by Chris Boline
Regardless of allegiance, former UNLV head coach Jerry Tarkanian embodied the spirit of Nevada as an outlaw and gunslinger.
Tarkanian passed away last Wednesday due to respiratory and cardiac failure at 9:05 a.m. at Valley Hospital Medical Center in Las Vegas. The man who put Rebels basketball on the map was 84 years old.
During his career, the Hall of Fame coach registered a mark of 729-201 over 31 seasons, good for 12th all-time and the seventh highest winning percentage (.784). However, his track record of fighting the NCAA and serving as a caretaker for troubled players stood out more than his overall win total and is why he is the top coach in the Silver State’s history. Tarkanian, who was known for chewing on a towel on the sidelines during games, marched to the beat of his own drum.
One of Tarkanian’s most famous reclamation projects, motivational speaker Chris Herren, talked about Tark’s impact on and off of the court when he played for him at Fresno State.
“He wanted his guys to be better players,” Herren told to the Dan Patrick Show. “And in his heart not only did he want to coach them but he wanted them to be successful after in life.”
As head coach of UNLV from 1973-1992, “Tark the Shark” established a national power by running a high-octane offense to go along with a pressing defense that befuddled and frustrated national powers from North Carolina to Georgetown. Tarkanian’s most memorable UNLV squad, the 1990 national championship team that featured future NBA stars Larry Johnson and Greg Anthony, thrashed perennial powerhouse Duke by 30 points, the largest margin of victory ever in a National Championship game.
Tark wasn’t liked by everyone and was repeatedly accused by the NCAA of rules violations. Nonetheless, his impact on UNLV effectively built the program up from a glorified community college (which some loyal Pack fans would argue is still true) to a nationally-recognized university.
He was a West Coast guy through and through. In addition to coaching the Bulldogs and Rebels, he also served Long Beach State. Tark and his squads were a headache for Nevada, racking up a 25-5 record all-time against the Wolf Pack, but he did have a soft spot for the school and its fans.
“I’ve always had great respect for Reno and their fans for the way they supported their team,” Tarkanian told the Reno Gazette-Journal in late 2008. Interestingly his son, Danny, almost played for Wolf Pack head coach Sonny Allen in 1980, but due to limited playing time opted to go the junior college route and eventually went back to UNLV.
The field for greatest coach in Nevada’s history is crowded with football greats, from Chris Ault and UNLV head coach Tony Sanchez to Wooster’s Joe Sellers and the late Ken Dalton of McQueen High School, but Tarkanian stands out above all of them for the way he brought the Rebels to national prominence.
Radio personality Ryen Russillo likened Tarkanian’s late ’80s and early ’90s UNLV squads to the Miami Hurricanes of the same era for their physical play and brash attitudes. It was this kind of swagger that helped Tarkanian become successful on and off the court.
Tarkanian’s death marks a time when Nevada students should set aside their animosity toward UNLV. Don’t forget that Ault, the veritable godfather of Wolf Pack athletics, is also in the UNLV Hall of Fame. Wolf Pack fans do not have to respect the Rebels, but they should respect greatness.
Chris Boline can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @CDBoline.