Nothing, it seems, can diminish Jerry Tarkanian's knack for
winning games. Not an ongoing battle with the NCAA (his
multimillion-dollar defamation lawsuit against the organization
is scheduled to be heard in May), not a three-year hiatus from
coaching, not a relocation to a basketball backwater. Four years
after being forced out as the coach at UNLV, a program he built
up from obscurity to national prominence and with which he won
an NCAA title in 1990, Tarkanian is stacking up victories and
blue-chip players at his alma mater, Fresno State, an
unassuming school tucked away in a San Joaquin Valley farm town
known primarily for producing raisins and turkeys. Last season,
their first under Tarkanian, the Bulldogs won 22 games--a
nine-game improvement over their 1994-95 performance--and made
it to the quarterfinals of the NIT while the 66-year-old
Tarkanian retained his hold on the best winning percentage
(.829) in major-college coaching history. As he prepared for a
year freighted with unprecedented expectations--we're talking
Sweet 16 here--Tarkanian spoke with SI staff writer KELLI
ANDERSON about his return to coaching, his renegade reputation
and his enduring appeal to players past, present and prospective.
SI: When you were fired from the San Antonio Spurs in 1992 after
just 20 games, you said, "This is it, I'm done with coaching."
What lured you back?
JT: I never planned on coaching again. I was really enjoying not
coaching. I was working as a consultant for Nike; I was hosting
a radio show in Vegas four nights a week; I was speaking to
corporations; I was judging all the major Miss Hawaiian Tropic
contests. I never thought I'd coach again. When the Fresno job
opened up, I got a call from a Stockton [Calif.] radio station
asking if I'd be interested in the job, and I said I would be.
That's all I said. I happened to be in Fresno the next week for
some speaking engagements, and the reception I received was so
overwhelming, it got me all excited. It was like the whole town
was fired up. My wife, Lois, and I agreed that at this time in
my life there wouldn't be anything that would be more meaningful
than to help build this program. But I decided I would never get
into it the way I did at Long Beach or UNLV, where I let the
losses torture me. If we didn't win, I wasn't going to let it
eat at me constantly. I was going to try to put things in their
SI: Were you able to do that last year?
November 15, 1996
JT: Pretty much. Early in the year, we were so bad that I would
feel miserable anyway, but the losses didn't bother me anywhere
near like they did at UNLV or Long Beach.
SI: How did you turn the Fresno State program around so quickly?
JT: Last year we hit a bunch of buckets right at the end of
games, games we were really lucky to win. But the big thing we
did was turn the attitude of the players around. Our guys were
just not used to working. We worked really hard, and our kids
worked extremely hard. My assistants were fabulous. They were
with the players all the time. The results started coming in,
and we got better and better. By the end of the year we were a
pretty good team.
SI: How easy is it for you to recruit? Rumor has it players call
JT: We've gotten a great response from kids. I think a lot of
them relate me to UNLV. At the end of my time at UNLV, I think
we were the most popular team in the country. [Sophomore
forward] Terrance Roberson says that when he was a kid, he told
his dad he was going to play for me. When I first called and
said who I was, he thought someone was pulling his leg. He was
really excited. It was incredible how easily we got Terrance.
SI: How do you explain the allegiance players show you?
JT: I think a lot of it is talk from other players. The one
thing we had going for us at UNLV was that every player in our
program was totally behind us, and they talked for us. I think
the word of mouth spreads among kids. One thing we did at UNLV,
and what I'm doing to a greater extent here, is that I have my
assistants stay here and work with our players. They're not out
on the road recruiting. Last year in the month of September, we
didn't have one home visit, and I made only one school visit. My
assistants were here every day with our kids. I believe if the
kids get better because our coaches are here working with them,
then those kids are going to wind up recruiting for us. And
that's a hell of a lot better than flying all over the country
looking for new players. I think a lot of coaches get players on
campus, and then they're out looking for new players instead of
coaching the ones they have. Consequently, those kids don't get
any better, and a lot of them become very bitter. The best
recruiting tool you have is when kids come on campus and your
own players do the recruiting for you. UNLV was one of the few
programs that during the summer didn't go to camps. We were with
our kids all the time. One of my assistants, Mark Warkentien,
went to summer school with our kids so he could take notes in
their classes and help tutor them. He enrolled in the same class
with five or six kids. He'd take notes, and then afterward he
would meet with them. Our obligation was to the kids in the
program, not to new kids.
SI: You have a reputation for bringing in so-called high-risk
players, guys whom, for one reason or another, other coaches
won't touch. Is that valid?
JT: The media started that. That's all b-------. What players do
I have here that nobody else would touch? Terrance Roberson
visited UMass before coming here and was scheduled to go to
Florida State next, so you sure as hell can't say he was a guy
who nobody was touching. Everybody was after Chris Herren. The
one guy I had who nobody would touch was Lloyd Daniels. You
think nobody was trying to touch Larry Johnson or Stacey Augmon?
What I've done here is taken some kids who didn't get along with
coaches someplace else, but that doesn't mean nobody would touch
SI: You also have a reputation as something of an outlaw in the
basketball community. How much of that is deserved?
JT: The NCAA did that to me. There's no basis for any of that.
[At UNLV] we went through 4 1/2 years of the most intense
investigation in NCAA history. For 4 1/2 years we got blistered,
and they found no major violations. You ask the NCAA and they'll
say, Oh, yeah, there was a lack of institutional control. S---,
that's the case with everybody.
SI: There have been some incidents involving Fresno State
players--for instance, one player was charged with assault,
another was charged with assault and cited for drunken
driving--that alumni, not to mention the NCAA, tend to frown
upon. Any expressions of displeasure from the administration?
