What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
There’s probably a bunch of people in Las Vegas who don’t know why the flags are all at half-mast today. College basketball fans under the age of 30 may not even remember Jerry Tarkanian, and many others may only know him as the guy who chewed on towels. After all, Tark’s University of Nevada-Las Vegas won their NCAA Championship 25 years ago, and the latter years of Tark’s career were spent languishing in college basketball backwaters like Fresno State. But what really makes the legacy of Jerry Tarkanian happens 40 years ago in the Las Vegas of the 1970’s, which was little more than the old-school casinos, mobsters, and, and tumbleweeds.
When you are the son of an Air Force officer (and a divorced one no less), your childhood is spent bouncing around the world like the ball on a roulette wheel. Once of those bounces landed in that lost Las Vegas of days gone by. It was in a modest house in a cul-de-sac off Jones Boulevard in that old Vegas where this blogger first discovered Jerry Tarkanian. As a kid, I’m already a major sports geek, and in a town like Las Vegas, there was only UNLV. That’s important to remember, because it is essential to the idea of how Jerry Tarkanian became a mythic figure in a town built by mythic figures.
If you’re on of those living in Las Vegas now who is still wondering about the flags, you wouldn’t recognize the old-school Vegas. Instead of the sprawling metropolis it is today, it was a glorified watering hole on the Union Pacific Railroad with a population of less than 150,000. The biggest hotel downtown was the Union Plaza, which also pulled double-duty as the Amtrak and Greyhound station. None of those gargantuan hotels on the strip were there; Las Vegas Boulevard was still home to the classic haunts like the Dunes, the Stardust and the Sahara. McCarran Airport had two short runways and was surrounded by a half-mile of open desert in any direction. The local entertainment scene consisted of heavyweights like Don Rickles, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis; not to mention the unfolding drama surrounding mobsters like Anthony “The Ant” Spilotro and Frank Rosenthal, whose story would later be the basis of the movie “Casino.”
In other words, sports wasn’t even on the map in that town. Minor League Baseball had abandoned Las Vegas in 1973 and wouldn’t return for a decade. It wasn’t a city of sufficient size to attract a major-league franchise in any sport, and even if it were, most leagues were scared of putting a team in the Mecca of gambling. That left the local university teams.
UNLV was already Division I in both football and basketball. Football called Sam Boyd Stadium home; in those days it was little more than an overgrown high-school facility. UNLV Rebels football routinely served as the conference whipping boy for BYU; I remember sitting in that stadium watching future Super Bowl champion Jim McMahon destroy the Rebels single-handed.
When Jerry Tarkanian arrived at UNLV in 1973, he walked on to a dusty campus at the edge of town which was largely regarded as little more than a junior college with two more years tacked on. The old Thomas & Mack Center was a small, under-maintained barn of a building. Tark took those conditions and combined them with his “renegade” recruiting practices, and by 1977 UNLV was in the Final Four against college basketball titans like North Carolina.
Today you will see plenty of articles saluting what Jerry Tarkanian did on the court, but his success there is only part of the story. Jerry Tarkanian should be remembered as a legendary figure in college basketball not just for his 1990 National Championship, his four Final Four appearances, and his 784 career coaching wins, but for the impact he had on college sports, UNLV, and the city of Las Vegas in general.
In many respects, Tarkanian’s career combines characteristics of two titans of college football; had he been a football coach, he would have been equal parts Jimmy Johnson and Joe Paterno. He is very much like Jimmy Johnson in the sense that Tarkanian eschewed the stodgy rules of the NCAA, recruited players who weren’t necessarily scholars, and succeeded while being the first to expose the hypocrisy rampant in college sports.
That made Tark a polarizing figure; you either loved him or you hated him. UCLA legend John Wooden refused to schedule games against Jerry Tarkanian’s Long Beach State teams in his pre-UNLV days because Wooden felt Tarkanian’s recruiting practices were bad for college basketball. Naturally, that refusal to play Tark’s teams had nothing to do with the fact that Long Beach State almost took down Wooden’s Westwood Leviathans in the NCAA West Regional Final in 1971. It also wasn’t a coincidence that UCLA was willing to schedule the Tarkanian-led UNLV after their rocketing rise to national prominence in 1977.
Did I already mention exposing hypocrisy? Don’t worry…we’ll come back to that.
