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Twenty years later, Tark's Rebels still carry an unparalleled mystique

LAS VEGAS -- The poster hangs on the back wall of the office of UNLV assistant athletic director Andy Grossman, the blackness of its border a stark contrast to the neutral tone behind it. There's beauty in its simplicity.

Five Runnin' Rebels stand proudly in front of the stars and stripes, looking left in unison. "First Team All-America" it says on top, and in their stately red jerseys with the almost-baggy shorts, Anderson Hunt, Greg Anthony, Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and George Ackles look every bit the part.

"They don't make them anymore," Grossman said of the poster. He could have been referring to the team itself. For one season, that 1990-91 season, UNLV was all of America's team. Twenty years later, we still haven't seen one quite like it.

Those Rebels were the defending national champs and returned three future high-first round draft picks -- Johnson (No. 1 overall), Augmon (9), Anthony (12) -- because leaving early for the pros wasn't yet the norm. There was a coach comfortable wearing a black hat, although if you looked closer, it contained considerable shades of gray. There was infighting on campus, with an administration trying to derail the juggernaut that simultaneously was building and undermining the school's reputation.

Then there was Vegas itself, with all its implications and reputations and characters who got a little too close for anyone's comfort. And the NCAA, rightly and/or overzealously, hounding the program at every turn. And the 34-0 start and the massive margins of victory and the fastbreak dunks. Lots of dunks.

Most important to these Rebels' lasting mystique: There was relatively little TV coverage. We all saw the scores and the highlights, and we wanted to see more.

RELATED: Glockner: Most compelling teams over last 20 seasons

Of course, the '90-91 Runnin' Rebels fell two wins short of a national title (and perfect season). But that doesn't reduce the colossal imprint this group left on the national sports spectrum.

Here is the story of that UNLV team, the most compelling college squad of the modern era, through the eyes of people who did watch them play.

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"Wow, that team was the best team I have ever coached against," Pacific coach Bob Thomason said without hesitation. "They really had a perfect starting lineup and the guys coming off the bench -- they played seven and they had two other guys who helped a little. I was always impressed by how hard they played and the type of defense they played. They all knew their roles."

Thomason, now entering his 23rd season at the Stockton, Calif., school, was just in his third year there when his Tigers lost by 20 at home and then by 21 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Big West play. The faint silver lining was that both results were better than how the Rebels' average opponent fared (UNLV's average margin of victory was about 27 points). The Tigers even had the nerve to make a run at the Rebels in the second half in Vegas.

"Then all of a sudden, they came out and went to Larry Johnson -- bang, bang, bang, bang," Thomason recalled. "He scored a basket and got fouled a couple times. I called timeout and I couldn't even hear in that place. I couldn't even talk to the guys because it was so loud."

The Big West has fallen off the national radar since UNLV left for the WAC in 1996 and Thomason knows firsthand what the Rebels meant to the conference.

"A lot of players that we had come into our program was because Vegas was in our league," he said. "They helped a lot of teams recruit. People wanted to play against Vegas because they knew they were a national power."

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Brad Rothermel's tenure as UNLV's athletic director ended a few months after the Rebels won the 1990 national title. In his words, he was tired of acting as the referee in the escalating battle between coach Jerry Tarkanian and school president Dr. Robert Maxson, and took a role as a professor.

That's not to say he's neutral in his opinion of what was happening behind the scenes.

"What we did that was remarkable was to win it in '90 when we had maybe the only university president in the history of the NCAA who didn't want his team to win the national championship," Rothermel said. "To overcome that was extraordinary."

In a 1992 hearing called by the state in the aftermath of Tarkanian's eventual firing, Rothermel testified that Maxson had asked him as early as 1984, when Maxson first arrived at the school, about whether Tarkanian had done anything that was cause for dismissal. Like a modern-day Ahab, Maxson's pursuit of "The Shark" never waned, and Rothermel believes a lot of UNLV's perception as a renegade program -- one that was portrayed by multiple people interviewed for this story as media overhype -- was created and nurtured by Maxson and his allies.

"The important thing about that was [the image] was created by our own institution," said Rothermel, who is back with the athletic department in an advisory role. "Our own president and his administration wanted to give the perspective that we were thugs and we were uncontrollable and were not very good students academically."

RELATED: Glockner: Deep and talented Rebels on the rise under Lon Kruger

Rothermel makes sure to note that 10 of the 14 members of the 1990 national championship team have earned their UNLV degrees.

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Current BYU associate coach Dave Rice was the "other junior college transfer" who arrived in the fall of 1989 with Larry Johnson. Needless to say, he and the other reserves didn't see much playing time over the next two seasons, but it may not be why you think.

"Maybe at times the perception was that it was a team that wasn't overly deep," Rice said. "Not to be self-serving, but I'd probably disagree with that a little bit. It's just the fact that the guys who were playing the minutes were so good."

Rice, who spent 11 seasons as an assistant coach with the Rebels after graduating with a 3.95 GPA, also gives added credence to claims that perceptions of UNLV's attitude were overblown.

