Forty years ago, Jerry Tarkanian arrived in Las Vegas to become UNLV’s fifth head basketball coach. Over the next 19 years, he and his new city shared many characteristics: often misunderstood, regularly chastised, always willfully against-the-grain. Las Vegas loved the man known as “Tark the Shark,” and he loved it right back, bringing civic pride to a town primarily made up of transplants, delivering a winner to a city built on losers.
Tarkanian led his Runnin’ Rebels to 509 victories, 12 berths in the NCAA tournament, four Final Fours and one national championship. He coached a style few others dared attempt, recruited many players others would not touch, battled the NCAA, butted heads with a university president and built teams bound by a sense that every game was the Rebels against the world. It was a risky emotional strategy, but—for a coach, a team and a city—it worked.
On April 8, the new inductees into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, will be announced. Tarkanian is one of 12 finalists. At 82 years old, he is in poor health, and his friends, both in Las Vegas and throughout the coaching fraternity, have never been more supportive—rallying to give the old Shark one last burst of glory. It is an ideal moment to tell the story of Tarkanian’s rise and fall, and his legacy in Las Vegas, in the words of some of the family, friends and players who were close to him through a magnificent and harrowing ride.
The Rebels were successful in the 1960s under head coaches Ed Gregory and Rolland Todd, but the program had fallen on bad times in three years under John Bayer. Following a 14-14 season in 1972-73, UNLV boosters set out to find a coach who could help the 16-year-old university grow up in a hurry. Meanwhile, Tarkanian had just finished his fifth season at Long Beach State, guiding the 49ers to a 26-3 record and their fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Sig Rogich: I thought we had a chance to build a basketball program at a much more rapid pace than anything we could do in football, and I had a lot of friends who were good friends with Jerry Tarkanian. I had followed him at Pasadena City College when he had great teams there, so I reached out to him. At first he wasn’t interested, so I asked if I could fly down to see him. We had lunch together, and I said, “I think I can get support in the community.” And he said, “I don’t know. Do you think you could build a winning team in Vegas?” I said, “Of course. If you could do it at Long Beach, you could do it in Vegas by tenfold.” And that was the beginning.
Lois Tarkanian: I did not want to move, and Jerry wasn’t sure what we should do. They offered the job to Jerry at UNLV about two years before he finally took it, but they came back again, and this time they didn’t stop calling. Every five minutes that phone was ringing.
Rogich: We started talking, and we talked four times a day, six times a day, 10 times a day—sometimes from 8 o’clock at night till 10:30 or 11. I talked to Lois, and I talked to [daughters] Pam and Jodie. I don’t know how much of my own money I spent [pursuing him]. I probably spent at least $20,000, $50,000, $100,000—who knows?—with all the long-distance phone calls, the trips to California, paying for him to come up here, taking him to dinners, wining and dining, shows—everything I could do to show him the town.
Lois: Sig is very persuasive, but he hasn’t lived up to one thing: He promised my daughter Jodie a horse, so Jodie wanted to come for sure. I have to remind Sig of that: Whatever happened to that horse?
Rogich: We really whetted his appetite. I knew he couldn’t afford to do what he wanted in terms of housing, so I got people to donate the plumbing; I got someone to help us on the carpentry; I got a friend of mine to give us all the concrete—you name it. And then I went to [Las Vegas Sun publisher] Hank Greenspun and got him to agree to give Jerry a column. Then I went to Channel 8 and got them to agree to put him on the air. I found ways to supplement his income.
Tarkanian was named UNLV’s head basketball coach on March 23, 1973. He quickly assembled a recruiting class consisting of junior-college transfer Ricky Sobers and freshmen Lewis Brown, Glen Gondrezick, Eddie Owens and Jackie Robinson, the first pieces of a high-flying squad that would revolutionize college basketball.
Dick Calvert: I still think that’s the best class he ever recruited.
Rogich: This town was dying for something. If you go through great cities in America, great communities have a common denominator, and that’s the university. I used to give that talk when I was recruiting Jerry. I’d say, “Great universities don’t become great universities necessarily because they have the best scientists or best educators, because you can’t write too many stories about that stuff. Sports are a catalyst to academics; the two feed off one another.”
Calvert: I would say the second year was really the turning point. That year, all of a sudden, Las Vegas turned out in their finest. People would dress to go to the games: guys in shirts and ties and coats, women in their furs—you know, the Gucci Row thing. They would sit there with their wine coolers in one hand, their fur coats on, sitting courtside and cheering on the Rebels, because it was the place to be. It was a very social thing. I’d venture to say that 70 percent of them didn’t know if the ball was pumped or stuffed.
RISE OF THE HARDWAY EIGHT
While at Long Beach State, Tarkanian’s specialty was a smothering 1-2-2 zone defense that slowed the pace of games. Lacking the size he had on the 49ers’ roster, the coach sculpted the Rebels’ attack around quicker, more athletic players. The 1975-76 Rebels, dubbed the “Hardway Eight” (rolling two fours on the dice in craps) by sports information director Dominic Clark for their breakneck style—consisting of Brown, Gondrezick, Owens, Robinson, Boyd Batts, Robert Smith, Sam Smith and Reggie Theus—ran their way to national prominence, averaging an NCAA-record 110.5 points per game before the advent of either the shot clock or the 3-point shot, reaching the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 and finishing 29-2.
