Short of Ivory-handled Pistols at measured paces, Nevada-Las Vegas coach Jerry Tarkanian and Arizona coach Lute Olson couldn't have found a better way to resolve their Wild West feud than they did on Saturday—with a basketball, a national TV audience and two splendid deputies, Stacey Augmon and Sean Elliott. "He's never beaten me," Tarkanian said of Olson before engaging his fellow desert fox in Tucson. "I think it bugs him. I know it 'bugs him. But I've never said anything to him about it."
When it came time to duel, Tarkanian put up Augmon, the best defensive player in the land and the most surprising name on the 1988 U.S. Olympic team's roster. Olson's honor rode with Elliott, the nation's greatest offensive talent and the most startling Olympic omission. When the dust cleared, Elliott had 32 points. Arizona had an 86-75 win, and Olson had one less thing to bug him.
Both coaches say there's no bad blood between them, only a little ill will between their staffs, which have had several high-stakes, head-to-head recruiting skirmishes. With a finite number of studfish available west of the Rockies each year, the Wildcats and the Runnin' Rebels are bumping into each other ever more often. As these things go, Olson vs. Tarkanian isn't on the order of some college hoops coaching feuds, such as Dale Brown vs. Bobby Knight or Paul Evans vs. Rollie Massimino.
Just the same, Tarkanian will not be posting a letter in support of the 1992 Olympic coaching candidacy of the man he calls Loooo-ther and Midnight Lute. Nor, you may be sure, did Olson file an amicus brief on behalf of Tarkanian before the U.S. Supreme Court, which on Monday dealt the UNLV coach a severe blow—even raising the possibility that he might lose his job—by resolving Tark's long-standing legal battle with the NCAA in that organization's favor.
December 19, 1988
The bad feelings have their roots in the early '70s, when Olson, then coaching at Long Beach City College, and Tarkanian, then at Long Beach State, lunched together frequently and steered players each other's way. When Tark left for UNLV in 1973, Lute took over at Long Beach State, where he inherited a passel of fine talent—and an untidy NCAA probation. Olson could certainly be forgiven for regarding Tarkanian in much the same way that Roy Williams, the new coach at sanction-saddled Kansas, looks upon Larry Brown, who skipped town for the NBA just ahead of the posse. Certainly Tarkanian couldn't have appreciated Olson's distancing himself from his predecessor when the doo-doo got deep at Long Beach.
More recently, in 1986, UNLV received an oral commitment from a junior college talent named Tom Tolbert. The night before he was scheduled to sign, Arizona swooped in to nab Tolbert, who became a starter on the Wildcats Final Four team last spring. Tarkanian felt stung. 'There was a 180-degree turnaround in one night, and those things just don't happen," says Tarkanian, who believes that Tolbert in a UNLV uniform would have meant a national title for the Rebels two years ago. "Midnight Lute" is not a fond reference to Olson's Norwegian heritage.
The latest Tark-Lute tussle involved Matt Othick, the freshman guard from Las Vegas's Bishop Gorman High who sank two three-pointers for the Wildcats in Saturday's duel. Othick gave UNLV a verbal commitment last May, but changed his mind several weeks later, signing with Arizona. Fair enough. But before reversing himself, Othick—or so Tarkanian says—told the Rebels' staff that Arizona assistant Kevin O'Neill had bad-mouthed UNLV while recruiting him. That got Tark steamed. When O'Neill appeared in Las Vegas for a high school all-star tournament in late July, Tarkanian subjected Olson's top recruiter to an angry peroration that included calling O'Neill a surgeon—hoopspeak for a recruiter who cuts up a rival school.
"I'm not even going to discuss whether I've bad-mouthed anybody," says O'Neill, who describes his chat with Tarkanian as merely "a pointed discussion." But he acknowledges that Arizona's recruiting strategy involves turning the screws some time after the late news. "We want to be a kid's last visit," he says. "If it's a dogfight against Vegas or UCLA, we want the last chance to see that kid face-to-face. You know how impressionable kids are. At this level of recruiting, everybody gets 'em at midnight."
Elliott is a glorious exception, a Tucson native who came with breakfast. Through the Cats' first three games, the 6'8" senior had seen an assortment of gimmick defenses, so he was fairly raring to face the notorious UNLV man-to-man, even if it meant drawing the spidery Augmon. Against a bunch that Tarkanian believes could be the best defensive team in the country by February, Arizona spent the first half struggling to get the ball to Elliott on the wing, where he's at his best. So throughout the second half the Wildcats threw Elliott the initial in-bounds pass, letting him bring the ball upcourt against UNLV guards Clint Rossum and Greg Anthony as well as Augmon, getting right down to offensive business.
The move worked. In the second half Elliott scored 20 of his 32 points, grabbed eight of his 15 rebounds and threw a couple of seeing-eye passes to teammates for slams. "I don't know what we call him now," said Arizona's erstwhile Gumby and now starting guard. Harvey Mason. "Last year he was a god. This year he's above that. Deity—try that." You had to wonder whether Olympic coach John Thompson, busy that afternoon watching his Georgetown Hoyas fight off Shenandoah College by 74 points, had cued up the VCR.
Afterward Elliott forswore any claim to revenge in having bested a member of an Olympic team that wouldn't have him. "Stacey deserved to make it," Elliott said. "It was a good strategy to take a defensive stopper over there. I was too timid in the Olympic trials, and it haunted me at the end." Nor should anything be read into his and Augmon's occasional woofing. Said Elliott, "It was just stuff said in the heat of battle. We're enemies on the court but friends off."
The same can't be said for their coaches. But their rivalry may be a healthy sign for basketball in the West, where life is once again stirring. It means that there's something to fight over and that at least two schools are willing to wage that fight. (There may be three, what with UCLA still unbeaten at week's end and having already signed two of the top high school players in California for next season. Bruins coach Jim Harrick, by the way, wasn't exactly best man at Tarkanian's wedding, either—but that's another story.)
This spring's Final Four will be in Seattle's Kingdome, where two seasons ago UNLV won the West in the NCAA regional and where Arizona won it last season. The next time Olson and Tarkanian strap on the guns, it may be for a chance to go to the Kingdome yet again—and for much higher stakes.