The healing process in the troubled Nevada-Las Vegas basketball program is coming along nicely as far as new coach Rollie Massimino and his players are concerned. At week's end the Still Runnin' Rebels were 6-0, good for No. 12 in the latest AP poll, despite having no true center and only one NBA prospect. J.R. Rider, a 6'5" swingman. Yet because of the ongoing battle between supporters of UNLV president Robert Maxson and those loyal to the Runnin' Rebs' deposed coach. Jerry Tarkanian, the Rollie Show has so far played to mixed reviews on the Strip.
The chief criticism leveled by Tark's loyalists is that UNLV officials have engaged in schedule rigging, attendance padding and downright hypocrisy on the subjects of recruiting and academics in hope of ensuring that Massimino's first season is an unqualified success. Consider the case of Rider, who is easily the Rebels' best player. Rider was said to be so deficient academically at the end of last season that it seemed there was no way he could be eligible for this season's opener. Yet by passing a full load of courses in summer school—including one class at nearby Nellis Air Force base—doggone if he wasn't eligible in time for UNLV's first preseason game.
While some Maxson supporters would say that that's just an example of how even recalcitrant learners thrive in Massimino's academics-first program, Tark's boosters regard Rider's new devotion to his books as nothing less than a scholastic miracle. When asked about it last week, Rider just shrugged and said, "I took a lot of courses and knocked 'em all out."
And Tark's supporters ask: What about the fact that Massimino's first recruit was Kebu Stewart, a 6'8" forward from Brooklyn who is sitting out this season after failing to meet Prop 48 requirements? Stewart attended three different high schools during his troubled scholastic career, including one, Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., that kicked him out after he was accused of stealing food from another student. Isn't Maxson letting Massimino get away with the same stuff that he pilloried Tarkanian for?
From the viewpoint of Maxson's supporters, it won't help matters that Tarkanian is now back in town, having been fired by the San Antonio Spurs after only 20 games as an NBA coach. Although Tark probably won't do anything overtly to undermine Massimino, he is always available upon request to blast Maxson. "I'd like to be able to go to practice and then go have a beer with Rollie," said Tarkanian soon after returning to Vegas. "But we can't, because if he said anything in support of Maxson, I'd vomit."
Tark is still wildly popular in Las Vegas, the result of having won 83% of his games over 19 seasons with the Runnin' Rebs and an NCAA championship in 1990. A lot of the local citizens find it difficult to weigh Tarkanian's image as college basketball's most notorious outlaw against the pride and unity he brought to the neon desert playground where everybody is from somewhere else.
No headliner on the Strip has ever had a tougher act to follow than the 58-year-old Massimino, yet he seems happy in his new home. No longer as frazzled-looking as he was during his 19 seasons at Villanova, Massimino has traded his Philly pallor for a tan; he also has lost 25 pounds and gained a new appreciation for up-tempo basketball. He has even been spotted wearing a gold necklace, as if to prove that he's a Vegas kind of guy. (UNLV, which used to play the Jaws theme in Tark the Shark's honor, may have stepped over the line of good sense, however, by greeting Massimino with the theme from The Godfather before games.)
Yet it remains to be seen how Massimino's volatile temperament and fragile ego will hold up in the midst of the feud that divides the university and the city. While Massimino has tried to stay out of the conflict—indeed, he often praises Tarkanian—he also infuriated Tark's supporters at his first press conference, promising that his players would "never embarrass" UNLV. Some fans interpreted that as a slap at the previous regime.
The school administration's spin-doctoring for Massimino began the day his hiring was announced—April Fools' Day, as it happened—when Maxson and athletic director Jim Weaver, a former Villanova football coach, tried to sell the idea that they had pulled a coup by getting Massimino to come to Las Vegas. The truth was, Massimino was UNLV's fourth or fifth choice, and he was eager—especially for $600,000 a year—to leave Philadelphia, where he had worn out his welcome. Since using his slow-paced style to win the national championship at Villanova in 1985, Massimino's recruiting had fallen off precipitously, and the Wildcats were only 14-15 last season. In addition, Massimino was seen as the heavy in the breakup of Philly's venerable Big Five rivalry. As he recently told CNN, "In Philadelphia, with the five schools, there's so much bickering and screaming. It got to the point where I didn't want to handle it. I want to be a happy guy." Got that? He went to Vegas to get away from bickering and screaming.
Since Massimino's arrival the credibility gap between UNLV and the local media has widened. In May it was learned that some Runnin' Reb players had been given privileges to work out for free at a private club, the Las Vegas Sporting House. Initially, the athletic department issued a release that blamed this violation of the NCAA's extra-benefits rule on "the previous men's basketball administration." It turned out later that one of Massimino's assistants had written a letter designating which players were to use the club.
And then there's the matter of just how much the loss of Tarkanian has cost the basketball program. Local newspapers have reported that revenue from season-ticket sales is down $1 million: Weaver says it isn't that much. Then after announcing a paid attendance of 8,500 for its Nov. 27 exhibition against Marathon Oil, the school had to admit that 6,000 of the tickets had been freebies.
Massimino's own credibility begins to wobble when he tries to defend UNLV's made-for-success schedule of patsies. Last week the Runnin' Rebels were supposed to be in Hawaii taking on such heavyweights as Duke and Michigan in the Rainbow Classic. But after Massimino was hired, UNLV pulled out of the Rainbow so it could schedule a couple of easy W's, including a Dec. 30 game against Hofstra, a 79-41 yawner. The Rebs also bought out their contract to play at Lamar, meaning that Massimino doesn't face a single tough nonconference road game. And, with the exception of New Mexico State, the Big West conference has its usual lineup of soft teams, which should give UNLV an easy launching pad to the NCAA tournament.
While games against nice little private colleges from the East may be in keeping with the Rebels' new piety over academics, many Vegas fans didn't buy this new act—and not because they thought Hofstra was a movie about a dead mobster. Only about 10,000 people, slightly more than half the capacity at the Thomas and Mack Center, showed up for that game; in a town where the entertainment competition is stiff, UNLV versus Hofstra couldn't match up with that night's lineup on the Strip of the Beach Boys, Liza Minnelli, Frankie Valli, and Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach. After the game, when asked what he and Massimino said at the end of the blowout, Hofstra coach Butch van Breda Kolff, perhaps only slightly in jest, said, "We both apologized. I said, 'I'm sorry we came.' He said, 'I'm sorry we invited you.' " However, when Massimino was asked about the one-sided game, he talked about how much he respected Hofstra. And he never even cracked a smile.
Massimino seems to be trying to avert the sniping about his program by focusing on his players. Strange as it is to see a Massimino-coached team employing Tark's fast-break style, Massimino had to switch to have any chance of appeasing Vegas fans and keeping his players in the program. "He told us we would run and press, and we told him we would stay," says sophomore guard Reggie Manuel. "He kept his word, and we kept ours."
Trust. The healing process must be based on it. And though Tark's players have accepted their new coach, it apparently is going to be a long time before the feuding factions of Las Vegas will trust each other.