Robert Smith: We had a meeting before the season, and Tark said, “We’re going to be a run-and-gun team this season, and we want you as a point guard to push the ball up the floor every time you catch it.” And I thought, “OK, I can do that.” As we got started with conditioning and practice, I started to realize, “Man, this is tough.” If the other team scored, I had to get it up quick; if they didn’t score, I had to push it up quick; if we got a steal, it was fast break. Some of the other guys had ran a little bit in high school, but this was totally different, because they wanted us to run every time. Once we started doing it, a lot of teams would start off real tough with us, but then I’d see them kind of fall apart at the end, and I knew then that that was the way we were supposed to play.
Calvert: They would win the ball by steal, by interceptions, whatever it took. Their ability to guard translated to their offense, and then they had guys who could make shots.
Smith: Eddie was smooth as silk. He could get you points like that [snaps his fingers]. I never saw a guy do it so easy, and without breaking a sweat. Glen was the type of kid who would run through a wall to win a game. He was one of those guys that, if you were playing against him, you hated him; if you were playing with him, you loved him. Sam Smith was one of the purest shooters I ever played with. He was the only guy I knew who didn’t have to warm up; he’d come in the gym and knock down eight straight shots. Reggie was a phenomenon at 6-foot-6. He had flash to his game, and he could do it all.
Lois: Sam Smith used to take the first shot every game. He had the same place on the court he took it—it was a long one—and he’d make it. And then they’d just go from there. They were hardscrabble-type kids who developed a closeness. And they were fun.
Smith: I’ll never forget the game at Hawaii-Hilo [on February 19, 1976] when we scored 164 points. Jackie [Robinson] was mad at me. He said, “Don’t pass the ball up, because I can’t even get past half court.” We were scoring so quickly. When I looked up, guys were open, so I got it to them. And Jackie was mad because he’d throw it in bounds to me and take maybe three steps, and here they’d come the other way because we scored so quickly.
Calvert: It was just a perfect marriage: the style, the winning, the players. It all just fit into the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas.
Tarkanian filled much of his roster with transfers, some coming via junior college, an unfashionable practice at the time. He also gave opportunity to many players, especially black athletes from the inner city, who were either overlooked by or unwelcome at other universities.
Danny Tarkanian: He had the unique ability to understand people better than anybody I’ve ever been around. It was partly because he grew up during the Great Depression in a very poor family, with an ethnicity that was highly discriminated against. My mom’s parents didn’t want her to marry him and refused to pay for the wedding because she was marrying an Armenian. And my dad was a poor student. He used to hang around with some crazy people in college and get in all kinds of trouble. It took him four years to get out of junior college. It would have taken him eight years to graduate [from Fresno State], but he met my mom and she got him through quicker. So when he talks about his players having poor educational backgrounds, he understood that. My mother got him on the right path, so he felt that if those players had the same positive guidance, they would do better. And most of them did. Some didn’t.
Las Vegas was drawn to the folksy, droopy-eyed coach who chewed on a towel during games, just one of the many idiosyncrasies that endeared Tarkanian to the community.
Larry Chin: The towel was such a strong habit that it became slightly superstitious for him. And because it was so special to him, I kinda made it a point to not make it special for the public. We didn’t use the same towels all the time or anything like that. They were just plain, old ordinary white towels.
Jerry Koloskie: He had his superstitions. No. 1, you couldn’t talk. When you went to pregame meal the day of a game, you couldn’t say a word. You’d have to just point for someone to pass the salt. And if somebody said something, Tark would yell, “Hey, knock that off!” And when you got on the bus, you couldn’t say a word. You also couldn’t have ketchup. Absolutely no ketchup. I asked him a couple of times, “Coach, why can’t they have ketchup?” And all he would say was, “No ketchup.” He never gave me an explanation. And if you asked for ketchup, he would go absolutely ballistic. It was little things like that that made him so much fun to be around.
Rogich: Here’s the kind of tunnel vision Jerry had: They were having the impeachment proceedings with Watergate, and we were driving in the car and I said, “Jerry, it’s really sad what’s happening in the nation. They’re going to impeach the president.” And he said, “No. For what? What’d he do?” And I said, “You don’t know about Watergate?” He said, “No. What is that?” All he knew was basketball.
Koloskie: When I first came here, we used to rent two vans and a car for Tark, so someone would drive Coach, and me and [assistant coach Tim Grgurich] would split the players up. And here’s me and Coach Grgurich driving to Logan, Utah, in the middle of the winter, snow coming down, with athletes in the car. And I remember Coach Gerg and I saying to Tark, “Coach, we’re the most successful program here; let’s take a bus.” And he said, “No, no, we don’t need a bus. That’s too expensive. That’s hard on the university.” He was very frugal with that kind of stuff. He didn’t want anything. All he wanted was a basketball and a hoop.
The Runnin’ Rebels were a tough ticket at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Las Vegas headliners such as Frank Sinatra, Bill Cosby and Don Rickles were often at games, along with many of the city’s power players, cheering Tarkanian’s teams to victory.
Smith: In the Convention Center, you could feel it in your bones when people got to hollering. We didn’t lose a lot in there. It always gave you the feeling like, “When you come in here to play us, you’re playing against everybody.”
Calvert: Attendance never dwindled: 6,500 fans every game. There were games played against major opponents in that rotunda where there was more than that, but it was only announced at the capacity. You couldn’t see any aisles. People would come, and somehow they’d get them in there. Somebody must have paid off the fire marshal or something, because people were sitting in the aisles. If you wanted to get up and go to the bathroom, you had to walk over people.