"Swagger is a word that epitomized that team, but it was a confidence that came from a coaching staff that every single day talked about hard work and that we deserved to win because we worked harder than anyone else," he said.

"Practices often were more competitive than some of the games. When your best players are also among your hardest workers, and those guys were as good as they were, you have a chance to be very successful."

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ESPN and CBS analyst Jay Bilas was a Duke assistant coach for both the 1990 national title game, UNLV's 103-73 rout, and the following year's 79-77 Final Four upset that stopped the Rebels two games short of hoops immortality.

In his recollection, neither game fits snugly into its established reputation.

"In the '90 game, I think after the game, the [Duke] coaching staff just said, 'They're just better than we are,'" Bilas said. "It got away from us, though. They were better, but they weren't 30 points better. When the game started going downhill, we didn't do the things that we needed to do to stop it."

In the days between the 1991 regional finals and the Final Four, the staff held a preparatory meeting before the rematch with the Rebels. The assistant coaches were in agreement that the Blue Devils shouldn't watch the film of the first meeting, figuring there was no point in reinforcing memories of the blowout. According to Bilas, coach Mike Krzyzewski immediately overruled, wanting to point out exactly how many of the mistakes in the 1990 game were actually of Duke's own doing.

"What Coach K sold to the team was if you clean these things up and play the way you're capable of playing, we're going to be in the game at the end," Bilas said. "And if we're in the game at the end, we're going to win because that's what we do. They've not been there all year long."

Two days after shocking the Runnin' Rebels, Duke beat Kansas for its first national title. The Blue Devils were champions, but still not necessarily No. 1.

"Even though this sounds like blasphemy, they were the best team," Bilas said of the '91 Rebels. "The best team doesn't always win in college basketball and the NCAA tournament. But that was the best team. They had proven it all year long."

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After Duke knocked off the Rebels, Las Vegas was devastated. Ultimately, so was the UNLV program.

"It's 20 years later. I have not watched that game fully since myself," said Marc Ratner, a UFC vice president and longtime Vegas resident who also operates the shot clock during UNLV home games. "The whole town, we were all watching. I think people went in mourning after that."

The following season, with an NCAA tournament ban from multiple transgressions finally hanging over their heads, the Rebels started to lose their cachet. With Tarkanian as a lame duck, recruits began to look elsewhere, and ticket scalpers began to vanish. Eventually, what was a true Vegas experience -- fireworks, rabid crowds and a full-throttle style -- went the way of the city's once-legendary $3.99 buffets.

Tarkanian did enjoy one more good laugh at Maxson's expense, going 25-2 in 1992 with five new starters and no postseason as a reward. The Rebels finished seventh in the final AP poll. In 1994, Maxson left for Long Beach State -- ironically where Tarkanian got his start -- and was widely praised for his work at that school when he stepped down as president in 2006.

"The way it all ended here with the university president on one side and the fans dividing them up, it was a horrible, horrible way to end this could-be dynasty, or would-be dynasty," Ratner said.

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The mastermind of it all is spending the summer of his 80th birthday down in San Diego, whiling away the days at Del Mar racetrack with other retired coaches, but Jerry Tarkanian is happy to talk about the best team he ever coached.

"I've said over and over again, it was the only year in my entire career where I went into games basically thinking we were going to win," he said. "There was no way we were going to lose. I mean it was just an incredible year. We were so good. We didn't have a close game the whole year until we lost to Duke."

The Big West, generally noted as a weak point in UNLV's alltime greatness argument, actually was a three-bid conference in 1990 and sent two teams in 1991. Still, the league really was a one-team show, with UNLV winning it 11 straight seasons from 1983-1993. It was in nonleague play where Tarkanian really tested his teams, and the way the Rebels handled those challenges -- including a comfortable win at No. 2 Arkansas in February 1991 -- created new problems.

"We played some tough teams and we played them on the road and we just killed everybody," Tarkanian said. "All year long, I was telling our guys how tough the games would be and then we'd go out and blow them away."

You can tell the losses still bother him. He was complimentary of those who beat him, but also noted the circumstances of several of his toughest defeats, including the debatable charge on Greg Anthony that fouled out the Rebels' floor leader with more than three minutes remaining against the Blue Devils in the fatal 1991 semifinal.

He also will talk about the NCAA and how Anthony was suspended for a game once over a can of hotel nuts. He truly believes college's governing body was out to get him, and the $2.5 million harassment settlement he won in 1998 gives him some ammunition. That doesn't mean you should forget about the host of violations around the recruitment of Lloyd Daniels or the infamous hot tub picture of three Rebels with felon Richie "The Fixer" Perry or how Long Beach State was slammed with two years of probation right after he left or any of the other indiscretions, real or alleged. It does, though, provide some nuance.

In closing, Tarkanian sums up everything about the Rebels' glory years and why his teams resonated.

"It was a unique time. It really was," he said. "The town was really in love with these kids."

So were we.

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