The vision endures: a tight game. A close call. Feelings on edge. The home team cheerleaders gather along the baseline at Oklahoma's Lloyd Noble Arena, screaming for support from the crowd. Susan Molasky, the wife of the co-founder of Lorimar Studios and a founding partner of the Lacosta (Calif.) Hotel and Spa, races down the aisle in furs, leather, jewelry and assorted other regalia. She came from Las Vegas and supports the Runnin' Rebels of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She's not here looking to cast the next Charlene Tilton. Or to get a massage. She's not even happy. Uh-oh. Molasky stops a few feet away and faces the cheerleaders. She thrusts out her arm. She jabs her middle finger high. Molasky shouts, "F——you!"
Hard by the glaze of the Vegas strip; amid the NCAA charges, investigations, and lawsuits; right there with all the slings and arrows of outrageous reputation—if a Rebel player can't turn pro, he can always turn cards—at the heart of the UNLV basketball program, the outside world would probably be astonished to find an actual heart, impassioned fans and even a real university.
The outsiders' mindset is characterized by the question Vegas residents have been plagued with for years by many of the 17.2 million tourists who annually visit their fair city: What hotel do you live in?
There are houses and schools and churches (plus the 483,692 wedding chapels lining Las Vegas Boulevard) and lawn mowers and car pools in Sodom-on-the-sand. And there are live students who actually attend classes at UNLV, no kidding, barely five blocks from the Strip. They go to lectures and labs right around the corner from Jerry Tarkanian Way, in fact, even though they go for somewhat different reasons than the slump-shouldered, perpetually worried Tark, the UNLV basketball coach, sometimes seems to imagine.
November 20, 1989
"I've been hearing about some of you guys missing class," he said to his basketball team a few weeks into preseason practice. "Anybody misses class, we're going to run you at six a.m., run you till you vomit. There's no excuse for this. We can't have you missing class. You miss class, you lose your scholarship. You miss class, you can't play. You can't play, and there goes our depth."
Depth of pockets, on the other hand, Las Vegas has. The weird thing is that until Tarkanian arrived and the basketball team started winning, nobody at UNLV really tapped into the most obvious pockets, the ones belonging to the members of the UNLV Foundation, now chaired by Elaine Wynn, a board member of Golden Nugget, Inc., the parent company of her husband Steve's new Mirage Hotel and Casino.
For all of Tarkanian's negatives—his cavalier attitude toward education being foremost—say this for him: While building a basketball program this close to the NCAA edge, Tarkanian somehow coincidentally gave life to a stagnant university. And his team has become a rallying point for a community in dire need of one.
The multimillion-dollar fights come and go in the Vegas parking lots. Jerry's Kids show up only on Labor Day. Frank, Sammy and Don Rickles, fixtures on the marquees lining the Strip, live in L.A. Even local boy Wayne Newton plays gigs in Atlantyuk! City. But UNLV basketball stays right there, homeboys through and through, the one national entity Vegas can call its own.
"There was a time when I was a Rebel fanatic, but I wasn't really involved with the university," Elaine Wynn said the other day while planning the rather subdued opening of the Mirage so that the pools containing the live dolphins would not be set aboiling by the flames from the exploding volcano. "When the team got a place to play on the campus [the 18,500-seat Thomas & Mack Center], we all discovered that there actually was a campus. Students went there. It was wholesome and beautiful. Steve and I have 8,000 employees at the Mirage and the Golden Nugget. We have to be concerned about the welfare and educational opportunities for these people's families in Las Vegas. Naturally, I got pulled to the academic side of UNLV."
Some pull. In the past three years the 50-member foundation has raised more than $50 million for capital improvements—not basketball improvements—at UNLV. "Las Vegas is a community that wants desperately to be respected," says Wynn. "We bend over backward to lead normal lives. It fills this town with great pride to present anything of such high quality as the Rebels. But if you were to take a poll in the community, I bet eight of every 10 people would say their prime concern is that UNLV make it big as an academic institution."
Fine. O.K. But Wynn means specialists' stuff, degrees in Baccarat Etiquette or Open-Neck-Shirt Management, right? "Naw," says sophomore Mike Jerlecki, who came to UNLV from Goshen, Ind.—and not to play basketball. "English, biology, finance. My friends back home say, 'They have those classes there?' I've just about convinced them I don't spend all day sitting around making parlays."
Last month, in its annual survey of America's cathedrals of higher learning, U.S. News & World Report rated UNLV as a "rising star" and among only three "up and coming" universities in the 15 Western states. School president Robert Maxson couldn't have been prouder if the Runnin' Rebs had just drilled UC Irvine. "Academic excellence isn't one of the priorities here, it is the priority," Maxson says. "Because this is Las Vegas, we have to work extra diligently to prove ourselves, to not permit anything to detract from the academic mission."