In the “Entertainment Capital of the World,” Tarkanian became an unlikely celebrity. And all of Las Vegas gave him the star treatment.
Calvert: I don’t think Jerry ever had to put his hand in his pocket the whole time he coached here. [Piero’s owner] Freddie Glusman probably made half his meals here.
Lois: If I had a good seat, I’d try to tip the maître d’—that’s what you did at the time—and they wouldn’t take anything. Nobody would take anything, any place they saw Jerry.
Rogich: He went to Piero’s a lot, and of course they comped him and took care of him. He went there after the games since it was right across the street [from the Convention Center]. Coming in there late for dinner and a glass of wine was kind of a ritual. There were other places too, like the Flame, and we all hung out there before and after games. We had the benefit of just having a smaller town where everybody knew each other. We all palled around together; we all traveled to the games. We’d go two days early and party, go to the game and stay a day after. It was a good part of our lives. We had great teams, and they made us proud.
There was plenty for UNLV fans to be proud about during the 1976-77 season. With center Larry Moffett and guard Tony Smith replacing Batts and the injured Robinson in the Hardway Eight lineup, the Runnin’ Rebels again kept their feet on the accelerator from tipoff to the final buzzer, averaging 107 points per game, including 12 straight games in which they hit triple digits, and reached the NCAA tournament’s Final Four for the first time.
Chin: That year, we went up to Reno for the first game of the season, and Tark had a minor medical episode. He had shortness of breath and was feeling dizzy, so he was examined during halftime. So we’re sitting in the locker room, and assistant coach Ralph Readout is trying to draw X’s and O’s on the board, and not more than 10 feet from him they’ve got Tark sitting on a table with his shirt off and a doctor is examining him with a stethoscope saying, “Breathe in, breathe in.” The players were torn, like, “OK, do we see what we need to do [in the second half] or do we see what’s going on with Coach?” But eventually he snapped out of it and coached the team to a win.
Smith: We had a bad draw for the NCAA tournament. We got San Francisco, which was the No. 1 team in the country. At the time, I was thinking, “I don’t care who we play; we’re in the NCAA tournament.” And I was hearing around town from some of the fans, “Man, you guys have to play USF. They’re going to kill you guys.” And it pissed me off. I thought we were just as good. All it took for me to be motivated was one or two people to say something, and I was pumped up. And I think a lot of my teammates felt the same way, because we all had this attitude going into that game that, no matter what they do, we’re going to be ready for them.
When we got up by about 15 points, I saw all the USF players were arguing with each other. And I just thought to myself, “We’ve got these guys.” They were out of sync and their chemistry was messed up, and we were rolling. And once the crowd got into it, we just got better and better. And at the end of the game [a 121-95 victory], we knew we had arrived.
Rogich: The most heartbreaking loss I’ve ever witnessed, in addition to losing to Duke [in 1991], was when we played North Carolina in Atlanta in the 1977 Final Four.
Lois: It was a crushing loss, and it came after Gondrezick came down and broke Larry Moffett’s nose [with 17:15 remaining in the second half]. Jerry told Lew Brown to go in, but Lew wasn’t paying attention.
The Rebels were ahead by five when Moffett was injured. The Tar Heels scored nine unanswered points, the tail end of a 14-0 run, to take a 59-55 lead with 15:27 left.
Smith: We ended up having to put Reggie in at center, which we thought would be OK because we were up and we were going to try to run some time off the clock, but North Carolina took advantage of it and got up on us. And once they got up on us, they went into the four corners [stall], which they were famous for back then, and we ended up losing the game by one point [84-83].
Chin: In those days there was a third-place game, so we played the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and won. An NCAA official comes in and congratulates us for finishing third, and our reward was a championship watch for being a runner-up. He pulls out a box that had everybody’s name on each individual box so they don’t miss anybody. And the NCAA official says, “It’s befitting that the head coach gets his watch first,” and he hands Coach the box. Coach opens up the box and he says, “Hey, this thing’s empty!”
It wasn’t the first, nor the last, time Tarkanian would find fault with the NCAA. At Long Beach State, winning so much, so soon, had caught the attention of the NCAA. Tarkanian, who wrote a weekly column for a Long Beach newspaper, didn’t help matters by criticizing the NCAA for its selective investigative techniques, examining upstart programs such as Western Kentucky while ignoring traditional powers like the University of Kentucky. During Tarkanian’s first season at UNLV, the NCAA placed Long Beach State on probation for three years for violations tied to the basketball and football programs.
The scrutiny followed Tarkanian to UNLV, with the NCAA reopening a prior investigation of the university six days after it hired the coach. On August 25, 1977, just five months after the Rebels played in the Final Four, the NCAA placed UNLV on two years’ probation for violations that occurred from 1971-75 and ordered the university to suspend Tarkanian during the probation period. Tarkanian obtained a temporary restraining order against the suspension before a district judge issued a permanent injunction prohibiting UNLV from suspending the coach.
Calvert: One of the reasons they were looking at UNLV was not Jerry Tarkanian as much as it was [former coach] John Bayer, but now they had Jerry, which just enhanced their enthusiasm to check out UNLV.
Lois: The kids would practice, and then there was a literature class on TV. So after practice, they would come over to our house and watch Macbeth or whatever on television. And I’d have a spaghetti dinner made, and they’d have that while they were watching TV. And then afterward, I would tutor them on it. Well, what do you think the NCAA guy said when I talked to him about it? He said I couldn’t have them over more than a couple of times because I was offering a benefit to them that I wasn’t offering to the entire student body, which is absolutely asinine. You don’t think the music professor didn’t have the violinists over a few times?
