Three times when Jerry Tarkanian was coaching at Long Beach State, he lost NCAA Tournament games to UCLA teams coached by John Wooden. But the two legends were more friends than rivals.
“He was always very nice to me. We had a very good relationship,” Tarkanian said of Wooden, who died Friday at 99.
After Tarkanian got his first Division I job at Long Beach State in 1968, several coaches gathered for a session with the Los Angeles media.
“I barely knew him, but John spent five minutes congratulating Long Beach State for hiring me,” Tarkanian said.
He vividly recalls his three games against Wooden in the early 1970s, even saying the officials “really stole the second one from us.”
It was after that second meeting in 1971 — which UCLA won 57-55 in the NCAA West Region finals — when Wooden tried to do Tarkanian a favor. Wooden was being pursued by Indiana but was not interested.
“John said he recommended me for the Indiana job. He gave me the athletic director’s phone number and I was supposed to call,” Tarkanian said. “I told (wife) Lois, and we were excited about it. But it was an emotional time, and I never followed up on it. Instead, they hired Bob Knight.”
Tarkanian was hired in 1973 at UNLV, where he coached until 1992.
Tarkanian started at Riverside City College in 1961. After leading Riverside to an unbeaten season in 1964, Tarkanian went to Kansas City for the NCAA Final Four.
“I was sitting in a coffee shop with some other coaches. Wooden came up and congratulated me on finishing the season undefeated, and I said I hope it happens for him, too,” Tarkanian said.
“John made one of the greatest comments. He said, ‘Jerry, I’m so proud of my team. I’m not going to be any more proud of my players even if they win the next two games.’ He always said the right thing.”
The Bruins finished 30-0 and won their first of 10 national titles under Wooden.