Prowling around the front of the locker room like some large and wounded cat, his voice at times shifting from a sonorous bellow to a growling shout, Jerry Tarkanian was drawing upon all his years of experience as a coach to goad and cajole his team to sustain its attack. It was halftime at Selland Arena in Fresno, Calif., on Feb. 4, and Tark's Fresno State team had just spent 20 heady minutes whipping Colorado State at both ends of the court. The Bulldogs were leading by 19 at the half, 48-29, and they would have been up by 21 if they hadn't given up an easy layup in the closing seconds.
The coach slammed his fist on the table, snapping back every head in the room. "God darn it!" he cried. "You gave 'em a cheap basket. You can't give up nothin'! Nothin'!"
The players listened wide-eyed as he pleaded with them to keep turning the screws. "Don't let up!" Tark howled. "Understand, the minute you let up—the minute you let up—you go back to the way you were. Keep your intensity!"
At one point he stopped and peered at them, his eyes—the eyes of Yoda—blinking and scanning the faces looking up at him. "We've gotta learn, fellas," he said. "We gotta learn to be successful. You can't let up! You got somebody down, you bury 'em!"
Who would know more about being buried than the 65-year-old Tarkanian? His last rites as a coach had been administered in December 1992, when he was fired by the San Antonio Spurs only 20 games into the NBA season, with a 9-11 record. That dismissal came hard on the heels of his forced departure from UNLV at the end of the 1991-92 season, after 19 years as the Rebels' coach. His ouster from Vegas came in the wake of the publication of a scandalous photograph of three of his players sharing a hot tub with convicted sports fixer Richard Perry. "I'll never coach again," Tarkanian said when the Spurs let him go. "I'm all done." But here he was, back again, pulling off an improbable resurrection as the Bulldogs heeded his advice and buried Colorado State 86-72.
When Fresno State hired Tark last April, bringing him home to his alma mater and to the city where he had launched his career as a high school coach, the event was seen as a kind of sweet curiosity—an old lion's nostalgic journey to his last hurrah. And when his team dropped four of its first seven games this season, with losses to such weak sisters as Weber State, Princeton and Pacific, there were intimations that the game had passed him by.
No sooner was he down than he was up again. In a 24-day stretch from Dec. 16 to Jan. 8, the Dogs won six straight, knocking off Oregon, 25th-ranked New Mexico and UTEP in the process. They ended the streak with perhaps the most heart-stopping win of the season, when point guard Dominick Young drilled a three-pointer with .8 of a second remaining to beat 13th-ranked Utah 65-64. Racing off the court in jubilation, Young flew into his coach's arms and knocked him to the floor. Reporters looked over and thought that Tarkanian had, in fact, suffered a heart attack, but the two then started rolling around the floor, with Young yelling, "Tell me it's true!" while Tark screamed back, "Way to go! Way to go!"
Fresno State had seen only one winning season in its past six when Tarkanian arrived. In short order he has turned the Bulldogs into a force in the Western Athletic Conference. They had a 9-4 record in league play at week's end, good for second place in the WAC, and were 16-8 overall. With live regular-season games to go and a chance to win an NCAA bid in the WAC's postseason tournament, there's still a chance Fresno State might make the tournament this season. Yes, the coach who has so bedeviled the NCAA for years may be back to haunt it again.
Certainly no one has had a more tortuous and controversial history with the NCAA than Tark. There was the three-year probation for rules violations that the association slapped on his basketball program at Long Beach State in 1974; his messy 13-year legal battle to lend off the NCAA's efforts to suspend him for allegations of recruiting and player-eligibility violations at UNLV; and finally the NCAA sanctions against UNLV stemming from what the NCAA called the university's failure to maintain "institutional control" over the program during Tarkanian's tenure as coach.
The NCAA ultimately gave up its quest to suspend Tarkanian for those alleged transgressions at UNLV—"They never had anything on me," he says—but he went into retirement widely perceived as a renegade.