Seven Questions for Brad Rothermel

The former UNLV athletic director on March Madness, Tark and the legacy of the 1990 championship team

Photo by Jon Estrada

Photo by Jon Estrada

What was it like being UNLV’s athletic director during the school’s run in the 1990 NCAA tournament?

I had a very good staff. We’d been to the NCAA tournament before and been to the semifinals several times, so all those staff members were experienced. It wasn’t at all chaotic. Continuity is extremely important when building an organization, and that’s true of athletics. The same people working in our office in ’90 were the same people who were there for [UNLV’s] semifinal run in ’87, and so on. That’s how the foundation was laid for the ’90 team. Year by year we got better. That championship was the culmination of a lot of years.

How did coach Jerry Tarkanian handle the team during the championship run?

He knew we were good. He knew that if we played as well as we could play, we were the best team in the tournament. You just had to hope we played our best game, and one thing about coach was that he concentrated his full devotion to [each game]. You play the first game, you win it, then you forget about it and focus on the next game—not the game after that. He didn’t look ahead. He didn’t focus on Duke until it was time to play Duke. He would take out all the other variables for the players and keep everyone’s focus on what was right in front of them. That was the most important thing about his coaching during that tournament.

What was the city like during that time?

Most Rebel fans thought we should win the tournament. They thought we were the best team, as did we. But we had been in that position before—we thought we were the best team in ’77, when we lost to North Carolina [84-83 in the Final Four], a game we more than likely should have won. And I thought we were the best team in ’87, but we didn’t play our best against Indiana [a 97-93 loss in the Final Four]. That just speaks to how difficult it is to win the championship. So many schools and so many great teams never get to experience it. But our fans expected us to win it that year.

Were you ever worried you wouldn’t?

We didn’t play our best against Ball State [69-67 in the regional semifinal]. Ball State had a shot to beat us at the gun, and they missed. We dodged a bullet. After that, we were dominant in the next three ballgames and won by relatively easy margins. But that’s how the NCAA tournament goes. You never want to be in a position to lose on the last shot, but we got away with it. We didn’t play our best, but we were able to slip by. That turned out to be the most stressful moment of the entire tournament for us.

What was the team’s mentality heading into the championship game?

We felt prepared, and we knew if we played our “A” game against Duke, they couldn’t beat us. We were better that year. We had better players, better coaches. We had experience. We had played in [McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, site of the 1990 Final Four] the year before, so we had ways of adjusting to the altitude. Everything about our program was better than Duke that year.

What do you remember of the 103-73 blowout victory in the title game?

It was euphoria. You wonder when you’re ever going to get a chance to win a national championship, and it’s such a struggle for all those years. And then to win it like that—right after halftime we blew Duke completely out of the game, so we had the whole half to enjoy the fact that we were going to win it. I doubt there’s ever been a more exciting 20 minutes in Las Vegas history.

When the gun went off at the end of that game, it was a euphoric moment for everyone—the players, the coaches, the fans, the university. I spent most of my life as an administrator, and I was always hopeful of getting that opportunity to win a championship.

How would that 1990 team fare in this year’s NCAA tournament?

I doubt anyone would beat our team. Kentucky [which enters this year’s tournament 34-0] appears to be a team that is going to be very difficult to beat, but during the tournament in 1990, I think basketball aficionados would have agreed we were one of the best teams of all time. We’ll always compare very favorably to today’s teams, even though we’ll never get the opportunity to compete on the court. We didn’t have many weaknesses; we had great starters, great subs and we had experience. It’s difficult to find complete teams like that today.

As we near the 25th anniversary of that Rebels squad, what is its legacy?

You have to put us right up there among the best ever. Those great UCLA teams, the great Kansas teams, North Carolina—our club that year could compete with any of the great champions.

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