The Las Vegas image is difficult to overcome. While Alistair Cooke appears in a lecture series on campus, the towering neon billboards located nearby read: ENGLEBERT HUMPERDINCK. Not to mention PAI GOW AND PAI GOW POKER; SLOT PLAYERS DRINK FREE. Since the NCAA is suspected of having snoops behind every roulette wheel, UNLV knows it must behave in a manner that is above reproach.
Elsewhere, meanwhile, the scantily clad Memphis State pom-pom squad can shimmy-shake in the precincts of the Via Veneto—which they did recently at the McDonald's Open—yet remain Southern belles just kiddin' around. But Maxson had to persuade UNLV's cheerleaders to forgo their sensational bare-midriff outfits in the NCAAs last spring lest Tipper Gore or somebody slap an X-rating on the tournament.
Then there's Tarkanian. At a basketball camp last summer, when some coaches' heated discussion of abortion turned to Roe vs. Wade, the oblivious-as-usual Tark piped up with "[Matt] Roe should have never left Syracuse." And Maryland shouldn't have forced Bob Wade's resignation, right, coach?
In the same 1987 season in which UNLV's proud collection of true students, nice guys and terrific players was reaching the Final Four in New Orleans, Tarkanian was wooing Lloyd Daniels, a talented player from New York City who could barely read after attending four high schools in three years and was busted in a drug sting in downtown Las Vegas. Tark was also hot on the trail of Clifford Allen, who was in a juvenile detention home as a result of a probation violation of an earlier armed robbery conviction. That neither Daniels nor Allen became a Runnin' Reb wasn't because of any misgivings Tarkanian had.
And so too this year. While Tark may have not only the best team in the country but also the best player—6'7" Odessa (Texas) Junior College transfer Larry Johnson, who originally signed with SMU but never attended because questions were raised about his SAT scores—he must cope with two pending NCAA decisions, one from his 12-year-old lawsuit against the NCAA (the Supreme Court ruled against him last December) and the other stemming from the investigation into UNLV's recruitment of Daniels. "The NCAA can find any little thing on anyone, but they are just not going to find any major violations on Daniels," Tarkanian says firmly. Yet there is speculation that a couple of T-shirts given to recruits—along with Tark's wife, Lois, having paid the rental on former Rebel player Armon Gilliam's cap and gown—might mean the end of his reign at UNLV. Says a close friend, "Jerry thinks they're finally going to get him this time."
His two Final Four appearances, seven Big West titles (in seven years in the league) and a colossal winning percentage (.823, second by .004 to Clair Bee among all the college coaches in history) aside, Tarkanian, 59, will always be known as the man who recruited dead-enders and druggies and kept the NCAA in courtrooms for more than a decade as he fought the organization's ruling that UNLV suspend him for two years or be put on probation.
"Tark the Shark. Coaching a team called the Rebels. In Las Vegas. Seems only fitting, doesn't it?" says Larry DuBoef, the Rebels' former radio broadcaster. Tark allowed DuBoef to come into the locker room at halftimes and into the huddles during timeouts—all for the benefit of KDWN listeners.
"Listen, Tark put this town on the sports map," says DuBoef. "All our lives we've been fingered and ostracized about the nature of our life-style and the gaming industry. So the NCAA stuff is just another notch in our belts. What difference does it make? This team makes us feel good about ourselves, good about Las Vegas."
The suspicion persists that at times unnamed boosters have become too wrapped up in UNLV basketball. After columnist John Henderson of the Las Vegas Review Journal criticized Tarkanian for bringing the troubled Daniels to campus—"prostituting the university," he wrote—and described a group of boosters as actually applauding Tarkanian's defense of Daniels "like a herd of seals at feeding time," the paper received nearly 150 letters, some of them demanding that Henderson be fired. Moreover, his apartment was mysteriously broken into and trashed, with nothing missing except a phone recording machine.
It was Sig Rogich, a Vegas ad man, who brought Tarkanian to UNLV in 1973 from the relative obscurity of Long Beach State. Rogich was "basketball nutsy," as he put it, and a key member of the UNLV booster club. He sent another booster, Davey Pearl, the boxing referee, to Long Beach to sign Tarkanian to a contract and then in one day made 24 phone calls to Pearl before being persuaded that Tark was in the fold. But Rogich wasn't just nutsy; he had a vision for his city. "The town needed to show another side of itself, to bring its factions together," Rogich says. "The quickest way to let the world know you're alive is through sports. Not that we didn't have our priorities straight. Now we just have them straighter. The Rebels were the catalyst that caused the community to recognize the campus."
They were a strange pair: Rogich, with his Italian designer suits, $3,000 watches and friends in high places (Sinatra, Newton, Senator Paul Laxalt), and Tark, who had such a hard time recognizing celebrities that he once met an overalled Harry Belafonte at the Hilton and thought he was the janitor.
