This may come as a surprise to the Las Vegas basketball fans who were calling for his head last week, but UNLV president Robert Maxson played a little hoops himself while growing up in rural Arkansas during the 1950s. He likes to tell of the time a storm forced the postponement of one of his high school games and how his Baptist parents kept him from playing when it was rescheduled for a Wednesday. Just as the devout never failed to go to church on Sunday, neither did they miss the Wednesday prayer meeting. "Think of a clothesline!" the Maxsons' minister would thunder. "Without that pole in the middle, it sags!"
Last week Maxson found himself drawing on that lesson in both steadfastness and the need to keep basketball in its rightful place as he faced the biggest crisis of his eight years in office. On Feb. 23 Runnin' Rebels coach Jerry Tarkanian held a sort of Holy Rollers-meet-high rollers prayer meeting of his own at a north Las Vegas church and told a hymn-singing overflow crowd of supporters that he was rescinding the resignation he tendered last summer. No dice, said the administration, which declared the resignation "irrevocable" and cited various state laws and policies to support its position. "I'm embarrassed and I'm tired," Maxson said last Friday, "but I think this university's at a crossroads. And I believe the nation is watching UNLV to see if we're going to be a serious academic institution or a basketball team with a university attached. Jerry has said that if I had cooperated with him I could have been governor of this state. Well, I don't want to be governor. I want to be president of a good university."
Good or bad, UNLV is right now a divided university, in a divided city, that seems ready to go up in partisan conflagration. The Committee to Save Tarkanian has gathered more than 50,000 signatures on a petition urging Maxson to keep the coach. On the other hand, the UNLV Faculty Senate discussed on Feb. 25 a resolution to drop basketball for two years; the measure, which would constitute no more than a recommendation to the school administration, may be put to a vote on March 10. The two sides clashed two days later during a rally on campus in support of the president at which Tarkanian supporters shouted down pro-Maxson speakers. The rancor spilled over into the following day at a boisterous public meeting of the Nevada Board of Regents. As campus police and security looked on, one pro-Tarkanian speaker at the public meeting urged that the school's name be changed to Tark the Shark University. A student protested that UNLV was not "a forum for rich individuals in this town to form their own private professional team." A Tarkanian partisan, who is a donor to the school, wore a Mickey Mouse shirt because, he said, "That's what this is. Please inform your faculty and scholarship people that it's my money that has built your buildings." And a school admissions office employee pleaded, saying, "If Mr. Tarkanian really loved about 19,000 students at UNLV, he would abide by his resignation, leave with dignity and let the healing process begin."
As the No. 7-ranked Runnin' Rebels beat up Fresno State 84-67 last Thursday night to extend their winning streak, the nation's longest, to 22 games and their record to 25-2, the players broke each huddle with a mumbled shout of "——the school!" Tarkanian crony Freddie Glusman, a Las Vegas restaurateur, sat on the team bench. "I only did it because it pisses Maxson off," Glusman said.
All of this raised the question of what might happen at the one game remaining in the Rebels' probation-truncated season, a home date with Utah State on Tuesday of this week. Envisioned months ago by Tark supporters as a valedictory occasion for the man who has spent 19 seasons at UNLV and whose .836 winning percentage is the best in the game's history, the evening was to have included the presentation to Tarkanian of an Oldsmobile and a Saturn—either of which would have allowed him to drive away in style. But now, how do you bid adieu to someone who says he's not going anywhere?
And how do you cut through the welter of litigation that threatens to form legal gridlock in the desert? In addition to a looming courtroom showdown over his about-face on resigning, Tarkanian has a suit pending against the NCAA in which he charges it with maliciously trying to drive him from the profession. UNLV assistant coach Tim Grgurich has also sued the school, claiming the administration conspired to ruin his career by videotaping a phys-ed conditioning class he taught last October that was suspected of being an out-of-season practice, an NCAA violation. Last week the Runnin' Rebels players indicated they would sue Tarkanian, the NCAA and UNLV—being codefendants is as close as those three parties have been in months—in an effort to get an injunction to allow the team to play in this season's NCAA tournament.
The players contend that the agreement reached last year among the NCAA, Tarkanian and UNLV to settle an infractions case dating back to 1977—it allowed the Rebels, the 1990 national champs, to defend their title in the 1991 NCAA tournament but required the team to sit out this season's NCAAs—had been struck without their consent and without regard for their rights. "How about that, guys!" Tarkanian said last week as he listened to Steve Stein, the players' lawyer, brief them on the suit's particulars. "You're going to be suing me!"
In the meantime the NCAA is pursuing its investigation of 40 more recent infractions alleged to have been committed by the UNLV program. This case began with the recruitment of Lloyd Daniels, the former New York City playground star who pleaded guilty to buying crack in a Las Vegas sting operation shortly after arriving on campus in 1987. But the NCAA's case is at a standstill because of a new Nevada statute that requires the organization to ensure due process in the conduct of its investigations—a law the NCAA is challenging in court. As of November, when figures were last toted up, the university had spent more than $600,000 in legal fees—and dealt with 15 separate attorneys retained by various principals—on the latest NCAA matter alone. The nation's economy may still be in recession, but Nevada's legal industry is doing its part to pull us all out of it.
Friends and family began prodding Tarkanian into withdrawing his resignation two weeks ago after reading a report in the Las Vegas Review-Journal that federal officials were investigating whether some members of last year's team were involved in shaving points. Tarkanian says the story was "totally manufactured and totally orchestrated" by Brad Booke, the assistant general counsel of the University of Nevada system. "I've seen my dad hurt before, but nothing crushed him like this," says Tarkanian's son Danny. "In sports, point-shaving is the worst. They're trying to force him out with this black, evil cloud over his head."
