Prowling around the front of the locker room like some large and
wounded cat, his voice at times shifting from a sonorous bellow
to a growling shout, Jerry Tarkanian was drawing upon all his
years of experience as a coach to goad and cajole his team to
sustain its attack. It was halftime at Selland Arena in Fresno,
Calif., on Feb. 4, and Tark's Fresno State team had just spent
20 heady minutes whipping Colorado State at both ends of the
court. The Bulldogs were leading by 19 at the half, 48-29, and
they would have been up by 21 if they hadn't given up an easy
layup in the closing seconds.
The coach slammed his fist on the table, snapping back every
head in the room. "God darn it!" he cried. "You gave 'em a cheap
basket. You can't give up nothin'! Nothin'!"
The players listened wide-eyed as he pleaded with them to keep
turning the screws. "Don't let up!" Tark howled. "Understand,
the minute you let up--the minute you let up--you go back to the
way you were. Keep your intensity!"
At one point he stopped and peered at them, his eyes--the eyes of
Yoda--blinking and scanning the faces looking up at him. "We've
gotta learn, fellas," he said. "We gotta learn to be successful.
You can't let up! You got somebody down, you bury 'em!"
Who would know more about being buried than the
65-year-old Tarkanian? His last rites as a coach had been
administered in December 1992, when he was fired by the San
Antonio Spurs only 20 games into the NBA season, with a 9-11
record. That dismissal came hard on the heels of his forced
departure from UNLV at the end of the 1991-92 season, after 19
years as the Rebels' coach. His ouster from Vegas came in the
wake of the publication of a scandalous photograph of three of
his players sharing a hot tub with convicted sports fixer
Richard Perry. "I'll never coach again," Tarkanian said when the
Spurs let him go. "I'm all done." But here he was, back again,
pulling off an improbable resurrection as the Bulldogs heeded
his advice and buried Colorado State 86-72.
When Fresno State hired Tark last April, bringing him home to
his alma mater and to the city where he had launched his career
as a high school coach, the event was seen as a kind of sweet
curiosity--an old lion's nostalgic journey to his last hurrah.
And when his team dropped four of its first seven games this
season, with losses to such weak sisters as Weber State,
Princeton and Pacific, there were intimations that the game had
passed him by.
No sooner was he down than he was up again. In a
24-day stretch from Dec. 16 to Jan. 8, the Dogs won six
straight, knocking off Oregon, 25th-ranked New Mexico and UTEP
in the process. They ended the streak with perhaps the most
heart-stopping win of the season, when point guard Dominick
Young drilled a three-pointer with .8 of a second remaining to
beat 13th-ranked Utah 65-64. Racing off the court in jubilation,
Young flew into his coach's arms and knocked him to the floor.
Reporters looked over and thought that Tarkanian had, in fact,
suffered a heart attack, but the two then started rolling around
the floor, with Young yelling, "Tell me it's true!" while Tark
screamed back, "Way to go! Way to go!"
Fresno State had seen only one winning season in its past six
when Tarkanian arrived. In short order he has turned the
Bulldogs into a force in the Western Athletic Conference. They
had a 9-4 record in league play at week's end, good for second
place in the WAC, and were 16-8 overall. With five
regular-season games to go and a chance to win an NCAA bid in
the WAC's postseason tournament, there's still a chance Fresno
State might make the tournament this season. Yes, the coach who
has so bedeviled the NCAA for years may be back to haunt it again.
Certainly no one has had a more tortuous and controversial
history with the NCAA than Tark. There was the three-year
probation for rules violations that the association slapped on
his basketball program at Long Beach State in 1974; his messy
13-year legal battle to fend off the NCAA's efforts to suspend
him for allegations of recruiting and player-eligibility
violations at UNLV; and finally the NCAA sanctions against UNLV
stemming from what the NCAA called the university's failure to
maintain "institutional control" over the program during
Tarkanian's tenure as coach.
The NCAA ultimately gave up its quest to suspend Tarkanian for
those alleged transgressions at UNLV--"They never had anything on
me," he says--but he went into retirement widely perceived as a
Tarkanian has a sense of humor about his image, though. A month
ago, while discussing a hot recruiting prospect with Tarkanian,
one of his assistants remarked that the young man "brings some
"He sounds like one of our kind of boys," Tark said.
His history followed him, of course, to Fresno, where once again
his basketball program has come under scrutiny in the press. On
Oct. 6, 20-year-old guard Chris Herren, who is sitting out after
transferring from Boston College, got into what witnesses
described as a "heated argument" with two patrons outside a
local bar. The antagonists never came to blows, but someone
called the police, who arrived moments later with weapons drawn.
Herren, who had been drinking (though 21 is the legal age to do
so in California), was released at the scene with freshman
forward Terrance Roberson, who is academically ineligible to
play this season, and junior guard James Gray. There were no
arrests, but the story about the incident in the Fresno Bee ran
across the top of the front page under the headline: BULLDOGS
PLAYERS PART OF TROUBLE AT RESTAURANT.
Roberson, a three-time Parade All-America from Saginaw, Mich.,
already had his own press clippings, not all of them flattering.
