Twenty years later, Tark's Rebels still carry an unparalleled mystique
The '90-'91 Rebels captured the nation's attention, even without winning a title
Jay Bilas: "Even though this sounds like blasphemy, they were the best team"
Tarkanian was hounded by the NCAA (and his own school president) at every turn
LAS VEGAS -- The poster hangs on the back wall of the office of UNLV assistant athletic director Andy Grossman, the blackness of its border a stark contrast to the neutral tone behind it. There's beauty in its simplicity.
Five Runnin' Rebels stand proudly in front of the stars and stripes, looking left in unison. "First Team All-America" it says on top, and in their stately red jerseys with the almost-baggy shorts, Anderson Hunt, Greg Anthony, Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and George Ackles look every bit the part.
"They don't make them anymore," Grossman said of the poster. He could have been referring to the team itself. For one season, that 1990-91 season, UNLV was all of America's team. Twenty years later, we still haven't seen one quite like it.
Those Rebels were the defending national champs and returned three future high-first round draft picks -- Johnson (No. 1 overall), Augmon (9), Anthony (12) -- because leaving early for the pros wasn't yet the norm. There was a coach comfortable wearing a black hat, although if you looked closer, it contained considerable shades of gray. There was infighting on campus, with an administration trying to derail the juggernaut that simultaneously was building and undermining the school's reputation.
Then there was Vegas itself, with all its implications and reputations and characters who got a little too close for anyone's comfort. And the NCAA, rightly and/or overzealously, hounding the program at every turn. And the 34-0 start and the massive margins of victory and the fastbreak dunks. Lots of dunks.
Most important to these Rebels' lasting mystique: There was relatively little TV coverage. We all saw the scores and the highlights, and we wanted to see more.
Of course, the '90-91 Runnin' Rebels fell two wins short of a national title (and perfect season), but that doesn't reduce the colossal imprint this group left on the national sports spectrum.
Here is the story of that UNLV team, the most compelling college squad of the modern era, through the eyes of people who did watch them play.
"Wow, that team was the best team I have ever coached against," Pacific coach Bob Thomason said without hesitation. "They really had a perfect starting lineup and the guys coming off the bench -- they played seven and they had two other guys who helped a little. I was always impressed by how hard they played and the type of defense they played. They all knew their roles."
Thomason, now entering his 23rd season at the Stockton, Calif., school, was just in his third year there when his Tigers lost by 20 at home and then by 21 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Big West play. The faint silver lining was that both results were better than how the Rebels' average opponent fared (UNLV's average margin of victory was about 27 points). The Tigers even had the nerve to make a run at the Rebels in the second half in Vegas.
"Then all of a sudden, they came out and went to Larry Johnson -- bang, bang, bang, bang," Thomason recalled. "He scored a basket and got fouled a couple times. I called timeout and I couldn't even hear in that place. I couldn't even talk to the guys because it was so loud."
The Big West has fallen off the national radar since UNLV left for the WAC in 1996 and Thomason knows firsthand what the Rebels meant to the conference.
"A lot of players that we had come into our program was because Vegas was in our league," he said. "They helped a lot of teams recruit. People wanted to play against Vegas because they knew they were a national power."
Brad Rothermel's tenure as UNLV's athletic director ended a few months after the Rebels won the 1990 national title. In his words, he was tired of acting as the referee in the escalating battle between coach Jerry Tarkanian and school president Dr. Robert Maxson, and took a role as a professor.
That's not to say he's neutral in his opinion of what was happening behind the scenes.
"What we did that was remarkable was to win it in '90 when we had maybe the only university president in the history of the NCAA who didn't want his team to win the national championship," Rothermel said. "To overcome that was extraordinary."
In a 1992 hearing called by the state in the aftermath of Tarkanian's eventual firing, Rothermel testified that Maxson had asked him as early as 1984, when Maxson first arrived at the school, about whether Tarkanian had done anything that was cause for dismissal. Like a modern-day Ahab, Maxson's pursuit of "The Shark" never waned, and Rothermel believes a lot of UNLV's perception as a renegade program -- one that was portrayed by multiple people interviewed for this story as media overhype -- was created and nurtured by Maxson and his allies.
"The important thing about that was [the image] was created by our own institution," said Rothermel, who is back with the athletic department in an advisory role. "Our own president and his administration wanted to give the perspective that we were thugs and we were uncontrollable and were not very good students academically."
Rothermel makes sure to note that 10 of the 14 members of the 1990 national championship team have earned their UNLV degrees.
Current BYU associate coach Dave Rice was the "other junior college transfer" who arrived in the fall of 1989 with Larry Johnson. Needless to say, he and the other reserves didn't see much playing time over the next two seasons, but it may not be why you think.
"Maybe at times the perception was that it was a team that wasn't overly deep," Rice said. "Not to be self-serving, but I'd probably disagree with that a little bit. It's just the fact that the guys who were playing the minutes were so good."
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