Jerry Tarkanian: A true rebel if ever there was one

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

Jerry Tarkanian died Wednesday at age 84, a man who perfectly reflected both his own nickname – Tark the Shark – and that of his famous UNLV teams – Runnin' Rebel.

Before we go beyond all the victories, before we get to how what he always said about the NCAA has become widely accepted and before we get to his immense impact on the integration of the game, let's start with a recruiting story.

Tark recruiting stories are great and maybe no one ever had more of them than him.

There was the time he sent Frank Sinatra in on a home visit in Jersey because the recruit had an Italian mother (didn't work). There was time he'd pick up a recruit after school in Brooklyn for weeks on end, drive him to his girlfriend's house and then wait outside in the car as they, ah, got re-acquainted (worked).

There was the time he planned on stashing a recruit at a cabin in Lake Arrowhead (Calif.) until signing day, only to have someone else stash him first on Waikiki Beach. There was the time he learned that it always pays to get the high school girlfriend to come along too, at least for the first semester.

There was the time he sprinted out of a home visit with a mother because he thought the NCAA had bugged the joint.

There were a lot of times.

And Tark loved to tell about them whenever he was into telling stories, which was always, although never more often than over a long pasta dinner at Piero's near the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Not too many people could tell a story better than Tark. He reveled in them, all of them, the hysteria and the hysterics he produced across 31 seasons at Division I, seven more in junior colleges around L.A., a couple at a California high school and even a stint in NBA, producing over 1,000 victories, four Final Fours, one national title and a legacy told in tales too tall to believe.

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A UNLV student holds a sign for Jerry Tarkanian before Tuesday's game against Fresno State. (Getty Images)

So let's start with 1985 and a recruit named Clifford Allen, 6-foot-10 out of Carson, Calif. Everyone wanted him, at least until he was busted for robbery his senior year and sent to the El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility.

Then it was pretty much just UNLV recruiting Clifford Allen.

Tarkanian was undeterred by the imprisonment. He was the king of second chances; in part because growing up in Pasadena, without a father, as the son of an immigrant with a strange name, as a smart, but disinterested student, he himself needed a few. He saw the possibilities in anyone. Plus Allen could really play. He saw those possibilities, too.

So he went to the correctional facility and talked to Clifford on the phone through the glass. It was just like the movies. It worked. Allen earned a GED behind bars and was headed to play for the Rebels upon his release.

That you've likely never heard of Clifford Allen, that he never scored a point in college basketball, let alone the NBA, and the fact he was later sentenced to 45-to-life for murder in Florida, would normally be the climax of the story.

Colleges recruiting at-risk kids who never make it aren't that rare though. You win some; you lose some, especially when you roll like Tarkanian. He won more than he lost. That isn't the interesting part.

[The sports world reacts to the death of Jerry Tarkanian]

No, to appreciate Jerry Tarkanian in his full glory is to know that at the time Allen signed that Letter of Intent, UNLV had a new president, Robert Maxson, who was trying to improve its academic profile. UNLV was a growing commuter school shaking off the mobster-era reputation of old Vegas.

It needed something big to get some better students, so a new plan was implemented that no matter where a kid went to high school, anywhere in America, they would receive a full academic scholarship to UNLV if they graduated as the valedictorian.

Tark said they read about this in the newspaper one day and one of his assistants immediately cracked a joke: "Hell, Clifford was the valedictorian of that El Paso de Robles GED program. He should qualify for a full academic scholarship."

"We all laughed," Tarkanian said, "but then I got to thinking …"

If Allen was on an academic scholarship then that freed up one more basketball scholarship to bring in another guy. Plus they could publicize it and would help Allen's reputation. Win-win.

An assistant was dispatched to the youth correctional facility and an official paper was drafted (a couple bucks may or may not have been used to grease the skids with a dumbfounded prison worker).

However it was done, Allen was declared the valedictorian of the prison GED program, even if no one knew if a prison GED program could even have a valedictorian because, you know, it's a prison GED program and all.

UNLV wasn't just rubber-stamping this though. It may not have been Harvard, but this seemed suspect, so a hearing was set up where Tark was going to present Allen's case and the signed official paper and all of that.

So what happened?

"Week before the meeting, Clifford boosted a car, got sent back in," Tarkanian said.

He lost his prized big man.

"Yes," Tark cracked, "but I could always say I recruited a valedictorian."

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College basketball is a lot more fun when you embrace the characters and there weren't any more colorful than Jerry Tarkanian, who absolutely never fit in with the conservative culture of the sport, the media that covered it, or the NCAA that ruled it.

Philosophically he was probably best suited as a pro coach, but a disastrous stint in San Antonio showed when it came to actually winning games, he belonged in college, even if college wasn't always so sure.

Tarkanian feuded with everyone, always; everyone except players, who whether they wound up playing for him or not instinctively understood what he was accomplishing.

He saw the NCAA as a fraud – a pretentious, overreaching organization that made millions by employing absurd "amateurism" rules. He felt its leadership was concerned only with its own power and money, so it staked out some kind of moral high ground and bullied everyone, particularly poor black athletes.

He wasn't wrong. He just wasn't exactly the greatest messenger for the cause.

Out on the recruiting trail Tarkanian watched as just about every school in the country broke all the rules in the Wild, Wild West era … paying players and parents, fixing grades, whatever. Yet only the small schools would get investigated and punished.

And then the NCAA would pat itself on the back and the newspapers would cheer on this kangaroo court, celebrating the virtues of one coach and one program while demonizing another (often Tark and Vegas).

It led him to deliver three of the greatest one-liners in the history of college basketball:

3. "I always like to get transfers, especially from the Pac-10. They already have their cars paid for."

2. "Nine out of 10 schools are cheating. The other one is in last place."

