'Tarkanian name cuts both ways' for hopeful

The first line of U.S. Senate candidate Danny Tarkanian's campaign biography reminds readers of his starring role as point guard for UNLV's basketball team.

Other aspects of Tarkanian's basketball career are unlikely to appear in a campaign advertisement unless it's for a political opponent.

Tarkanian, son of controversial former University of Nevada, Las Vegas coach Jerry Tarkanian, was an assistant coach for his father at Fresno State University when the basketball program was embroiled in an academic scandal.

Although there was never proof that either Tarkanian participated in wrongdoing at Fresno State, that won't stop opponents from trying to implicate the younger Tarkanian.

"The Tarkanian name cuts both ways. It gets him good name recognition ... and it is linked to some good times in Las Vegas," said University of Nevada, Reno political science professor Eric Herzik. "But that success sometimes came at the margins of the rules."

Tarkanian's mother is Lois Tarkanian, a Democratic Las Vegas city councilwoman. But it is the fame and controversy that have swirled around his father that have made the name a household word in Nevada.

Danny Tarkanian was a point guard at UNLV from 1981 until 1984. With the elder Tarkanian as coach, the team at one point won 24 consecutive games and achieved the school's first No. 1 ranking in men's basketball.

After graduating from UNLV, Tarkanian went to law school in San Diego and operated businesses in Las Vegas, including a bar and real estate ventures. He also considered running for the Board of Regents and Las Vegas City Council before returning to basketball at Fresno State to be an assistant coach under his father from 1995 until 2002. (He would later run unsuccessfully for state Senate in 2004 and secretary of state in 2006.)

In Fresno, Tarkanian's job was to help his dad with virtually every aspect of the basketball program.

"I did what assistant coaches do, which was a variety of events from recruiting to coaching," Tarkanian said. "I was very involved in working with the academic adviser and getting the kids taking the classes to get them toward their degree and to making sure they passed enough of their classes to do that."

"Danny ... did all our academics," Jerry Tarkanian is quoted saying in an unpublished interview with Fresno, Calif., journalist Don Wright in 2003. "I don't take credit for that aspect. I assigned Danny ... to it."

It was allegations about the players' academic work that prompted an investigation resulting in sanctions against the university and the basketball program.

In 2003 Stephen Mintz, a former statistician for the Fresno State Bulldogs, admitted to writing papers in 2000 for two members of the basketball team and a recruit who claimed the work as their own.

After an investigation by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the university admitted to violations and forfeited its 2000 Western Athletic Conference championship, agreed to return 90 percent of the proceeds from its appearance in the 2000 NCAA tournament, and sat out the 2003 postseason.

A public infractions report from the NCAA didn't implicate Danny Tarkanian in any wrongdoing, but said he "failed to report his knowledge of possible academic fraud" to the university.

No Fresno coaches were found to have done anything wrong. However, the investigation, along with allegations that dogged the elder coach at previous stops in Las Vegas and Long Beach State, are likely to give Danny Tarkanian's campaign headaches as long as he remains in the race for the seat held by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.

According to surveys by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, Tarkanian is in a statistical tie with former state Republican chairwoman Sue Lowden and ahead of several other candidates. The polls suggest voters would support either Lowden or Tarkanian over Reid.

Both Democratic and Republican opponents already are using basketball-related allegations to attack Tarkanian.

The Nevada State Democratic Party highlights the Fresno State scandal on its "Elephant Watch" Web site, a reference to the symbol of the Republican Party.

A Web site operated by Nevada political consultant Chuck Muth posted an item on Nov. 29 that linked Danny Tarkanian's coaching career to allegations related to his father's time at UNLV, though the younger Tarkanian was never an assistant coach at UNLV, as the article incorrectly stated.

The item was written to criticize a perceived lack of media coverage of the campaign of Sharron Angle, a former assemblywoman from Reno who is among the Republicans seeking to challenge Reid. Angle spokesman Jerry Stacy said Angle had no part in creating the item.