Rogich: The NCAA came to see me, because half of these kids worked for me over the course of their college careers—I gave them all jobs as runners, and some of them to this day are my best friends—and the NCAA asked, “How much are you paying these kids?” I said, “I pay them what I pay everybody else. Go see my payroll records if you want. I don’t have to do that, but I’ll give them to you.” If other kids got 10 bucks an hour, that’s what the players got. So they found nothing there, but we knew we were under the microscope. And that made us more determined not to give them any reason to come down on us.
Tarkanian was offered the Los Angeles Lakers’ head coaching job by team owner Jack Kent Cooke in 1977, and again by new owner Jerry Buss two years later. Tarkanian nearly took the job in ’79, but after lifelong friend Vic Weiss, who was acting as Tarkanian’s agent, was found dead in the trunk of his Rolls-Royce in a parking garage in Hollywood, his hands bound behind his back and two bullets in his head, a stunned Tarkanian stayed at UNLV.
Lois: He did almost take the job. We were waiting at a restaurant in Newport Beach and [Weiss] never showed. His wife called in the morning and asked if we had seen him. It was the year that Magic Johnson was coming out [of college], and he was going to the Lakers. Jerry said, “Wherever Magic goes, he wins. This is the year a person should go there.”
Entering the 1982-83 season, UNLV had not reached the NCAA tournament for five years, even after the 1979 signing of Brooklyn high school star Sidney Green, Tarkanian’s first McDonald’s All-American. But after hiring assistant coaches Tim Grgurich and Mark Warkentien in 1981, Tarkanian would have one of the greatest decades in college basketball coaching history.
The Rebels reached No. 1 in the national rankings for the first time in 1982-83, their final season in the Convention Center, running to a record of 24-0 behind seniors Green and Larry Anderson—along with a junior point guard in his second season at UNLV named Danny Tarkanian.
Lois: I did not want Danny to go to UNLV. I talked to Mark Warkentien, who was so great at putting talent together, and he said to me, “I hate to tell you this, Lois, but we need your son.” And after Danny came, they started winning more and more. So Mark was right, and he usually was.
Danny: The year before was my dad’s second-worst year at UNLV, and the year before that was his worst; he was 16-12, and then my first year at UNLV we were 20-10. And we had great players on that team—maybe, outside of the Final Four teams of the ’90s, the most talented team they had at UNLV. But they ran in different cliques; some people were close with one group but hated the others, and vice versa—a very splintered group. We were underachievers and didn’t perform very well. So the next year my dad said he was going to get rid of the players who didn’t want to be here, and he said, as his line was, “We’re going to win with character, not characters.” And he brought in [transfers Eric] Booker, [Paul] Brozovich and [Jeff] Collins. And those three guys who came in as juniors, they all accepted what their roles were, and we all got along. My dad says to this day he thinks we’re the only team that was unranked at the start of the season to become No. 1 in the country. Then we lost in the NCAA tournament to the national champions [North Carolina State] by one point after we led for 39 minutes and 58 seconds of the game—a lot of great accomplishments for a team on which only one guy [Green] made it [in the NBA]. We didn’t have a really talented team, but we really performed well and had great heart and character. I think that was the year we really got UNLV fans back into the sport.
The timing couldn’t have been better as the Rebels prepared to move into the 18,500-seat Thomas & Mack Center the following season.
Brad Rothermel: The major concern that all of us had was that it was three times as large as the Convention Center. Of course, we were filling up the Convention Center easily, but would we be able to go from 6,500 to 18,500 and still fill it? We all had doubts about that.
Danny: At the time, my dad only wanted it to be about 12,000 seats. He didn’t think they could sell out the 18,500. The thing that sticks out in my mind, and only in Vegas could you do this, the opening act for the Thomas & Mack was a fundraiser for the basketball team hosted by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Diana Ross. The whole team wore black tuxedos with white-and-red-striped tennis shoes. And there’s a picture of Diana Ross singing “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and holding hands with Booker, and some other players all swaying to the music. That doesn’t happen at any other college. Vegas was a special place in a lot of ways, particularly early in my dad’s career, because of things like that. Having Wayne Newton sing the national anthem or Bill Cosby come to watch you practice, those things just didn’t happen at other colleges.
In the Thomas & Mack, UNLV expanded on its glitzy pregame show and player introductions, increasingly ramping up the spectacle as the Rebels regained their status as a national power, remaining one for the rest of Tarkanian’s career.
Danny: In the ’70s when I was a young kid and idolizing the Rebels, they had the red, blue, green and yellow lights that flew around [the Convention Center], and it was wonderful. They started with that. Then they added the red carpet. And they added the fireworks [in 1986], but then the fireworks always got better. Then they added the shark [spotlights] going around the floor, the shark clap and the shark mascot. It all evolved. It just got bigger and bigger.
Calvert: Some coaches, like Jerry Pimm at UC Santa Barbara and John Thompson at Georgetown, used to go in the locker room after their teams were announced because of it. Some people said it was worth 10 points. CBS was the only network in those days that carried the introductions, which was pretty cool because no one ever did that before. The Chicago Bulls copied us. They came to us and visited with all of us. They got their own music, but they did virtually the same damn thing that we did.
