Tarkanian changed the game forever

I always loved this story about Jerry Tarkanian: It was shortly after UNLV won its national championship in basketball when a group of out-of-town reporters happened to be in the same restaurant as the Rebels coach.

One went over to Tarkanian, struck up a conversation and said how much she and a few others would like to continue their evening at the Shark Club, but they were afraid the line would be too long to gain entry.

Tarkanian took her business card, picked up a pen and wrote this on the back:


He was in complete control then.

Much as his teams were on the court.

Tarkanian is gone now, having died Wednesday morning at Valley Hospital Medical Center at age 84.

Others will write and recollect about his personality, his profound influence on the community, his incredible impact on UNLV, his unique character, his off-court troubles with the NCAA, his love of pasta and ponies.

This remembrance is about basketball.

About how he changed the game forever.

Tarkanian was elected to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 2013, when those wounds that scarred him and his family for years in relation to the gratuitous snub inflicted by voters were mended significantly.

He was, justly, where he had belonged for decades.

His legacy, finally, was properly appreciated once and for all.

“A lot of people thought how we played was disorganized and undisciplined,” said former UNLV star and now assistant coach Stacey Augmon. “It was very much the opposite. It was organized chaos. People always say they want to play a pressure game at both ends of the court. They think they can, but most don’t, not the way we played under Coach. He got the very best out of every one of us. He demanded so much on offense, defense, a complete game. And we wanted to give him 110 percent every time out.

“He changed the game at both ends. A lot of things you see in the game today started with our teams.”

The influence can be found within an all-divisions college record of 990-228, within four trips to the Final Four and that national championship in 1990.

Loyola Marymount of those days thought it ran, thought it played at a high-octane level, thought it was something different.

Then it met UNLV in the NCAA Tournament and lost by 30.

Such tempo for the Rebels was actually born years earlier at Long Beach State, where in a time that didn’t offer a shot clock or 3-point line, Tarkanian decided faster was better. He pressed on defense to create better looks on offense. He developed and nurtured the very fabric of what college basketball is today.

The high scores clouded judgment for those who didn’t understand that all those points had far more to do with what happened defensively than anything else.

Few in the game’s history taught defense better than Tarkanian and his assistants. The Rebels frustrated and disrupted and confused others with the amoeba defense, a maze of denying gaps and closing out on shooters and double-teaming first passes and trapping in the corner.

You know. All the things teams attempt to do today.

“You still see his fingerprints all over the game,” said UNLV coach Dave Rice, a former player and assistant for Tarkanian. “The way teams guard now, whether it’s in college or the NBA, has a lot to do with Coach Tarkanian’s influence. Now, it’s about true pressure defense. That all started with Coach.

“He meant everything to me in terms of basketball. He is the reason I’m still in the game.”

Bill Walsh changed how offense was played in football. John Wooden changed how others prepared their teams for competition. There are others on the list, coaches and athletes, who had such profound influences on their respective sports.

Jerry Tarkanian, now gone, was one.

“He’s my Hall of Famer,” Augmon said. “I will always be forever grateful for everything he did for me as a person and as a player.”

The time came that Monday morning in Atlanta a few years ago for a group photo, and Tarkanian was helped to center stage of a hotel ballroom. Standing around his chair were the other newly introduced Hall of Famers, all holding white jerseys with the No. 13 to signify the class of 2013.

Someone told Tarkanian to turn around the jersey that sat in his lap.

The cameras flashed, and his smile returned.

On the back of his Hall of Fame jersey, it read: TARKANIAN

Finally, justly, where he had belonged for decades.

“I thought it might happen years ago, but I didn’t sit around waiting for the telephone to ring,” Tarkanian said that morning. “But I am very happy. It’s a little overwhelming.”

Sort of like the style of play he once taught was to all who competed against it.

He changed the game forever.

That’s a legacy. That’s historic.

That, more than anything else, stands the test of time.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from noon to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN Radio 1100 AM and 100.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney

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