Just Deserts in the Desert

UNLV sold its soul for basketball glory, and Jerry Tarkanian is holding the school to the deal
March 09, 1992

Let's play a quick game, read the following passage and answer two questions when you're done. The case began six years ago when the NCAA opened an investigation of alleged basketball recruiting violations by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and its coach, Jerry Tarkanian.... The case was supposedly closed on Aug. 23 this year, when after numerous hearings and reviews the NCAA informed Las Vegas that its basketball team would be put on probation for two years. Included in the judgment was a recommendation that...Tarkanian be barred from all formal or informal participation in the school's athletic program...for the duration of the probation.... Though deemed by many college basketball insiders to be the perfect fall guy, [Tarkanian] refused to go down.

O.K., who wrote it?

Right! I did. (The rich style, of course, is like a fingerprint.)

Now, when did I write it?

Last week? Nope. Last fall? Uh-uh. Two years ago? Wrong. Five years ago? Sorry. Seven? Nine? Before car phones?

Try 15 years ago. Before MTV. Before the Big East, even. In the Oct. 10, 1977, issue of SI, to be exact.

Memories. There I was, my first time in Vegas, a callow scribe scorched by the desert sun and $2 blackjack tables, all my change gone to slot machines, listening to this hoarse, raccoon-eyed man known as Tark the Shark tell me how he'd been framed or conned or undermined by all kinds of people in high positions. He had just filed suit against his own university so he could continue coaching, and he was hunkered down and girded to take on the Evil Empire itself—the NCAA. "They better tape their ankles," Tarkanian told me, meaning the NCAA specifically but the whole world generally, "because the game is just beginning."

I was distracted by the lure of green felt, free drinks and doubling down, and I pretty much forgot about Tark's words once I'd filed my story. But digging them up now actually makes me chuckle. Think of it: Do people still expect this man to ride quietly out of town? Fifteen years ago Tark was in full battle garb, and what has changed since then except that he has piled up more wins, controversy, NCAA violations and antagonism from the powers that be? In an agreement worked out between Tarkanian and UNLV in the aftermath of NCAA sanctions stemming from infractions committed in 1977, Tark said last June that he would retire at the end of this season—and even signed a binding letter of resignation. But as Alexander Wolff details in his article beginning on page 42 of this issue, Tarkanian has since decided that UNLV and its president, Robert Maxson, have pulled dirty tricks on him, spied on him and linked his team to gamblers in an attempt to tarnish what little remained of his good name and send him slinking into the desert like a dog.

That made Tarkanian angry and defensive, and if we have learned anything from history, it is that Tark is one tough foe when he feels that way. Which he usually does. Now he wants to rescind his resignation, and it's clear he's not going gently into the night. "He's leaving Kuwait burning," sums up UNLV sociology professor James Frey.

Mostly, Tarkanian feels used, and in a funny way he has been. Years ago there weren't too many complaints from UNLV brass when Tark's outlaw Runnin' Rebels were winning games and giving exposure to a school that desperately wanted it. UNLV, which opened its doors in 1957, lacked tradition and needed something to make its presence known to potential benefactors, teachers and students. The early UNLV was, as Frey puts it, a classic "school on the make," one of those nouveau institutions eager to use big-time sports as an ax to hack out a place for itself. If Tarkanian, who left Long Beach State holding the bag for 23 rules violations committed in his five years as that school's coach, could come to UNLV in 1973 and start winning right away with questionable student-athletes in a questionable program, so be it. The p.r. upside was bigger than the ethical downside.

The conflict started when UNLV grew as an academic institution even as Tark's band of hoopsters was making people think that the school was little more than a casino pit with glass backboards. Indeed, UNLV now boasts strong English, sociology, biology and engineering departments as well as one of the nation's best hotel administration programs. Since Maxson arrived in 1984, UNLV has established its first seven Ph.D. programs, in disciplines ranging from history to physics, and enrollment has risen from nearly 11,000 to 19,600. Whatever benefits the basketball team once brought to the university through name recognition have long been undone by the negative vibes the Runnin' Rebels cast over the school's educational mission. Whether Tark is guilty of all the sins he has been accused of is irrelevant; he is perceived to be. If only the man would go away....

But you live by the sword, and you die by the sword. Other schools on the make—Southwestern Louisiana, New Mexico, Oral Roberts, Cleveland State, Memphis State come quickly to mind—have used the big-time basketball quick fix for recognition and ego fulfillment and have gotten burned, just as UNLV has. But the coaches at those schools all went away. Tark just won't go down.

"This university hired me," he's saying. "I gave you what you wanted. Deal with me."

And you know what I say? Bully for him.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRA

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