Thursday, March 22, 2007


Jerry Tarkanian is one of the most under-appreciated coaches in the history of basketball. Despite all his wins and accolades, his historic career is not deemed worthy of hall-of-fame status. Instead, he is associated with rule-breaking, criminality, irresponsibility, and disrespect for sanctioning by college basketball's rule-making body, the NCAA.

Tarkanian's never been to jail. He's never thrown chairs, pushed officials, or strangled his players. He's never invalidated anyone's amateur status, siphoned money to recruits, or gotten drunk with college co-eds. As a matter of fact, he's taken more chances on tough kids with tough lives than most charitable organizations (and certainly the monied, suburban, utterly angelic Duke boys the the media fawns over).

It's funny; no one ever remembers the names of the players that Jerry Tarkanian took a chance on. They remember the incidents. "Remember that guy [Kenny Brunner] who tried to assault someone with a samurai sword ?" "Remember those players [Moses Scurry, Anderson Hunt, and David Butler] who got caught sitting in a hot tub with a known bookie/point shaver ?" "Remember that white boy [Chris Herren] who got busted for being a coke-head?" The conclusion is often the same: "Man, Tarkanian will take on anyone!"

Tarkanian ought to be admired for taking a chance on those guys, but instead he's reviled because of the mistakes they make. It may be true that at some point people stop deserving second chances, but criticizing Tarkanian for the faults of his troubled players misses an important point; most of them were never given a chance to begin with, until Tark came along. Is he so wrong for giving troubled young men a chance to earn an education because they let him down? Can a college basketball coach be expected to completely shepardize young men when he only supervises them for a couple of hours during the day? I think the notions and expectations of those in the moralizing media that criticize Tarkanian are simply absurd. Would anyone fault a priest who tried to save a criminal, only to fail?

Tarkanian's image as a sinner is contradicted by many of the men he helped, but people forget about that. A good example is the aforementioned Chris Herren: He played at Boston College until cocaine destroyed his career. Jerry Tarkanian brought him to Fresno State as a transfer and by the time Herren graduated, he was a husband, father, NBA draft pick, and substance-free. FOX Sports never did an in depth story on his rise from addiction, though. They only did it soon after Herren came under Tarkanian's wing, before he cleaned up, showcasing the criminals Jerry Tarkanian let into the NCAA. It's almost like wherever Tarkanian goes, there are four journalists following him, waiting for him to do something, anything that they can take hold of.

It wasn't always like this. There was a time when Jerry Tarkanian was the toast of NCAA basketball, a great motivator who was a strategic revolutionary on both ends of the basketball court.

Tarkanian had risen swiftly through the coaching ranks ever since his career as a player at Fresno State ended in 1955. He had been able to get an athletic scholarship, but needed extra money, so he worked as manager on the football team, which was coached by Clark van Galder. From van Galder, he learned strategies for instilling intensity in his players that carried throughout his career.

Another job he took job on the side involved helping out with a local high school basketball team. He made a good impression, and when he finished his career at Fresno State, the school immediately hired him as its head coach. He moved upward through the high school ranks and was soon hired by Riverside Junior College, an obscure school with a perennially awful basketball team.

That Riverside squad was a team of misfits that hadn't had a winning season in eleven years, but under Tarkanian, they won three championships in a row. Pasadena City College took notice, hired him, and he presided over a similar turnaround there.

Tarkanian's first shot at the big time came in 1968 at Long Beach State College. He used his contacts in the junior college world (from his days at Riverside) to field a team almost entirely comprised of ex-JuCo players. It was unorthodox for Division I teams to recruit Junior College players at that time, and Jerry Tarkanian was building an entire team around them.

The JuCo guys were't the only thing revolutionary about the Long Beach teams Tarkanian coached. Tark's 49ers was one of the first teams that was willing to play with an all-black starting lineup. At that time, there was an unwritten rule that every coach started a couple of white boys. Not Jerry. As history scholar Richard O. Davies put it: "This dramatic departure from racial convention established Tarkanian in the black community as a coach who not only talked about equal opportunity but actually practiced it. This reputation would pay great recruiting dividends later in his career."

