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Bloody Shark Attack
Alexander Wolff
March 09, 1992
Jerry Tarkanian's attempt to unresign has provoked vicious backbiting in Vegas
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March 09, 1992

Bloody Shark Attack

Jerry Tarkanian's attempt to unresign has provoked vicious backbiting in Vegas

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"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."

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