Rogich recently moved from Las Vegas. Having helped direct the national ad campaign that contributed to Ronald Reagan's landslide election in 1984 and quietly partnered Roger Ailes in producing the controversial Dukakisbattering commercials for George Bush last year, Rogich was named the new assistant to the president for Public Events and Initiatives (read: image-maker).
Can Tarkanian have survived so long that he now has connections in the White House? "All I know is, Sig's supposed to be the hardest guy in D.C. to reach, but whenever I call, he's back to me in an hour," says Tark.
As if Tarkanian really needs any more highly placed buddies. Rickles invites him backstage between shows. Sinatra tells Tark he "prays" for the Runnin' Rebs. Diana Ross sang Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand) to the players on the night Thomas & Mack Center opened in 1983. The list of performers at UNLV's annual fund-raising dinner has included Pat Henry, Helen Reddy, Charlie Callas and Joey Heatherton. Are we talking heavy Vegas or what? Soon, the one-and-only Newton will be costarring with Tarkanian in a UNLV basketball video.
Possibly there has never been more glitz and glitter surrounding a more unadorned, common everyday Jerry. Amid the bobbles, bangles and bright lights of America's showplace slumps a gloomy-looking man who still and ever appears as if life were a glacier and his team the Exxon Valdez.
To most fans, Tark is best known for his run-for-your-lives offense. Most of the scoring records broken last season by the Loyola-Marymount circus act were held by Tark's Runnin' Rebels. Yet it is the Rebels' aggressive full-court pressure defense and work ethic that earn Tark's team the most respect. "We're the hardhats' favorite, the laborers' team," he says. "Every working man who has to sweat for his pay has got to root for us."
Then there's the spectacular pregame light show at Thomas & Mack, the fireworks, the enormous mounted shark hanging from the rafters, the shark holograms racing around the rim of the arena, the shark hats and shark shirts and shark puppets and the high-rent ($1,800-a-year per seat) Gucci Row. Gucci Row?
Normally sitting among Tark's inner circle at courtside across from the teams' benches are glamorous representatives from TV and films (Irwin and Susan Molasky of Lorimar; Dick Manoogian, a cosmetics entrepreneur and the producer who is responsible for hiring the renowned Chick Hearn to broadcast Vegas games back to the lucrative Los Angeles market), the hotel industry (the Wynns), boxing and medicine (Dr. Elias Ghanem, the chairman of the Nevada boxing commission); and the restaurant industry (Freddy Glusman, owner of Vegas's posh Piero's restaurant), along with goshknowswhatall visitors to Johnny Carson's late-night couch.
These are Tark's schmoozing pals, his nightly cocktails-and-dinner partners in the spangled gourmet rooms of Vegas. Tarkanian, a born-again health nut, rarely tipples—he has an occasional glass of wine—but he loves the side of coaching that most of his peers abhor: glad-handing, hanging out with fans and alumni, letting the basketball celebrity-sniffers get close enough for a really significant whiff. As he once said, "None of the boosters' kids go to UNLV. They go to USC or Stanford. [His own son, Danny, was a Runnin' Rebel point guard in the early 1980s and is now a lawyer in Las Vegas.] But they all love us."
And not just the swells, either. Tark is a hero to Vegas's backbone—the hotel bellhops and chambermaids, the construction workers, the blackjack dealers and parking valets who plan work shifts around Rebel games and plan vacations so that they can accompany UNLV on its postseason tournament odysseys. "You think Tark is some dummy?" says a local businessman. "He's everywhere in town. He built this support from ground zero. That's why whenever he gets in trouble with the NCAA, the whole community comes together behind him. Does the NCAA actually think they'd ever have a shot in a court case in Vegas? The judge who ruled against Tark would be trying his next case at the bottom of Lake Mead." Well, at least there would be an opening on Gucci Row.
"My wife, Bonnie, married me just to get the great seat in Gucci Row," says Glusman, the high-rolling entrepreneur who owns a stable of boxers in partnership with Bob Arum, Las Vegas mayor Ron Lurie and none other than Tarkanian. In fact, UNLV basketball is the Gucci Row inhabitants' social scene, its windup toy, the major league franchise Las Vegas will never be allowed to possess because of its gaming industry.
One year Susan Molasky passed up a French Riviera vacation to accompany UNLV on a long road trip to the freezing Midwest, during which she sat huddled inside the Robertson Memorial Field House at Bradley in Peoria, Ill. She was a forlorn, hand-clapping audience of one—as the Rebs practiced.
Does such loyalty pay off with joy in the end? Of course it does. At Auburn one season, UNLV got a special dispensation to seat its fans down front—provided they minded their manners. That meant no Molaskian cussing. After the Rebels beat the Tigers in a blowout, Tarkanian was quietly talking with the presidents of both universities on the court when Molasky shrieked onto the scene, stopping just short of a neck tackle. "Oh, Jerry," she cried out as the astonished prezes looked on in horror. "I'm so proud of myself. I didn't say——once!" And nobody asked her what hotel she lived in back in Vegas, either.