to move there with her then four young children. She was wary of life in Las Vegas. On a previous trip she stayed in her hotel room and read a book.

UNLV was dubbed “Tumbleweed Tech” at the time. She assumed that was overstated until they visited the then-small campus east of the Strip.

“It was literally full of tumbleweed blowing through,” Lois, now 89, laughed as she spoke with Yahoo Sports this week.

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Tark was determined though. Where everyone else saw a city full of casinos, wise guys and corruption, he saw bartenders, bellhops, valets and line cooks. These were blue-collar, sports-loving people desperate for a team to support.

“My dad understood that because people around the country talked so bad about Las Vegas, the people here would back something positive that they could call their own,” said Danny Tarkanian, who went on to play at UNLV and work as an assistant to his father.

Over the next 19 years, Tarkanian turned UNLV into a sensation, reaching four Final Fours, winning the 1990 national title. He created a national brand and a local point of pride.

“He was the first to ever see what Las Vegas could become,” Lois said.

College Basketball: NCAA Final Four: UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian victorious with CBS Sports announcer Brent Musburger (L) during interview after winning National Championship game vs Duke at McNichols Sports Arena. 
Denver, CO 4/2/1990
CREDIT: David E. Klutho (Photo by David E. Klutho /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
(Set Number: X39525 TK6 R4 F9 )
UNLV basketball was a powerhouse from the late 1970s through the 1990s under head coach Jerry Tarkanian, who led the team to a national championship in 1990. (David E. Klutho /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Of course, while Tarkanian always thought it was untrue to label Las Vegas as a city of mobsters ... it also wasn’t completely untrue to label Las Vegas as a city full of mobsters.

The 1970s were the 1970s, a Scorsese film in real life. There was no avoiding reality in a city of just over 125,000 at the time.

Lois recalls sitting next to a well-dressed man on a plane one time. He was reading a book about cowboys and they struck up a conversation. “He was very calm, very sedate, a real gentleman.”

She later found out he had a violent reputation. “I would never have guessed.”

Danny Tarkanian said, growing up, there were constant rumors that the fathers of various classmates were mobbed up. You never could be sure. Then one day the dad of a guy he knew was killed when his car blew up in a parking garage near the Strip.

“Everyone knew it was a mob hit,” Danny said.

The wise guys took a big interest in UNLV basketball. As a fledgling school and program in need of money, Tark wasn’t going to ask too many questions. He was originally offered the job by two boosters with casino ties before ever speaking with either the athletic director or school president. This is who ran things.

And the city was going to be run a certain way.

In his second season, Tarkanian received an invitation to a fundraiser that Frank Sinatra was hosting. The problem is it was $2,500 a ticket — so five grand for he and Lois. He didn’t have the money. He made only $48,000 and had four kids. So he didn’t respond until he received a phone call.

“Mr. Sinatra is really hurt that you haven’t responded to his invitation,” Tark was told. “The fact that Mr. Sinatra hasn’t heard from you has made him really, really disappointed.”

Tarkanian was new in town but “I knew the one thing I didn’t want was a man like Frank Sinatra disappointed in me, because I just had no idea what that might entail.” He begrudgingly cut the check and went.

Sinatra became a loyal backer of the program. He raised money. He befriended the Tarkanians and hosted them for dinners. The crooner never went to a game, but Tark made sure to always leave tickets for Sinatra’s legendary bodyguard, Jilly Rizzo, who was a force of his own.

“They used to say Jilly is so loyal to Frank that when Frank dies, Jilly wants to be buried instead,” Tark said.

In 1976, Sinatra asked Tarkanian what he could do to help the program. Tark noted that he was recruiting two kids from the New York area who had mothers of Italian descent. He wondered if Sinatra, who hailed from Hoboken, New Jersey, would pay them a visit, sort of an unofficial recruiter. Sign some autographs, maybe sing a song or two.

“I thought it would be over if we got Frank in with the mother,” Tarkanian said.

The moms were said to be starstruck, but the players went elsewhere, which Tark never could get over.

“That Sinatra could really sing, but he sure couldn’t recruit,” Tark said.

Lois was more forgiving. She liked Sinatra and enjoyed many of the other celebrities she got to meet because of him — Elizabeth Taylor, Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., Diana Ross and so on. She recalled this week the time Sinatra called her up on stage at an event and unexpectedly gave her a kiss.

“Yes, I got a kiss from Sinatra,” Lois laughed.

She was a happily married mother of four, future city council member and University of Nevada regent. Still, this was Ol' Blue Eyes at his peak. She was only human.

“I shook,” she said. “I almost swooned right off the stage.”

This was no normal basketball program, a fact that caught the attention of NCAA investigators. Tarkanian said one time an enforcement staffer confronted him that a booster was actually a callous mobster. Tark said he didn’t know for sure how the man made his money but he dared the investigator to go accuse the guy directly of being in the Mafia just to see what happened.

No such interview apparently occurred.

The NCAA was always on his case though. When it heard about Sinatra doing recruiting visits, it banned such a practice. When recruits and their parents were being put up in casinos on recruiting visits, that was barred as well, even though other schools could rent rooms in fancy spots in their towns.

By 1977, UNLV reached the Final Four and Tarkanian became one of the biggest celebrities in town. Now everyone wanted to be near him and there was always a risk in not honoring invitations from some people. One of the guys who ran the Dunes casino wanted the entire family to come over for a comped dinner, but Tark was busy and it kept getting delayed.

Then he got another message that the no-show was being taken as a personal insult. The entire family quickly scrambled over to the Dunes.

“I had to eat a free prime rib dinner just to prove I wasn’t disrespecting a guy,” Tarkanian said.

Then there was the time Tarkanian was asked to help a friend, Ash Resnick, get a gaming license from the state of Nevada. Apparently some trouble in New York had caused concern, so Tark was one of the character witnesses to speak up for Resnick in front of the board.

“It was me, Wayne Newton and a Catholic priest,” Tark said.

This was also about the time that Los Angeles Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke made inquiries about hiring Tarkanian. Tark had a friend, Vic Weiss, serve as his agent as discussions progressed. News leaked out and people in Vegas were not happy. Then, one night Weiss disappeared, only to be found dead in the trunk of his Rolls Royce at a parking garage in North Hollywood.

Tarkanian said he never believed the possibility of him leaving UNLV played a role. Weiss allegedly had a lot going on, including debts to the wrong people. Many others thought it was related. (The killing remains unsolved).

“The Long Beach newspaper ran an article that said the Vegas mob got him because he was trying to get me to leave UNLV,” Tarkanian said.

“It was crazy.”

That was Vegas in the 1970s. By the early to mid-1980s, corporations took over the gaming interests and the city changed. They built bigger hotels, but ran them by the book. The mob was out. Some of that was good. Some, well, who knows.

“The city was always safer when the mob ran things,” Lois said with a shrug. “There was actually less crime.”

Either way, money poured into the program and the school. The Runnin’ Rebels got so popular the 19,000-seat Thomas & Mack Center was built in 1983 — complete with a high-roller area known as “Gucci Row.” Again, this was a unique college program.

The Thomas & Mack helped usher in regular-season NBA games, the NBA Summer League and even the 2007 NBA All-Star Game that helped establish the city’s mainstream credibility.

Now both the NHL and NFL have franchises and Major League Baseball may follow. The metro region boasts some 2.2 million residents and is full of neighborhoods and Little League fields and every day American sports.

That sports mecca that perhaps only Jerry Tarkanian could see half a century ago is in full effect.

Even the Super Bowl comes to Vegas these days.