Resting Rebel: Former UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian Dead at 84

Jerry Tarkanian

Jerry Tarkanian, who parlayed commuter school coaching gigs into positions at four-year colleges before turning those unheralded programs into powerhouses, has died in a Las Vegas hospital at 84.

Known for gnawing on a towel as he watched his teams break toward the basket, Tarkanian finished with a 729-201 record. Just four coaches boast a higher winning percentage. His UNLV Runnin’ Rebels won the NCAA tournament in 1990.

Tarkanian may have taken as much satisfaction in beating the NCAA after a court battle as in winning the NCAA tournament on the court.

“The University of Kentucky basketball program breaks more rules in a day than Western Kentucky does in a year,” Tarkanian wrote in the Long Beach Press-Telegram in 1972 after the NCAA began an investigation of Western Kentucky and the football and swimming programs at his Long Beach State. “The NCAA just doesn’t want to take on the big boys.” Shortly thereafter, the NCAA launched an investigation into Tarkanian’s program, a vetting which seemingly never ended and followed the coach to new jobs. Fed up after his 1992 forced resignation at UNLV, the coach sued the governing body, which settled with him out of court for $2.5 million in 1998. Cedric Dempsey, then executive director of the outfit, said of the settlement: “The NCAA regrets the 26-year ongoing dispute with Jerry Tarkanian and looks forward to putting this matter to rest.”

The former Long Beach State, UNLV, and Fresno State coach passed less than a week after the death of University of North Carolina Tarheels head coach Dean Smith. To Tarkanian’s point about the NCAA ignoring the transgressions of money-generating basketball giants, Smith coached Carolina for more than three decades without a hint of impropriety. But since his departure, journalists and the state of North Carolina revealed no-show classes and rigged grades for UNC basketball players that ensured their athletic eligibility. The school’s African and Afro American studies department began offering fraudulent courses to athletes during Smith’s final years as coach. The NCAA has yet to mete out punishment to the school and most Smith obits neglected mention of the scandal.

Tarkanian coached in four Final Fours and won induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.