JT: I think everybody's behind me here. The assault thing, it
was nothing, absolutely nothing. There was a racial remark made,
two kids got out of their car, one got shot by a stun gun and
the other punched the guy with the gun. In the latest incident,
one kid tested .07 percent for alcohol. There's nothing wrong
with that! He got cited for DUI and he wasn't even driving the
truck. There's nothing there.
SI: What are your goals for the Fresno State program?
JT: I want to leave here with the program competing at a
national level. I just want our team to be able to play with
anybody. I never said we'd go to the Final Four or the Sweet 16
or whatever. And I want to help get a new arena built. This is
where I went to school; this is where Lois went to school; this
is where my daughter Pam was born. I started my coaching career
at San Joaquin Memorial High, right here. Fresno has been a very
special place for me.
SI: Unlike at UNLV, you're pretty much the only show in town
here. How do you like that?
JT: We get great fan support, but by the same token, the guys
are in a fishbowl. Any little thing they do is the biggest thing
in town. In reality, our guys aren't any different from other
college kids. How many kids go to a party and don't have .07
percent alcohol in them? If I went to a party, I'd have .07 in me.
SI: How much of that fishbowl effect has to do with you?
JT: The publicity I came in with was incredible. When you create
that much interest, it doesn't just go away. It's there in
SI: What do you teach your players about dealing with it?
JT: I talk to my guys every single day. After practice, I sit
them down at center court and I talk with them. One day could be
about our opponents. Another day could be about our practice
habits. Another could be about how they're behaving around
campus or around town. The big thing I stress with our guys is
getting themselves prepared physically, mentally and emotionally
to do the best they can. I don't talk to them about winning a
game, and I don't criticize them after a loss. You can't be
loyal to each other if you put the blame on other people.
SI: What do you think about the state of college basketball
JT: I think college basketball has grown so big because of
television. Guys like Billy Packer and Dick Vitale have done
more for college basketball than any coach. I think the game is
better, but I don't like some of the rule changes. I can't
understand how a legitimate basketball guy can sit on a rules
committee and take away the five-second count [when a player is
being closely guarded]. Now a guy can dribble for 30 seconds.
How can that be good for college basketball? I think that's the
most ridiculous rule that has ever been put in, and I think that
all the guys on the rules committee should be fired immediately.
SI: What do you think of college underclassmen and high school
kids going off to the NBA?
JT: I don't think as coaches we can control it, and I don't
think anybody can criticize it. How can you say what's good for
a kid who comes from a home where the family is struggling? It
makes it tough when you recruit. Now you have to figure you'll
have the great players for just one or two years. You have to
take that into consideration.
SI: So do you put less emphasis on getting those players?
JT: Oh, no. If you want to win big, you still have to get those
SI: Do you see any threats to the game?
JT: Every program in America is vulnerable, because the rules
are unreasonable. Just by associating with a kid you're probably
committing a violation. You're probably going to have a Coke
with him, but if you buy his Coke, it's a violation. I would
like to see common sense brought into the situation. I read
about the Purdue assistant who got reprimanded because he drove
a kid [on a recruiting visit] from the gym to the hotel. What is
wrong with that? The coach probably should have gotten an award
for that! That's just being courteous, that's not doing anything
wrong! If I were stuck and didn't have a ride, I'd appreciate it
if a kid drove me to my hotel.
SI: Why have you scheduled so many tough nonconference road
games this year?
JT: At UNLV we always had the toughest nonconference schedule we
could play. Last year I said we'd play anybody, anyplace,
anytime, just as long as they returned the game. I won't play
anybody who won't return a game. We're playing Texas, UMass,
LSU, Oregon all on the road this year. Next year we get them all
at home. This city has never had games like that before. I want
to play UCLA; we'd play them in the [Anaheim] Pond every year,
they don't even have to come up here. And I told Cal we'd play
them every year in San Jose or Sacramento.
SI: How do you feel about playing UNLV this season?
JT: When we play at UNLV [on Feb. 17], that'll be the toughest
night of my life. UNLV was very special to me. I loved it there,
and I wouldn't trade my 19 years there for anything. It was a
great period of my life. We were there at the right time. Vegas
was really wonderful then. Now it has grown so big, it's not the
same. Playing UNLV will be tough. I'm not looking forward to it.
I wish they were in the [WAC's] other division.
SI: Do you have any interests outside of basketball?
JT: I try to work out, ride my bike every day. I'm doing a lot
of reading now. I had never read a book that wasn't
sports-related--except The Godfather--until I quit coaching and
was going to Greece for a coaching clinic in 1993. In the
airport I bought a book, The Pelican Brief. I absolutely could
not put it down. Since then I've become addicted to [John]
Grisham books, and that's all I do in my spare time.
SI: What's on your nightstand now?
JT: Gary Barnett's book on turning Northwestern around.
SI: So you're back to sports books?
JT: Well, the one before that was The Chamber. I've been reading
a lot of romance novels, too. Every time I go to the airport I
get a book.
SI: Is it true you don't let your assistants play golf?
JT: I don't play golf and I don't let my assistants play because
I want them here in the office with the players. I think that's
one reason kids come with us. We have a closer relationship to
our kids than most coaches because we're here all summer long.
SI: How would you like to be remembered as a coach?
JT: I have no control over that, but I'd like people to think I
was a good person more than a good coach. Or better yet, that I
"A lot of coaches are out looking for new players instead of
coaching the ones they have."
"Taking away the five-second rule is ridiculous. The guys on the
rules committee should be fired immediately."