Leon Symanski: They brought me out on a recruiting visit [in 1984], and I had never been here before. It was the last home game of the regular season, and they were late picking me up from the airport. So as I was coming in the tunnel to the Thomas & Mack, it was when 18,500 were on their feet, a standing O for the seniors, who were out on the floor with their parents, along with Lois and Jerry. Flowers were raining down, flashbulbs were popping, cameras were rolling—it was very surreal for my first time in the Thomas & Mack to have that experience.
The 1986-87 Rebels had one of the greatest seasons in program history, led by sharpshooting Las Vegas native Freddie Banks, All-American forward Armon Gilliam and slick-passing guard Mark Wade, along with athletic forwards Jarvis Basnight and Gerald Paddio, and senior subs Gary Graham and Eldridge Hudson.
Symanski: Nike would provide us with apparel, and that year we had these black, shiny sweatsuits that were almost leather-looking. And they were kind of thug-looking. We were in the preseason NIT, and we made it to the semifinals for that Thanksgiving weekend, and the first game we played against Temple and went to double overtime and won. So the next day was Thanksgiving, and Coach Tark said, “OK, all four teams are going to have Thanksgiving dinner in this ballroom, and here’s what time you have to be there.” And, of course, we all showed up, shoes untied, wearing these black leather-looking sweatsuits, hats on backward, and the other three teams were basically in sport coats and ties. Lois and Jerry were there at the entrance of the dining hall, and Lois looked at us and said, “You guys have to go back and put on your sport coats.” And everybody just started laughing, and Coach looked at his wife and said, “You gotta be kidding me? These guys don’t own sport coats.” And when we walked in, the whole place went silent. All the other teams were just looking at us. That kind of summed up that year, because we had six seniors, and we had guys who were very mature and knew what we had to do, and weren’t intimidated by anyone or anything. And that really helped our confidence level.
Rothermel: We had the largest home crowd we’ve ever had: 20,321 when we played Navy [led by All-American center David Robinson]. Le Riggle was our ticket manager, and she came to me early and said, “Brad, we’ve sold it out. We have no seats.” So we created the concept of “best available seat.” If you had a ticket and you saw an empty seat, you could sit there until the holder of that seat came. And if you look at pictures from that game, you can’t see the aisles. They were completely filled. So when we got to 19,000 [tickets sold], Le came down and said, “We have no tickets left.” I said, “Just keep selling them, but let’s call the fire marshal.” So we called the fire marshal and said, “How many can we sell?” He said, “How many do you think you can sell?” I said, “Probably 25,000.” He said, “Oh no, we can’t put 25,000 in there.” I said, “Well, you tell us what we can have, and we’ll sell up to that.” And he said, “What about 20,200?” I said, “Le, that’s it.” But we could have sold a lot more. That night Armon Gilliam became a nationally recognized basketball player. David Robinson got three fouls early, and Armon dominated him.
UNLV entered the 1987 NCAA tournament with just one loss, an 89-88 defeat at Oklahoma in which Gary Graham hit a 3-pointer before halftime that officials ruled a 2-point basket. After beating Idaho State, Kansas State and Wyoming in the first three rounds of the tournament, Tarkanian would gain one of his greatest victories ever, followed immediately by one of his most crushing defeats.
Symanski: All season we were just blowing people out. So we’re playing Iowa in the Kingdome in Seattle in the Elite Eight, and they had great players and all the momentum. Our chemistry was off, we were not hitting shots, and we were down by 16 at the half. So Coach Tark comes in and does his speech at halftime, and then Gary Graham said, “All right, coaches, you’re going over there. Team, we’re going over here.” And the seniors took the team aside, and we had our own meeting at halftime, without the coaches. It was basically a look-each-other-in-the-eye gut check, and we said, “We need to play like we know how to play, and we’re not going to lose this game. Let’s break this into four five-minute games, and by the time we get to the fourth game, we want to be ahead or tied.” And that was our strategy.
Rothermel: Gerald Paddio was a great player for us, but he’d had 19 lousy games in a row. He had a real good preseason NIT tournament in New York and hit a jump shot with no time left to beat Temple, and then we beat Western Kentucky in double overtime. But he’d been terrible after that; he couldn’t hit a shot. I said to Coach, “Why in the hell do you keep playing Gerald?” He said, “I’ll tell you what, Gerald will win a game for us before this year is over.” So we went in the locker room at halftime of that Iowa game, and Jerry pointed right at Gerald and said, “You’re either going to shoot us in it or you’re going to shoot us out of it, because we’re coming to you every time.” And he went out and made, I think, seven of his first nine jumpers, and within 10 minutes we caught them [Paddio and Freddie Banks combined for 23 points during UNLV’s 27-4 second-half run].
Lois: We all got in the bus to go back to our hotel after winning the game, and when we got there, there was a big crowd of people, and they rocked the bus. I mean, they rocked the bus, yelling out to the players. I was worried they were going to turn the doggone bus over, that’s how many there were. And I said to myself, “My God, this is like being a rock star.”
Symanski: I think we got [to New Orleans for the Final Four] too early. I think we got there on Wednesday when we should have gotten there maybe on late Thursday. We stayed in the [French] Quarter, and we should have stayed out of the mayhem. Because our guys were older, we really didn’t think we had to adhere to the rules. We wanted to go see New Orleans, and maybe that got us a little distracted from the task at hand. Coach was not happy with our practices; we were not focused. He seemed a little out of sorts, too. I think he felt a little different type of pressure. We were ranked No. 1 and we were the No. 1 seed, and Indiana came in and they probably had a little bit more focus than we did. Our defense was not as sharp as it should have been; we still played an amazing game to be scoring in the 90s. Freddie hit 10 3-pointers; he was just an amazing player. Mark Wade had 18 assists, the NCAA tournament record. But we lost by four points.