The Paterno part of the equation has everything to do growth. Tarkanian put UNLV on the map. When Tark got there in 1973, it was little more than a cow college overshadowed by the Las Vegas Strip. Today, it is a robust university with a student body of over 25,000 which is home to the only medical, dental, and law schools in the state of Nevada. You know you’ve arrived when Saturday Night Live makes fun of you. Just like how football helped built Penn State from a land-grant school into a world-class research university, Tarkanian and basketball turbo-charged the growth of UNLV.
The growth of that university also helped grow the city of Las Vegas. Yeah, I get Las Vegas is a city built on vice and will never really be anything more than that, so there’s no need to flood the comments section with that dirge. But now there’s an entire component to that city that didn’t exist 40 years. Then, if you lived in that city, you were one of two types: you worked in the gaming/entertainment industry or you were in the Air Force stationed at Nellis AFB. Now, despite what Ryan Meehan and I said in a previous article, there’s a segment of that city which is neither.
Again, I know gambling and entertainment are the waters upon which that city floats, but now there’s people who call it home. Those people are starting to show an interest in having sports franchises they can call their own. Minor-league baseball returned in 1983, and has been growing in popularity ever since. Other leagues have flirted with the oasis in the desert. Las Vegas played a role in the Canadian Football Leagues’s short-lived south-of-the-border expansion experiment. The NHL keeps eyeing Las Vegas as a potential location for a team. Yet, Las Vegas remains the largest city in this country without a major-league sports franchise.
Some of the big obstacles to sports in Las Vegas include the aforementioned presence of legal sports betting, scheduling conflicts with the large amount of residents who work nighttime and overnight shifts, and that the casinos would be unlikely to give away tickets to such events as a promotion, as they run contrary to a goal of encouraging patrons to remain in their facilities. Beofer Tarkanian, those arguments were iron-clad.
But Tark’s Runnin’ Rebels proved you could get fans to fill a new arena in the shadow of the Strip. Many of the other arguments have had holes worn in them over time, but even the discussion of pro sports in Las Vegas wouldn’t have been possible were it not for Jerry Tarkanian. That’s why the flags are half-mast today…as they should be.
Despite all that, Jerry Tarkanian’s real legacy will be that as the bell-cow for taking down the hypocritical bullshit which is the NCAA. Because of his “renegade” style, Tarkanian spent most of his career as a Division I coach in a running legal battle with the NCAA. While he was the head coach at Long Beach State, Tark wrote a newspaper column charging that the NCAA ignored improprieties at powerful schools while it flexed it’s muscle with smaller institutions. Most famously, Tarkanian was quoted as saying “the NCAA is so pissed at Kentucky they put Cleveland State on probation.” After he left Long Beach State, its basketball program was slapped with probation for recruiting violations which occurred while Tarkanian was the coach.
Just before the 1976–1977 season, the NCAA placed UNLV on two years’ probation for “questionable practices.” Although the alleged violations dated back to 1971, two years before Tarkanian became coach, the NCAA pressured UNLV into suspending Tarkanian as coach for two years. Tarkanian filed a lawsuit against the NCAA claiming the suspension violated his right to due process. A few months later, a Nevada judge issued an injunction which reinstated Tarkanian as UNLV’s basketball coach. The case eventually was heard by the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1988 the NCAA had the right to discipline its member schools, which in effect reversed the 1977 injunction.
However, in the decade between the original suspension and the Supreme Court ruling, it was revealed that the NCAA’s enforcement process was stacked heavily in the NCAA’s favor (there’s a shock…). This skewing was so severe that it created a perception that there was no due process. For example, the NCAA’s rules-enforcement personnel were allowed to build cases on hear-say evidence, and were under no obligation to share their findings with the targeted school. The resulting negative publicity led the NCAA to institute a clearer separation between the enforcement staff and the infractions committee, as well as a system for appeals. Also, hear-say evidence was no longer admissible in infractions cases.
Since then, the NCAA has been hoisted on it’s own petard several times over, but Jerry Tarkanian was the one who broke it’s veil of invincibility. When NCAA finally collapses, I hope they put a statue of Tarkanian where that hall of hypocrisy stood.
You’ll be missed, Jerry. Here’s hoping Heaven has one Hell of a towel guy.