Tell people you are from Las Vegas and you will get a reaction. Some good, some bad. Las Vegas is a place that holds visceral memories for people. Even those who haven’t visited have an impression of Las Vegas from a picture they saw, a story they heard or a commercial they remember. And at a time when news was not instantaneous and social media was in its infancy, they might even remember where they were when UNLV won a national basketball championship against Duke.
In fact, one could argue that Jerry Tarkanian and his Runnin’ Rebels created more visual impressions and developed greater name recognition for the Las Vegas brand during their heyday than people such as Frank Sinatra, Bugsy Siegel and even Steve Wynn.
For a city that spends tens of millions of dollars every year to get its name before the public, how valuable was it to see Las Vegas in every newspaper, every day of the basketball season before the Internet and social media took over? Tark’s success put Las Vegas, and the innate appeal our city’s name invokes, out into the world through daily polls, mentions, interviews and pictures. If you calculated it in terms of dollars, the value of all that press combined would be well into the hundreds of millions.
Add Tark’s special personality and the style of play for which his UNLV teams were famous into the mix, and you couldn’t buy better publicity or place a monetary value on the exposure he created for Las Vegas. Such a character, in such a town, with such a team, was a story that never got old.
Tark was a Damon Runyon character. Colorful, sad-eyed, clever-as-ever with his quips during interviews, he was endearing to almost anyone who met and spent time with him.
And his teams were basketball revolutionaries. Their ability to run-and-gun and play amazing lights-out defense made them instant favorites with basketball fans the world over.
Compare what he did for this town to what other collegiate powers such as Kansas, North Carolina or the unmentionable Duke did for their cities, and they just can’t match up. When Tark and his team won it all in 1990, UNLV led the nation in merchandising sales. That’s probably because his team personified everyone’s impression of the spirit of Las Vegas. People wanted a part of that, they wanted a piece of the Las Vegas brand. It was a constant reminder of the city’s spirit, its glamour, fine dining, gaming, shopping and more.
With no major sports franchise, the Runnin’ Rebels were literally the only game in town and the people of Las Vegas gravitated to Tark’s personality and success. He was a figure that polarized views on collegiate sports outside our city, but who was made in central casting for Las Vegas.
Tark was a figure that embodied the untamed West, who ultimately defied the odds and despite intense scrutiny and doubt, was victorious against the establishment and the East. The people of Las Vegas embraced him and took the success and failure of his teams personally. Mention the Final Four game of 1991 and you might very well see a physical shudder at the thought of how close UNLV came to an undefeated season and back-to-back championships, something that until Tark arrived was not even a thought of a thought.
In fact, the Runnin’ Rebels exposed the reality of a collegiate existence in Las Vegas to the world. Articles in sports media still quoted the “What hotel do you live in?” cliché, but they now also talked about the local community; the university that became a world leader in the hospitality industry; and the group of staunch supporters from “Gucci Row” that was an entourage before Entourage the TV series. So remembered for their flare, they are still referenced in contemporary rap songs.
The development of the Thomas & Mack Center, named after E. Parry Thomas and Jerome D. Mack, who donated the original funds for the feasibility and land studies, created a stage for the Tark era to unfold, but it was Jerry who filled the “Shark Tank.” A group of longtime residents saw the great opportunity an event center would bring to Las Vegas and asked Congress to allow slot revenues to stay local for its final funding. The Thomas & Mack as an events center did in fact bring world-class events to Las Vegas, but as the hometown court for UNLV, the Thomas & Mack became the rallying place for the community.
The allure of the job at UNLV was that before Tark signed on in 1973, it was yet to be a job. Many people had an interest in building a program, but we all knew we needed more than a coach. Tark checked all the boxes; he was a brand unto himself.
When I recruited him to Las Vegas, I knew we had to sell him on what we could become and the support the town would provide. Many coaches called me during that time and told me we didn’t have a shot at getting Tark and would I consider putting a good word in for them. That’s when I knew! I knew we had the makings of something great, and I was committed to bringing Tark to Las Vegas. The rest, as they say, is history. And Jerry Tarkanian, “Tark the Shark,” was, without question, the most significant part of it all.