Chin: Taco Bell had approached him to appear in commercials if we won the national championship. The one small stipulation, though, was they wanted him to chew on a Taco Bell towel. I was told about it, and I asked him if he wanted to do it, and he said “yes.” I told him prior to the game, knowing how superstitious he is, “If for some reason, at any time, you want to switch to a regular towel, I have one in my extra equipment bag sitting on the bench here.” And from time to time, as we were constantly slipping behind Indiana, he would keep looking down at the end of the bench toward me, and I didn’t know if he was going to do it or not. But he never did. I just wanted to make sure he was comfortable with the situation. After the game, I get on the bus, and the only seat left happens to be in the front, right next to Lois. The bus is just totally silent; everybody is stunned that we lost. And all of a sudden Lois turns to me and says, “You know, Larry, what lost that game? Those damn Taco Bell towels!”
The 1986-87 season was not without turmoil. On February 9, 1987, UNLV recruit Lloyd Daniels, a 6-foot-7 playground legend from Queens, New York, who reportedly could not read above a third-grade level but was described as “Magic Johnson with a jump shot,” was arrested buying crack cocaine in a North Las Vegas sting operation. Making matters worse, Rebels assistant coach Mark Warkentien had become Daniels’ legal guardian in October 1986. Although there was precedence for such a relationship at other schools, and athletic director Brad Rothermel had inquired about its legality, Daniels’ recruitment ignited another NCAA investigation.
Symanski: We were playing the University of Pacific, and we were in Stockton, California, when [Daniels’ arrest] came across the news. And the whole team just went silent. We knew as players that this was something out of our control, and that the coaches and the administration were going to have to deal with this. But we knew it was going to be a black eye on Coach Tark. He was shocked and disappointed—at Lloyd and at the situation. It was really tense, because he knew he was going to have to get back to Vegas and deal with the press and have answers for what was going on. That was very uneasy; I could see it in his face and his eyes. He lived to coach, and he lived to be successful and he was very proud of his university, his city, his family and his heritage, and to bring any type of shame to any of those entities, he’s going to take it very personally.
TOP OF THE WORLD
After upsetting No. 1 Arizona and reaching the Elite Eight in the 1989 NCAA tournament, Tarkanian signed 6-foot-7 junior Larry Johnson from Odessa (Texas) Junior College. Adding Johnson to a roster that returned standouts such as Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon, David Butler, Anderson Hunt and Moses Scurry gave Tarkanian all the pieces he needed for a special season.
Anderson Hunt: We got our confidence in ’89 at the end of the season after we beat Arizona, even though Seton Hall put it on us after that. But once Larry came, that just took us to the next level. We couldn’t be stopped then.
Koloskie: We were playing San Jose State at home, and it was 56-34 at halftime. And our guys played the most flawless first half of basketball that you could ever play. So all the guys get in the locker room, and they’re just sitting there. And Tark would always do the same thing, come in with his hands in his pockets, head down. He’d walk to the front, walk to the back, kinda thinking of what he’s going to say. And if we weren’t playing very well, he’d start out by yelling. He would go off for like five minutes. So, anyway, at this game, Tark’s walking back and forth, and he’s looking at the stat sheet, and he really doesn’t know what to say. And Larry Johnson looks at him and says, “What do you got to say now, Coach?” And that’s the only time in 10 years I ever saw Tark smile at halftime.
Hunt: Tark was the master motivator. Before every game, he’d say, “You know these guys think they’re better than you. They don’t think you deserve this.” Or if you were playing on CBS or something, he’d say, “You can fool me, you can fool the coaches, but you can’t fool all the people back home watching in your neighborhood.” He motivated us every game, whether we played Pacific or LSU.
Ten players were suspended for at least one game that season, nine for not paying incidental charges at hotels where the team stayed the previous season, and another for failing to keep current on a student loan. Tarkanian kept his team focused through the turmoil, but the Rebels’ season almost became derailed on February 12, 1990, when point guard Greg Anthony fell to the Thomas & Mack floor after colliding in the first half with Fresno State’s Wilbert Hooker. Despite breaking his jaw in two places, Anthony was at practice the next day, wearing a hockey helmet. He played against No. 25 New Mexico State two days later with his jaw wired shut, leading the team to a 109-86 victory, and remained in the lineup the rest of the season.
Calvert: Greg Anthony breaks his jaw, and then the next day he’s at practice? That’s incredible. He lived on milkshakes. He first wore that mask, but then he ditched that, with his jaw wired shut. If that didn’t spur everybody on to the ultimate, then I don’t know what did.
Rothermel: When Greg went down, it was literally the break that united the team. That demonstrated, especially to Stacey and Larry, that he was tough, that he could play tough.
Calvert: This team personified the loyalty to Jerry. It was definitely “us against the world” because then all these things came down; everything was coming to a head: the suspensions, the accusations of improprieties and rule-breaking and all this kind of stuff. They just basically came together and withdrew from everybody.
Hunt: Tark just kept telling us, “You need to stick together. They don’t want us to win a championship. They’re going to do anything they can to break us down and get us unfocused. The NCAA really wants me, but they’re trying to take it out on all of you.”
