Jerry Tarkanian did three incredible things during his coaching career that nobody will ever do again and nobody, really, should have done in the first place.
- Fought the NCAA and cold won.
- Brought the center of the amateur sporting world to Vegas.
- Made the chewing of towels iconic.
After years of battling health issues, the 84-year-old puppy-eyed hall-of-famer’s shot clock finally expired Wednesday. And with that a little bit of the soul of coaching died too. If Dean Smith’s passing earlier this week was the death of The Captain, The Kingmaker, The Molder of Men—then Tark’s demise is that of the first-mate, little buddy, every man.
I rue the latter.
To meet Tark, which I did twice, was to shake hands with the son of Armenian immigrants who knew the joke’s punchline and laughed as you struggled to remember it.
He reveled in being underestimated and didn’t crave the limelight as far as you knew—so for the majority of his career he hid in plain sight in the town where the lights shone brightest. He won with losers. He did his Honeymoon in Vegas cameo in one take. He made sure gold chains and velour sweatsuits weren’t just for the weekends.
Tark was relaxed on the sideline, the guy we all pretend to be when we talk about our parlays, when we scream strategy at the TV. He’s the one who got off the couch and made it happen. He’s the one who made it look easy.
In junior high I had visions of one day attending UNLV. Who didn’t want to be a Runnin’ Rebel? Starring on the court then the tables then poolside then hot tub. It was Tark who made me believe a junior college with university status was the end-all of higher education and, to an extent, my thoughts have come full-circle. UNLV students have the opportunity to put themselves through valeting at the Luxor and the F&B degree actually gets put to use upon graduation, not just hung above the hide-a-bed in the parents’ den. What liberal arts school has an 80-plus percent employment rate in the town where its students matriculate?
Tarkanian posted a monster 729-201 career record over three decades though he never coached at a school with a crest. Instead, it was Long Beach State, UNLV and Fresno State. Grinder schools which graduate future Enterprise associates and Subway franchise owners, not Nobel laureates, Pulitzer winners or heads of state.
Because of this, Tark is not only the working man’s coach but the American Success Story to the aglets. For that he drew the ire of the establishment and was forced to invent a new way to recruit, coach and play. He won with teams people mistook for offensive juggernauts. In reality, the misfit squads he pieced together were so stingy when they didn’t have the rock that a new brand of basketball was invented: transition scoring and the three ball.
Tark was 509-105 in 19 seasons with the Rebels till the Las Vegas Review-Journal took the bait and showed his players taking a soak with a fixer. Thank God the hookers and blow were out of frame.
By that time, UNLV had already won a national title and was the first men’s program to go undefeated into the 64-team format Final Four before being upset in the semis by Duke.
Tark built championship teams from the backwash of suburban decay. Other schools got the playground legends and the blue chippers, Tark got the juco dropout and the guy at the carwash who never misses when he throws the rag in the Rubbermaid. Tark’s best recruiting quality wasn’t spotting talent, the world is full of talent—it was recognizing the one thing he brought to the game: desire.
A statue greets fans to the 18,500-seat Thomas & Mack Center on the UNLV campus. It’s of Tark gumming some terrycloth—an uncanny likeness which features a smile that says this man’s still got a secret.