What the NCAA failed to do to UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, his local newspaper did.
And I was the editor.
Two decades later, “Tark the Shark” this week finds himself a finalist for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. This year’s inductees will be announced April 8.
It’s a crapshoot whether Tark will get in. And that’s a shame. For whatever happened off the basketball court, Tarkanian remains important to college basketball. Trying to redact Tark would be like telling the story of Tombstone without mentioning Doc Holliday.
For those of you who are not familiar with the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s role in all of this, allow me to remind you.
It was May 1991. The city was still smarting from UNLV’s loss to Duke in the Final Four, ending the Runnin’ Rebels’ bid for an undefeated season and second straight national championship.
We were minding the public’s business — which included unblinking coverage of the long fight between the NCAA and Tark — when investigative reporter A.D. Hopkins encountered a guy with a story he claimed would implode the UNLV basketball program.
Hopkins came into my office and closed the door. “You gotta see this,” he said.
A.D.’s guy then proceeded to show us negatives of three current UNLV basketball players in a hot tub with Richard “The Fixer” Perry — a man already convicted of throwing college basketball games.
After verifying the negatives and double-checking the man’s story, we ran the picture, which was taken in 1989. A convicted sports fixer with three UNLV basketball players. And there were subsequent reports of “The Fixer” hanging out inside the UNLV locker room at halftime.
As expected, it was an undeniable revelation that quickly ended Tark’s tenure at UNLV. It was ugly. He announced the 1991-92 season would be his last at the school.
There was more to the saga as the controversy exploded, but I’ll save it for my book. For now, suffice to say, publishing the picture wasn’t personal. Once we saw it, we could not look away, even though we knew the likely outcome.
I made the call. And I’ve never looked back.
But now, some 20 years later, I think it would be too damn bad if Tark were denied Hall of Fame status because of it.
Whatever happened inside the UNLV basketball program — right under the noses of Coach Tark and the NCAA — there came indications that it also went on at several other basketball programs. Big-name, “respected” basketball programs. That’s why, I believe, once Tark exited UNLV, the NCAA never closely examined the bigger questions raised by the hot tub photo. Closer inspection might have proved far more embarrassing to the NCAA than Tarkanian ever was.
Speculation aside, the time that has passed now allows us to more clearly see that the hot tub photo and Tark’s legacy as a bad boy are only colorful sidebars to his accomplishments on the court.
ESPN college basketball journalist Andy Katz says, “Few coaches in the past 40 years have influenced the game like Tark. He should be in the Hall. ... His numbers are so lofty that if you were to go on stats alone he would sail through the process.”
AP National Sports Columnist Tim Dahlberg agrees. Tark’s 784 wins puts him in the same sentence with Adolph Rupp. Tarkanian took 18 teams to the “Big Dance” and made it to the Final Four four times.
Dahlberg, who covered the good, the bad and the ugly of Tark’s UNLV career, writes: “Take away the lingering debate over his relationship with the NCAA and he would have been inducted a long time ago.”
Look, the truth is that at 82 years old and in failing health, Jerry Tarkanian isn’t going to be around much longer. Even the most die-hard NCAA Tark-hater knows the Hall will come to Tarkanian sooner or later.
Make it now.
Sherman Frederick, former publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and member of the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame, writes a column for Stephens Media. Read his blog at www.reviewjournal.com/columns-blogs/sherman-frederick.