At Long Beach State, Tarkanian went an impressive 122-20. His sparkling record got him a call from UNLV, which at the time was a relatively unknown school (and considered to be the second-most important Nevada State University branch after Reno).

UNLV had been a mediocre team, going 11-11 before Tarkanian got there. His first season saw the Rebels go 20-6, utilizing a crippling new style of basketball based around fast breaks and a suffocating, hustling, unpredictable zone defense.

Everyone loved watching UNLV, and they got better every year. Tarkanian instituted both a stifling zone (which would later be modified and referred to as the Amoeba Defense), and an equally frustrating man-to-man defense. The Rebels were soon 32-3, and in 1975 scored 164 points in a single game, a record that has not been broken. Tarkanian was riding high and UNLV was gaining more and more recognition as one of that nation's elite basketball institutions.

Tarkanian probably didn't know the 1976 newspaper article he authored just as he was gaining national prominence would change his career and his life the way it did. Tarkanian felt that the NCAA spent much of its energy punishing smaller programs for infractions that the larger, moneymaking programs got away with. He wrote: "It's a crime that Western Kentucky is on probation but the famous University of Kentucky basketball program breaks more rules in a day than Western Kentucky does in a year. The NCAA doesn't want to take on the big boys." He also quipped: "Recently, the NCAA got so mad at Kentucky, they put Cleveland State on probation for another two years."

Mr. Tarkanian's article must have caught the eye of an unhappy suit high atop the NCAA's mountain of bureaucracy. He probably thought to himself, "So, Tark the Shark likes to criticize the NCAA for not investigating top programs? Well, then let's give a top program like UNLV the investigation of a lifetime."

That same year, an enormous investigation was announced into not just UNLV, but also Long Beach State, Tark's previous team. It was prejudiced at best, conspiratorial at worst. Most coaches would have broken.

Not Jerry Tarkanian. He was no lay-down sissy like the lawyers and administrators of the NCAA posse. He didn't come from the upper crust, he hadn't lived an easy life, and he wasn't going to let some shitbag organization ruin everything he'd built. Tarkanian was born to a mother whose husband had been beheaded before his grandfather's very eyes during the 24- year genocide organized by the Armenian government. Tark's mother fled to America and raised him on next to nothing. He never feared the rough younger kids he welcomed to his teams, he never feared his opposing coaches, and he most certainly didn't fear the NCAA.

Jerry Tarkanian took the NCAA to a place where impartiality rules. He took them to court. In October 1977, Distric Court Judge James Brennan granted a permanent injunction prohibiting the institution of the NCAA's frivolous penalties. In his decision, he noted that NCAA investigator David Berst "threatened, coerced, promised immunity, and promised rewards to athletes in his effort to obtain derogatory evidence against the Plaintiff [Tarkanian]."

If the NCAA had been smart, they would have let sleeping dogs lie, but they didn't. They kept going after Tarkanian year after year, and when a new president, Robert Maxson, was appointed to UNLV in 1983, he began to tire of the constant bad publicity surrounding the school.

Maxson had started out as an ally of Tarkanian, an obvious position considering UNLV's unparalleled run of success in the mid-to-late 80's. Despite the NCAA's best efforts, the UNLV teams got better and better, culminating in 1989-90 when they won the NCAA championship, pantsing Duke by an incredible 30 point margin (103-73). USA Today ranks that team the second best in college basketball's entire history in this 2005 article.

All the while, Tarkanian was fighting a vicious court battle against the NCAA that eventually went all the way to the United States Supreme Court after his removal as head coach of UNLV [by UNLV, not the NCAA]. The Supreme Court's decision, available here, illustrates the amount of bullshit the NCAA threw Tarkanian's way.

To paraphrase for the highest court; Jerry Tarkanian lost his case for wrongful termination when he moved for damages arguing that UNLV violated his right to due process by firing him. That decisive fact is unimportant to my point here.

What is important are the words of the Justices who looked at the information that led to Tarkanian's firing. It reveals some of the facts of the NCAA's interference, which cannot be surmised any other way as a consequence of the 1998 settlement agreement, which made all the details of the NCAA's fraudulent witch-hunt confidential, and which I will discuss in a moment.

