"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 of."
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.