Few have changed the game of college basketball like former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian.
To some, those changes have not been positive, and they think Tark should be locked up in an NCAA prison somewhere beneath O.J. Simpson’s Heisman Trophy. The NCAA and its compliant media have made careers trying to destroy the bald, towel chewing, Armenian who at one time had the NCAA’s highest winning percentage.
There is now a serious effort to get Tark “The Shark” into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Oh, the sacrilege! What’s next, a Medal of Honor for Al Capone? Tebow for MVP?
Tarkanian is now 82 years old and he has always been a fighter. In most cases, when the NCAA goes after a program, the school cowers in fear, bends over like a Delta pledge and takes its beating. Tark refused to do that–he fought the NCAA and has paid a heavy price.
His contributions on the court are well known.He built a dynasty in the Nevada desert that went to three Final Fours in five years. The 1990 team that won the national championship is counted among the best teams ever. He taught hard-nosed defense that fueled a break-neck runnin’ style that has never been seen before or since. His Rebels scored 103 points against Duke in the 1990 final, which is a championship record that still stands, along with the 30-point margin of victory in that game. Being in Denver watching NCAA officials hand Tark their championship trophy was one of my greatest sports moments.
Many coaches have tried to emulate those explosive Runnin’ Rebel teams of the 80’s and early 90’s, but none have come close. Oh, and by the way, the 1977 Final Four team averaged 107 points per game, and this was before the shot clock and the three-point shot.
But Tark’s greatest contributions came off the court. His battles with the NCAA forced them to use due process when investigating violations. Simple things, like taping interviews with athletes and coaches are due to Tarkanian’s bringing attention to shoddy investigative tactics. Schools being investigated today can thank Tarkanian for forcing the NCAA to be honest and transparent with their tactics.
But Tarkanian’s image will forever be “The Shark.” The target was big on his back and it was bright Rebel Red. At one time the NCAA spent 4 and a half years investigating UNLV, with 4 of its 7 investigators assigned to Rebel basketball. I hope the Pepperdine Men’s Swim team and the Syracuse Lacrosse program were doing a good job policing themselves during that time.
Tarkanian never professed perfection. In fact, quite the opposite. He recruited many players from inner city schools and from Junior College programs. Most times these were athletes that college basketball’s elite programs would not touch. Tark has a track record of success with these players by turning their lives around. The Feds should find out how he did it and give him a grant.
Tarkanian has made it past the first step for the Hall of Fame. He is on the ballot. A nine-person panel will decide if he goes to the next round. Their decision will be announced during NBA All-Star Weekend February 15th.
Like so many things with the media, perception is not reality. Tarkanian was not perfect, but there are no virgins in big-time college athletics. For years the NCAA chased Tarkanian and they came up virtually empty-handed. Nearly non-stop investigations for two decades yielded two minor violations. A lot of work, for little results. In the mid-90s, Tark won a $2.5 million settlement from the NCAA after he sued them for harassment.
Tarkanian has the battle scars. He shows up at most UNLV basketball games these days with help from his ever-present walker and his son Danny. Years ago, in the middle of one of his most intense battles, I told Tark that history would be kind to him and his story would be told honestly instead through the NCAA filter. Both HBO and ESPN have done reverent documentaries about Tark that I have helped them produce. Yes, history is much more kind to Tark than he had it during days as a coach. Putting Tarkanaian in the Basketball Hall of Fame is the right thing to do. He belongs there–sooner rather than later.
Follow Ron Futrell on Twitter @RonFutrell