Under Jerry Tarkanian, UNLV enjoyed its greatest on-court success. But with the basketball accolades came allegations that those in the Rebel basketball program played fast and loose with off-the-court rules.

As with Long Beach State, UNLV was eventually placed on probation for infractions alleged to have occurred while Jerry Tarkanian was coach. However, in 1998 the elder Tarkanian won a $2.5 million settlement from a lawsuit accusing the NCAA of harassing him.

Danny Tarkanian said he knows political opponents will use the Fresno academic scandal and the negative associations with his family name against him.

"I certainly expect it to be part of the campaign," he said. "Once you understand exactly what happened, there is no basis to it, and we'll dispel it along with whatever else they want to throw at me."

According to news reports from the Fresno Bee, Mintz said he wrote 17 papers for players, and provided hard evidence to verify 16 of the papers.

Mintz also said he cooperated with former team academic adviser Katie Felten, who was implicated in the NCAA findings, but who Tarkanian said is innocent.

Mintz declined to comment for this article, stating in an e-mail, "I think I'd prefer to put those times behind me."

Felten, who goes by her married name of Katie Fauntleroy, said whatever Mintz did for players was on his own time and without knowledge or support from her, Tarkanian or anyone else in the basketball program.

"It didn't happen. I didn't pay Stephen Mintz any money to write a paper for anybody," Fauntleroy said. "If it was something to do with academics, I would have known about it. I didn't know about it."

Tarkanian, an attorney, said basing judgment solely on the NCAA report would be akin to judging a defendant guilty after listening only to the prosecutor's side of the story.

"Just because the NCAA comes to a conclusion doesn't necessarily make it right," Tarkanian said in an interview. "The reports are written by the investigator. Obviously we butted heads. He was trying to prove a case, and I was the attorney on the other side trying to disprove the case."

Tarkanian provided the Review-Journal with an extensive rebuttal he wrote to the NCAA report.

He cites evidence he claims shows the only papers Mintz can prove he wrote or typed for players were for players who had already concluded their final academic eligibility for the team, which would undercut any motivation by coaches to allow academic fraud.

Tarkanian also contradicts an eyewitness account Mintz provides to verify the one paper allegedly written on behalf of an eligible player, which was also the only paper not included on a computer disk that proved the existence of the other 16 papers.

The Tarkanian rebuttal also highlights statements attributed to Mintz on a Fresno State Internet message board.

"The very thought of major wrongdoing makes Danny sick," states one of the posts Tarkanian attributes to Mintz.

That's not to say there weren't problems at Fresno State, even if no one on the coaching staff was found to be at fault.

In a Sept. 11, 2003, article in the Review-Journal, Jerry Tarkanian expressed regret for his association with Nate Cebrun, a Las Vegas resident who said he gave money to two Fresno State basketball players.

"That's the biggest mistake I ever made in my life, associating with Nate Cebrun," Jerry Tarkanian is quoted as saying.

In addition to the academic allegations by Mintz and the payment allegations by Cebrun, the NCAA committee also found that a Fresno restaurant owner who was a representative of the school's athletic program provided free meals to players.

Then-Fresno State University president John Welty publicly supported Jerry Tarkanian throughout the investigation, but did state in the 2003 article. "We acknowledge there were clearly areas that needed addressing."

So far it doesn't appear that controversy from the Tarkanians' tenure at Fresno State is hurting the Senate campaign.

A Dec. 16 article by McClatchy Newspapers reports that Fresno-area residents have contributed $24,000 to his campaign, nearly 10 percent of his total reported fundraising.

"It opens some doors to fundraising that Danny Smith doesn't get," UNLV political science professor David Damore said of the Tarkanian name.

Damore said that good vibes from Jerry Tarkanian's 1991 national championship at UNLV, and three other Final Four appearances, will go further with Nevadans than any taint from the disputed allegations of academic fraud.

"If that is the best attack they have against the guy, that is pretty desperate," Damore said. "This town loves a winner."

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.