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 baggage."
"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 December.
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 lime he left town, he could not miss the bumper stickers on the cars that swept by: HIRE TARK, they read.