Editor’s Note: Nevada 150 is a yearlong series highlighting the people, places and things that make up the history of the state.
Last October, a statue of Jerry Tarkanian was unveiled on the plaza of the Thomas &Mack Center.
The Hall of Fame basketball coach who guided UNLV to the 1990 national championship and four Final Four appearances, kept his remarks brief.
“I love UNLV. I love Nevada,” said the 83-year-old Tarkanian, who has suffered a stroke and several heart attacks.
That Tarkanian would include the entire Silver State in his affections comes as no surprise. For even though he was the enemy when the Rebels came to Reno to play UNR, the fans there understood his accomplishments and the visibility he brought to this part of the country.
In his 19 years coaching UNLV, which saw him go 509-105 ( a winning percentage of .829), Tarkanian lost to the Wolf Pack just twice (1981 and 1984). And if imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, UNR even tried to emulate Tarkanian’s up-tempo style of basketball when it hired Sonny Allen as its coach in 1980. Allen’s teams played fast and were successful. He went 114-89, but it paled in comparison to what Tarkanian was doing in Las Vegas.
His accomplishments caught the eye of the entire basketball world, and it goes back to before he even came to UNLV. A successful junior college coach during the 1960s in California, Tarkanian, who was never an assistant, became head coach at Long Beach State in 1968. The 49ers quickly became a national power as Tarkanian recruited athletic, quick players who could play pressing, suffocating defense all over the floor.
He helped change the game with his aggressive fast-break offense and relentless pressure defense. It produced 990 wins, including his time as a JC coach. Last September, Tarkanian was bestowed his sport’s highest honor with induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
“It’s wonderful,” Tarkanian said at the time of his induction in Springfield, Mass. “We played that way because nobody else was doing it, and I thought it was the best way for us to be successful.”
In 1973, a group of UNLV boosters targeted Tarkanian to be the Rebels’ new coach. John Bayer had been successful, but his meticulous, deliberate style of play wasn’t drawing fans to the Las Vegas Convention Center. In Tarkanian, they saw the polar opposite.
The coach was intrigued by the possibilities. UNLV was still a relatively new school, having been established in 1957. The program had played at the Division I level for only five years. The financial support was seemingly in place to recruit nationally, which would be the key to future success.
“I thought UNLV had great potential,” Tarkanian said. “I thought we could recruit to Las Vegas and get kids from the cold weather to come out here where it was nice and warm.”
He was partially correct. Players from the East and the Midwest did want to come. But they weren’t the blue-chip, McDonald’s All-American players. They were the under-recruited, the junior college guys, some who had baggage attached to their basketball resumes and needed a second chance.
But they could all play. And Tarkanian, a master at building chemistry, achieved success immediately. By 1977, UNLV was in its first Final Four, losing to North Carolina in the semifinals. The Rebels wouldn’t return to the Final Four until 1987. But once they got back, they remained on the national radar until Tarkanian stepped down at the end of the 1992 season.
During his 19-year run at UNLV, Tarkanian was fighting another constant battle, one that was far tougher than recruiting. The NCAA had targeted him for rules violations going back to his Long Beach State days, and in 1977, they forced UNLV to terminate his contract.
However, Tarkanian fought back, arguing that his rights to due process under the U.S. Constitution had been violated and receiving an injunction that allowed him to remain on the job. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 against him in 1988. UNLV would be put on probation twice, once during Tarkanian’s tenure, and immediately after he left in 1992.
Ultimately, though, Tarkanian would defeat the NCAA as the two sides settled for $2.5 million in 1998 after Tarkanian sued over the harassment he went through for nearly three decades.
While the victory off the court was sweet, it didn’t come close to the victory UNLV achieved in 1990 when the Rebels won the national championship, crushing Duke 103-73 in Denver. It remains the largest margin of victory in a national championship game.
But when the Rebels attempted to repeat in 1991 in Indianapolis, they were derailed in the semifinals by the Blue Devils, 79-77.
In the aftermath, a photo of UNLV players with a known sports gambler and convicted felon in a hot tub appeared in the Review-Journal. Shortly after the publication of the photo, Tarkanian agreed to step down after the 1991-92 season. UNLV was barred from the NCAA Tournament that year as part of the punishment it accepted for its recruitment of New York playground star Lloyd Daniels in 1986 and ’87.
By then, the city was deeply divided. In one camp were Tarkanian’s supporters. On the other side were members of the university community and some businessmen who supported then-president Bob Maxson, who had worked with the NCAA to cut a deal so the university could move forward.
The wounds eventually healed. Tarkanian was welcomed back to the campus and the Thomas &Mack Center basketball court was named in his honor in 2005. He is a regular visitor to UNLV games as well as select high school games in the area. While his health has declined over the past decade, his love for basketball has never waned, and it allowed him to become one of the state’s most iconic sports figures of all time.
“Basketball has given me so much,” he said. “I don’t know where I would have been without basketball.”
Contact reporter Steve Carp at 702-387-2913 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @stevecarprj on Twitter.