The Rebels nearly stumbled in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, surviving a two-point win over Ball State, before steamrolling Loyola Marymount 131-101 to reach the Final Four, and wearing down Georgia Tech 90-81 to reach the championship game for the first time. In the title match against Duke, UNLV rode an 18-0 second-half run to a crushing 103-73 triumph—still a title-game record for largest margin of victory.
Hunt: When we played Duke, Tark said, “They’re white-collar, and we’re the blue-collar guys. All the people working in steel mills, they’re rooting for us. All the people on Wall Street and corporate America, they’re rooting for Duke.” It was funny, but that motivated us. He didn’t really even have to coach the second half. After we went on that run, it was like we were on cruise control. We expected to win, but we didn’t expect to win by 30. That was just one of those nights where everything was clicking.
Rothermel: When he had the game under control, he’d put those boots out on the floor and put his hands up behind his head and stretch back. You knew it was over when that happened.
Two months after the Rebels won the national championship, Rothermel, a strong proponent of Tarkanian, announced his resignation as athletic director, effective at the end of the year. On July 20, the NCAA banned UNLV from defending its crown, citing gross rules violations, but a deal was worked out just before the season started that allowed the Rebels to defend their title but banned Tarkanian’s team from the 1992 NCAA tournament. Then, in December, the NCAA filed a letter of inquiry alleging 29 infractions by UNLV, mostly stemming from the 1986 recruitment of Lloyd Daniels. Even with the constant distractions, the Rebels—with their core of Johnson, Augmon, Anthony, Hunt and center George Ackles— picked up where they left off, destroying each opponent and becoming national celebrities in the process.
Hunt: We were so big. I remember going to [the short-lived bar] Tarkanian’s, right across the street from UNLV. There was one night when there was a boxing match on the Strip, and it seemed like everybody who had gone to the fight came to Tarkanian’s, and the line was wrapped around Maryland Parkway. We were like rock stars at Tarkanian’s. So when we’re walking in, Eddie Murphy was in line still trying to get in, and we walked straight through. Looking back on it, it’s like, “Wow!” But when I was young, it was like, “Yeah, we do this all the time.” We definitely got a lot of extra … a lot of extra love. I’ll say that. I remember signing breasts. I remember signing babies, all types of stuff. It was crazy. Those were the good-old days.
Koloskie: That season we had our players get interviewed by legal counsel; we had them getting interviewed by the NCAA. We had media attention at our practices, and it was never about the team. It was about everything other than the team. We had people trying to dig up dirt all over, and different things coming out. And it was every single day. The only solitude that our athletes and coaches had during that time was the three hours that they were in practice.
Hunt: On every road trip, we used to always have a gambling party: cards, dice. We used to call it “the Rio.” And wherever we were playing, we’d invite the other team over. Sometimes they would come, sometimes they wouldn’t. I threw one when we were playing Georgetown in the ’91 NCAA tournament, and I told [Rebels center] Elmore [Spencer]—it was standing-room-only in the room, a fire hazard—don’t open the door for anybody else. So I hear a knock on the door. I said, “Don’t answer the door, Elmore.” I think I was on the dice, too. He opens the door, and all I hear is Mrs. Tark saying, “Anderson, can I talk to you outside for a minute?” So I said, “Yes, Mrs. Tark.” I’ve still got the dice in my hand. She says, “Don’t you know this is the biggest game of my husband’s career? He has never beaten Georgetown. If you get all these people out in 30 minutes, I won’t tell him.” I said, “OK, Mrs. Tark, I’ll get them out in 15.” And she never told him.
After winning 45 straight games dating to the previous season, the Rebels returned to the Final Four for a rematch with Duke. UNLV led 74-71 with 3:51 left when Anthony was called for an offensive foul, his fifth personal of the game, which sent him to the bench. Without their point guard, the Rebels unraveled down the stretch, losing 79-77 when a hurried, last-second shot by Hunt failed to find the mark.
Koloskie: After the game was over, it was probably the most devastating experience I’ll probably ever have. To have been in that locker room after that game, it was the most down I’ve ever seen a group of guys.
Hunt: We had just beaten them by 30 the year before. And a lot of guys were thinking about where they were going in the NBA draft. And we just … it just wasn’t the same. I think Tark didn’t have enough confidence in Elmore Spencer, Melvin Love, all our big guys, to check Christian Laettner, so that’s a reason why he didn’t play those guys. I think we underestimated Grant Hill. He was probably the best player on the court that day, as a freshman. They were more athletic that year than they were in ’90. But that’s no excuse; we still should have won. Nine times out of 10, we’ll win that game. I haven’t watched the film to this day.
Koloskie: I remember Larry Johnson’s voicemail at his apartment after that. When you would call it, he was, “Hey, this is Larry. Sorry we didn’t get it done. And, yes, I know I maybe should have taken the last shot.” Everybody took the responsibility for things they didn’t do in that game.
TWILIGHT OF THE SHARK
The Duke loss was the beginning of the end for Tarkanian at UNLV. University President Robert Maxson, who envisioned turning UNLV into “the Harvard of the West,” didn’t appreciate the constant NCAA investigations and negative publicity brought by the basketball program, and repeatedly sought ways to get rid of Tarkanian. On May 6, 1991, just a month after the loss to Duke, the Las Vegas Review-Journal published a undated photo on its front page of Rebel basketball players David Butler, Anderson Hunt and Moses Scurry in a hot tub with Richard Perry, who had been convicted in 1984 of conspiring to fix basketball games at Boston College. Even though the photo revealed no actual misconduct, it incensed Maxson, and fueled his desire to oust Tarkanian.