The Court found that the Committee on Infractions (hereinafter, CI) had decided that an "Official Inquiry" was warranted in 1976, four years after a "Preliminary Inquiry". [This is highly odd; most official inquiries follow preliminary inquiries in a much smaller time-frame, which strengthens the argument that the NCAA reopened the case arbitrarily.] The Committee ordered UNLV to investigate every alleged incident (the investigations that led to this order having been conducted by the aforementioned asshole David Berst).

UNLV complied, and began a thorough investigation of the charges. On October 27, 1976, UNLV officials "filed a comprehensive response containing voluminous exhibits and sworn affidavits. The response denied all of the allegations and specifically concluded that Tarkanian was completely innocent of wrongdoing." When presented to the Committee, it ruled that most of the charges "could not be supported". It did find Tarkanian guilty of ten violations, the most serious of which was Tarkanian's failure to "provide full cooperation with the NCAA investigation." That investigation was, as we learned above, patently bogus.

For Tarkanian's serious violation described above, the NCAA ordered that he be suspended from the team for two years, and that UNLV be disallowed from participating in postseason play and televised games. UNLV managed to defer its penalties, but the tired president's tolerance for Tarkanian was used up when the Las Vegas Review-Journal published the hot tub photograph of Moses Scurry, Anderson Hunt, and David Butler with and a gambler/game-fixer.

How Tarkanian was involved with this is unclear, but he was certainly blamed. Despite having just taken his team to the championship for two consecutive years, Tarkanian was asked to leave. He coached a final season in which his team was banned from post-season play. The Rebels went 26-2 that year.

Tarkanian had a brief (9-11) run as coach of the Spurs, was fired after a disagreement with the owner, and promptly retired. His retirement consisted of fighting his civil lawsuit with the NCAA, arguing that their persistent unwarranted harassment had ruined his career. While no decision was ever made in Court, the NCAA settled with The Shark for $2.5 million. A confidentiality agreement was signed, and we'll never know the extent to which the NCAA violated Jerry Tarkanian's Legal rights. $2.5 million says a lot though; if it's not an admission of serious fault, I don't know what is.

Tark un-retired and went back to coach where his career started, at Fresno State. He had six 20-win seasons, and took the previously squalid Bulldogs to the Tournament twice, once advancing to the second round. Along the way, he reformed countless players from street thugs into productive adults. Players no one gave a chance to like Rafer Alston, Courtney Alexander, Mervin Ely and Tito Maddux all thrived under Tarkanian's tutelage.

It all came to a halt when, surprise, surprise, the NCAA conducted a thorough investigation of Fresno State. They found Fresno State had committed ten violations, none of which directly implicated Tarkanian. He retired, to the delight of many a NCAA-loving journalist (example here). [Tarkanian's successor at Fresno State recently resigned in the wake of NCAA-uncovered violations. There was considerably less publicity.]

Looking back: Jerry Tarkanian won 990 college basketball games and lost 228. (That's 81.3%.) He has more 20-win seasons than anyone other than the legendary Dean Smith. He is almost universally loved by his former players and universally respected by his coaching colleagues. ("He's one of the truly remarkable defensive coaches." -Coach K) I found a nice highlight tape of his 'Runnin Rebels team of 1990 worth watching that's available here.

There's nothing a coach can do in college basketball that Tarkanian didn't do. His name ought to be enshrined (and recognized) alongside the names Smith and Wooden in Springfield. A basketball genius, a tireless worker, and an advocate of players most coaches would cross the street to get away from, Tarkanian still doesn't get the respect he deserves. He's 76, and probably doesn't have too many years left.

UNLV is finally back in the saddle after years of probation-induced mediocrity. Their recent resurgence makes me wonder what they could have done had Tark been allowed to play out that 26-2 season, enter the tournament, and come back to the respect and security he deserved.

As always, e-mail me at


Jayinee said...

Excellent blog entry! A well-researched, well-written approach to an interesting topic.

Anonymous said...

This article was extremely interesting.

Anonymous said...

Good point, though sometimes it's hard to arrive to definite conclusions

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