1. "The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky it's going to give Cleveland State two more years probation."

He first ripped the NCAA back in the early 1970s, when he was coaching Long Beach State and wrote a couple of guest columns in the Long Beach Press-Telegram. That, he said, started a prolonged war with the Association, which included, of course, his subsequent comments and various recruiting antics that had a catch-me-if-you-can element to them.

He ended up suing the NCAA for violating his due process. His first case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court (he lost). In 1998, however, the NCAA settled a civil suit with him for $2.5 million and was forced to apologize.

"My greatest victory," he noted.

Every day since, it seems, more people come to understand what he was getting at. They even finally put him in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013, the establishment at last accepting the trailblazer.

"It meant so much," his son, and one-time point guard, Danny said. "I'm just glad he lived to see it."

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There are a number of white coaches who deserve praise for their role in the integration of the sport during the 1960s and 70s. Tark is rarely mentioned. It's the most overlooked part of his legacy.

Tarkanian was the definition of colorblind. He truly never cared what someone's background was, what race they were, what religion they were, who their parents were, what high school they were from, how many other blacks he already had on the roster or anything else.

None of it mattered.

Jerry Tarkanian, front, sits with his fellow inductees during the 2013 Hall of Fame announcement. (AP)

He grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, needed junior college to keep him going and never looked down on anyone, ever. He was comfortable with all races at a time when so few whites were. He cut his teeth as a junior college coach in Southern California, finding players on playgrounds in Watts and Inglewood, games teeming with talent that no D-I program would touch. His last seven seasons at the JC level, he went 196-13 (.938).

Back then schools recruited black players, especially out west. It's just they often recruited a certain kind of black player, one from a particularly stable family or a middle-class high school. There is nothing wrong with that. This is college after all.

With Tark, no one was written off because they had lousy parents or came from a brutal neighborhood or was still rough around the edges. Everyone was the same. Armenian-American. African-American. His players loved him for it.

Colleges and college coaches rightfully brag about having a player that graduates and goes onto become a doctor or something. Part of the opportunity of college, however, is how many rungs on the ladder you can help a man climb. Tarkanian found guys on the bottom and lifted many of them up more rungs than imaginable.

Some kids embraced their chance and excelled. Some just found a stable life. Others became Clifford Allen. That's how it works. More and more programs followed his lead.

"Maybe not all my guys were going to become doctors and lawyers, but they were exposed to college, they learned to value education and so maybe their kids are the ones who will become doctors and lawyers," he'd argue.

Yes, there was a self-serving angle to this. And yes it was because he wanted to win.

All coaches can be self-serving though. All coaches want to win.

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Mostly though he was an entertainer, a showman in a showbiz town. His teams played up-tempo. They pressed all game. They reveled in dunks and alley-oops. One season they averaged 110.5 points a game, and that was pre-shot clock.

It was like nothing that exists in college basketball these days. Nothing even comes close to it. UNLV was about big fun and big personalities, packing Gucci Row with celebrities as Tark sat nervously sucking on a towel, an old habit he could never break.

At their best they were the best, building a powerhouse a long way from the traditional college towns. This was a city team, a blue-collar team. In his 19 seasons UNLV won 30 NCAA tournament games. In the 22 since he left, it's won three.

For all the critics who went all puritanical and cursed Tark's band of Rebels while cheering humorless coaches and 46-45 final scores as "the right way to play" … hey, to each his own … but they sure missed out on the fun.

Even the scandals were wild, a tabloid sensation that never failed to enrapture, complete with slumped shoulder Tark in a "who us?" pose. His time in Vegas eventually ended courtesy of a photo of three players drinking beer in a hot tub with a man named Richie "The Fixer" Perry.

"The most famous hot tub in college basketball history," Tark would later say.

The fallouts always hurt, the rip jobs always enraged but in the end his irascible smile and hound dog eyes let you know that no matter his protests, he was, at least a little, in on it. It was always going to be a high-wire act, betting big in Vegas.

Besides, he could always fall back on his family, wife Lois, four children and an array of grandkids he loved. You can't let the NCAA and its rulebook define a man.

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He made college basketball more fun, more open, more accepting. He gave a different kind of fan a college team to follow. He gave Vegas its own team, an identity outside of the casinos, something permanent to remind America there was a real there, there.

He challenged power and paid for it, but in the end won it all by following his buddy Sinatra's My-Way mantra.

He was Las Vegas personified … one story at a time, each wilder than the next, right out of a bygone era.

There was the time a transfer showed up from Oral Roberts driving a big, expensive Lincoln. "I told him, 'You can keep the Lincoln, but you have to leave the Oklahoma license plates. I don't want to see a Nevada plate. That way they won't think I bought it.' " There was the time he negotiated his UNLV contract and somehow became a full professor … with tenure.

There was a time at an all-star game when an opposing coach walked in with a suitcase everyone suspected was full of money, only to find an NCAA investigator sitting in the stands. Tark went up to the NCAA guy and told him to go steal the suitcase and buy himself a condo in Florida … "what's the coach going to say?"

There was the time he convinced his team the thin air at 7,200 feet in Laramie, Wy., wouldn't affect them because the game was indoors. There was the time one of his Fresno players pulled a Samurai sword on another guy. A Samurai sword? "The papers made a big deal over that one." You think?

There was Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon and Reggie Theus and Sidney Green and Greg Anthony and Danny Tarkanian and Hammer Gilliam and Anderson Hunt and on and on. There was Lloyd Daniels.

There was the time he went before the Nevada Gaming Control Board to vouch for a friend who'd lost his casino license and the witness list consisted of "me, Wayne Newton and a Catholic priest."

There were a lot of stories. There were a lot of laughs.

There, with Jerry Tarkanian, was one hell of a life just lived.