Rothermel: Maxson came here August 1, 1984, but I hadn’t talked to him one-on-one until I got a call from his secretary in late September of ’84, and she said, “President Maxson would like to have a conversation with you.” I said, “Fine, put him on.” And she said, “No, he would like you to come to his office.” I said, “Tell me when.” She said, “Now.” So I hustle over there and walked in his office, and the first thing he said to me was, “Can you think of any reason why Jerry Tarkanian should be terminated?” I looked at him and said, “No, do you know of any?” And, of course, that set him aback. I said, “I ask from Jerry Tarkanian the same thing I ask from all my head coaches: I want them to strive to win within the rules and within the budgetary framework. No one wins better, historically, in collegiate basketball than Jerry Tarkanian,” who was No. 1 in career winning percentage at that point. I said, “To my knowledge, Jerry doesn’t violate the rules, he’s never asked me to, and I don’t know that he does, and if he ever did, I would report it. But he doesn’t. And he’s maniacal about his budget. He won’t overspend his budget one dime ever. And that’s what I expect from all my head coaches.” Maxson’s question, that said to me that he wanted me to be on his team, and not Jerry’s team. And I went into Coach’s office right away and told him the story.
Rogich: Maxson divided the town to a degree like you’ve never seen, and he didn’t have to do it. I was in the White House [as an adviser to George H.W. Bush] when it started to occur, and Jerry called me, and then Maxson called me. I had Maxson on one phone, and I’d say, “What will it take to make this thing go peaceably?” And I’d put him on hold, and then I’d talk to Jerry and tell him what we had just talked about. I did this from my office in the White House, and negotiated the departure, if you will. It was a horrible time.
Rothermel: I think Tark thought if he continued to win at that level then Maxson wouldn’t be able to get him, but then a number of things happened. People say it was the hot-tub incident. Hell, the hot-tub incident was nothing. But it was just bad timing. It was the one step that Maxson needed.
Rogich: The first time I heard about it was when I saw it in the paper. At first, it didn’t have an impact on me. I thought, “This is stupid. These kids are in a hot tub with some guy.” But then I read more about him, and when I realized that this guy had been indicted for fixing games, it terrified me.
Symanski: One of the things Coach Tark had done that I thought was very surprising, my first season when we were in preseason conditioning, he brought in an FBI agent to sit us down and talk to us. I was new to Las Vegas, and he said, “You’re in a city where there’s a lot of temptation out here, and you’re on a very high-profile NCAA men’s basketball team. There’s going to be a lot of temptations, and there’s going to be people who are going to ask you to do things that are not legitimate or ethical.” And the FBI agent scared the shit out of me, saying, “Do you want to be behind bars? Do you want to have your picture on the front page of the local paper? National news? This is a high-profile program, and anything you do, it’s going to be blown out of proportion because of who you are.”
On June 7, 1991, 12 days after the hot-tub photo appeared, Tarkanian announced that he would resign at the end of the following season, saying he was doing “what was best for the university.”
Danny: I can see why the university did what it did. I just wish they had been more honest and up-front about it. When they forced him out, they should have said, “Hey, the NCAA is not going to let up on this. They’ve been coming at us since ’74, they haven’t let up. Jerry, we can’t continue with this.” But they said his players were bad kids, and that hurt him more than anything because those guys were great guys.
Rogich: We were hypersensitive to the NCAA rulebook. And after all the times they went after him, for 20 years, they didn’t get him for anything [major]. They’d go and ask players’ mothers and fathers if [UNLV] did anything wrong; they went and intimidated people. And he sued the NCAA and won $2.5 million in a settlement [in 1998]. Imagine that. The only one, to my knowledge, who’s ever done that. He sued them and won. He beat the NCAA.
Koloskie: Coach Tark never disparaged UNLV. He loved UNLV. I think he had a hard time believing that that was happening to his university. He wasn’t looking to go anywhere else. He probably could have taken other jobs many times over during that time. And his disdain for the NCAA, he kept that as his battle. He really didn’t bring that upon UNLV that much. He fought [the NCAA] with his own attorneys. But I think it broke his heart to see UNLV go what it went through.
Lois: That was a painful time. We never got to enjoy that much of the winning. We wanted to win, and, yes, we did win, but those last two years, the NCAA was in here so often.
Rogich: Maxson didn’t like the fact that the hero on campus was Jerry Tarkanian. And I can understand some of that as an academic, but I didn’t think it was enough to get rid of him. And it ruined our program. We would have had a dynasty. We could have won four or five national championships, and the NCAA knew it.
The 1991-92 season was bittersweet. The Rebels, after losing two of their first five games, became one of the best teams in college basketball, finishing 26-2 behind stars J.R. Rider and Elmore Spencer. At a rally at a Methodist church in North Las Vegas in late February, Tarkanian rescinded his resignation, but it was too late. Tarkanian’s UNLV career ended on March 3, 1992, with a 65-53 victory over Utah State at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Chin: It was surrealistic. It was hard to believe he was leaving. We tried to celebrate it the best way we could, but it wasn’t enough. Because everybody knew it wasn’t like he was retiring from basketball as much as it was he was being forced out. When the last game was done and I was loading up, I was thinking, “Really? This is it? It just ends like a regular game, and you walk away?”
Calvert: I can remember him walking off the court that last night. That was sad. The height of the national championship team, the undefeated team, all the previous things, but here’s this coach—19 years, and it was coming to an end—walking slow with his head down to all the cheers from his supporters in the arena. And it was over.
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