His ACT test scores were followed more closely in the San
Joaquin Valley this past year than the commodities market. Twice
in high school Roberson scored 15 on the test, 1.5 points below
what he needed to be eligible to play. On his third try, last
June, his score jumped to 21, raising eyebrows among the ACT
administrators. Since so vast an improvement was out of the
range of "statistical probability," according to Fresno's
interim athletic director Benjamin Quillian, Roberson was
ordered to either take the test again or wait for the ACT
investigation, which probably wouldn't be completed until
January. He opted to take the test.
Tarkanian scoffs at any suggestion that the test result was
fishy. In fact, he says, the athletic department solicited and
received letters from the two proctors who administered the test
in Michigan, and both wrote that they had seen nothing
irregular. But when Roberson took the test again, he scored
15.8. "He missed by seven tenths of a point!" says Tarkanian. So
Roberson is sitting out the year as a full-time student.
Then there are the peregrinations of Young, a junior guard who
was already at Fresno State when Tarkanian arrived. Last summer
Young accepted an invitation to play on a nonprofit basketball
team traveling to Belgium as part of a program called People to
People. He put an ad in the Bee soliciting money from supporters
so he could make the trip. All of that is legal under NCAA
rules. After collecting over $1,000, however, Young deposited it
into his account and decided not to go. He was, shall we say,
slow to return the money, and when Quillian found out, he
suspended Young for four games--until the money was returned, in
Young had just dug himself out of that hole when he fell into
another. Seeking to create a "bonding" experience with his
teammates, Young rented a room at a local hotel and threw a New
Year's Eve party. By the party's end--and after some 20 crashers
had come and gone--a security guard had been punched, the room
had been trashed and various items, from a coffee table to a
clock radio, were missing. Young said he left the party before
the trouble started, but when he showed up the next day, the
hotel handed him a $1,500 bill to cover the damage. Once again
the Bee commemorated the event with a front-page story.
Over the years Tarkanian has grown used to, and weary of, such
scrutiny of his players and his program. "I've been through a
lot," he says. "I just want to coach basketball."
Only a year ago Tarkanian wanted nothing of the sort. He was
content living in retirement in Las Vegas. Then he showed up for
a speaking engagement in Fresno soon after the resignation of
Gary Colson, the Bulldogs' former coach. An army of boosters was
already thumping the tub for the school to go after Tarkanian.
The reception in Fresno overwhelmed him.
"I went to a restaurant for breakfast, and all the people stood
up and clapped when I came in," he says. "I went to Memorial
High to talk to the students, and every one had on a Tark shirt
with my face on it. It was unbelievable." By the time he left
town, he could not miss the bumper stickers on the cars that
swept by: HIRE TARK, they read.
"I got excited about the idea of coaching again," Tarkanian
says. Back home, he mulled it over with his wife, Lois. Born and
raised in the San Joaquin Valley, she had met Tarkanian when
they were students at Fresno State and liked the thought of
going home again. He had left basketball with a sour taste, and
he began to think he should go back one more time, just so he
could one day leave the game feeling good about it. Besides, the
school wanted to raise $40 million to build a new sports arena,
and he thought he could help with that. Tarkanian had been a
scholarship player at Fresno in the mid-1950s, and the idea of
rebuilding his old program appealed to him most of all. "It
would be a great way to end my career," he says.
Not all the folks in Fresno were putting HIRE TARK stickers on
their bumpers, however. Some faculty members had misgivings
about hiring a coach with an outlaw reputation. Philosophy
professor Warren Kessler was especially skeptical, expressing
publicly "the hope that the university and the community would
not brush aside the history of allegations and findings in a
rush to raise money and win games."
In the end, university president John Welty decided to make the
appointment in spite of reservations of his own. "I recognized
that we were taking a risk," Welty says. "There was concern that
he was not going to follow the rules and be responsible."
So far no one has complained about the program, not even the
NCAA, though Kessler adds, "I am keeping my fingers crossed that
we have a team that will be competitive and that we can be proud
With his team on the upswing, Tarkanian has emerged as the most
celebrated sporting figure in these parts since a local boy
named Tom Seaver pitched the New York Mets into the World Series
in 1969. Tarkanian has become especially popular among the
40,000 of his fellow Armenian-Americans who live in this part of
the Valley. From Uncle Harry's New York Bagelry on North Palm
Avenue, where he eats breakfast, to the Elbow Room on West Shaw,
where he presides like a cheerful Buddha after all victorious
games, he has been leading his entourage on the city's merriest
and most movable feast.
Of course, the merriest feast of all these days is at home games
in Selland Arena, where an artfully run fast break brings the
crowds screaming to their feet. And in the center of it all
stands Tarkanian, gnawing on the end of his trademark towel,
pacing with his pained expression and performing like his own
sixth man. "If you're open, take the shot!" he growls from the
sideline. "And play deeefense!" As another Bulldogs shot drains
through the net, the fans' applause sends the arena's
Tark-o-Meter soaring. Fresno's new coach has the Bulldogs
believing in themselves and the whole city beginning to believe
in them, too.