Sources in both the FBI and the Organized Crime Strike Force of the U.S. Attorney's Office have told SI that, while they are conducting a gambling investigation, neither body has any evidence of point-shaving. Another source said that twice-convicted sports fixer Richard Perry, who has been linked to the UNLV basketball program, is the only target of the gambling probe. Booke, the man who ordered the infamous videotaping of Grgurich's class, calls Tarkanian's charge that he orchestrated the point-shaving story preposterous. "I was born at night, but not last night, and I know you don't cut off your nose to spite your face," he says. "I represent this institution as a whole, and there's no way I would be involved in bringing such an unflattering thing to light. I didn't convict Richie Perry of point-shaving in 1984 or ask him to bring Lloyd Daniels to UNLV or arrange tickets for him to come to basketball games or take players to lunch at Caesars Palace or invite three players into a hot tub at his house. And I certainly didn't start a federal investigation.
"The strategy of the basketball boosters is to say, 'Who told on us?' whenever an allegation pops up. Then comes an attack of variable viciousness on whichever individual they've settled on. Never, 'Let's see what the problem is, let's correct it.' Just deny and attack, and I'm the latest victim."
Tarkanian has often said that the greatest value in the Italian neighborhood in which he grew up back in Euclid, Ohio, was loyalty. "You could do anything you wanted, and everybody would be behind you—except squeal on somebody," he has said. That might explain his reaction when UNLV officials, not just the NCAA investigators who were once his primary nemeses, began two years ago to put compliance at the top of their agenda. The most recent potential NCAA violation came to light after an incident on Jan. 24 in which police were summoned to a Jack-in-the-Box near the UNLV campus in response to a call that someone had thrown food at a clerk through the drive-thru window. Police arrested UNLV forward J.R. Rider, the alleged food thrower, on a charge of obstructing a police officer and impounded the unregistered 1991 Ford Explorer he was driving. Bernie Schiappa, a UNLV booster and general manager at the Fletcher Jones Import Center, the car dealership that sold the Explorer to Rider's mother, Donna, told the Review-Journal that he had done her a "favor" by getting her a good price on the car. In doing so, Schiappa appeared to have admitted to violating an NCAA rule against offering to athletes and their families anything that is not available to any other student.
To determine if the school needed to file a report with the NCAA, Booke asked for Tarkanian's help. But Chuck Thompson, one of Tarkanian's attorneys, told Booke, "Jerry would rather sit down with David Berst than meet with you." Berst is the NCAA enforcement official who once called Tarkanian "a rug merchant."
Tarkanian concedes that despite rescinding his resignation, he can't imagine himself coaching at UNLV next season. Before the latest imbroglio, he and San Diego State athletic director Fred Miller had agreed in principle that Tarkanian would take over next season as the Aztec coach. But Tarkanian has all but given up on ever having that job and says he wants to pursue the UNLV matter to "get the truth out, so everybody in Nevada will see what happened." To that end, Tarkanian's lawyers are banking on a civility clause in the resignation agreement. The clause barred school officials from saying anything derogatory about Tarkanian, so that he could receive, according to the agreement, "all the respect, courtesy and consideration normally due a departing senior member of the faculty." Tarkanian maintains that the administration has breached that clause, thus abrogating the agreement.
For its part, the school points to a Nevada law that says a resignation becomes "irrevocable" 72 hours after it has been tendered. Additionally, if he seeks relief by invoking the civility clause, Tarkanian would have to prove that he comes "with clean hands"—as legal principle requires—because that same clause bars him from "harassment, annoyance or intimidation" of university officials. For example, when the coach ripped into Maxson and Booke during an interview last November with SI, he was asked if he wasn't bound from criticizing his employer. "I'm not criticizing anyone," Tarkanian said. "I'm just telling you the truth."
UNLV's recent travails may be the inevitable result of the peculiar way athletics developed at the school. Until the early 1960s, there was only one University of Nevada, in Reno, with what would become UNLV consisting of no more than a few buildings in Las Vegas known as the university's Southern Branch. Budgets were set and funds disbursed in Reno, where all sports teams were also fielded. Las Vegans clamored for college athletics but realized they wouldn't get them unless they put up money of their own. The bejeweled citizens who now sit in Gucci Row at UNLV games did just that and thus feel quite proprietary about their team. Maxson's efforts, then, aren't so much to maintain institutional control over the basketball program as to capture it for the first time.
Since Maxson arrived in 1984, UNLV has nearly doubled its enrollment, established one of the few supercomputing centers in the world and begun to attract more and more of the state's high school valedictorians. "At a university that's old and stable, something like what we're going through would be just a blip," Maxson says. "But this is an adolescent university. We're like an awkward teenage boy who's taller than the others, with long arms and big feet; but if he's nurtured right, he's going to be a strapping man someday."
Maxson knows he has charted an unpopular course. In a town that leads the nation in unlisted phone numbers, Maxson's is in the book. And among the hostile mail he has received is an envelope containing only a newspaper clipping—about the Feb. 18 murder in Boston of the president of a Japanese university. "I understand why people have an emotional investment in this team," Maxson says. "This will not be the president who downsizes the athletic program. But I've been just as focused on academics as Jerry Tarkanian has been on basketball."
As Maxson and Tarkanian stuck fast to the sides they had staked out, neither they nor their surrogates could agree on anything, not even on what last week's events resembled. "Like Saturday Night Live," suggested Booke. "Like nothing else I've ever seen," said Glusman.
But that those events could only have a deleterious effect on the university was clear from the anguished remarks of Elmore Spencer, the Rebels' senior center. Spencer has no affection for Maxson but had to be persuaded to be a party to the players' lawsuit. "It's just a total embarrassment," he said. "As I told the class president the other day, there's no way I'll come back to finish my degree here. It'll be as worthless as stock in one of those Keating savings and loans."