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"Naw, not dogs," he says. "The difference is that those are private schools. They don't have state support, they don't have to let anybody in to see what they're doin'. And they graduate people that can't talk. You cannot tell me that somebody that can't speak English is a legitimate graduate of a prestigious private university.
"You try that at a state university, there's half the professors that don't care about your [basketball] program, or they, resent the money you get for it. You try that here and you get murdered."
The subject of graduation is worrisome to Tarkanian. Of the 67 lettermen who used all their eligiblity in his 13 years at UNLV, only 17 have gotten diplomas. It is worrisome enough that he now has two full-time academic advisers on his staff responsible for keeping members of the basketball team academically eligible. One of the advisers tutors and counsels and meets with UNLV teachers. The other one, the "academic enforcer," knocks on doors and makes sure the players go to class. All six seniors on this season's team are on schedule to graduate by next summer.
"The way I look at it," Tarkanian says, "if you bring a kid in that can't read or write—somebody nobody else would touch—and you keep him here four, five years, teach him to follow the rules, make him responsible for what he does, and at the end, if he can read and write a little, you've done him a favor. Even if he doesn't have the piece of paper [the diploma], you gave him a chance to straighten out. I don't see anything wrong with that."
Not all of his former players would agree. Some of them have blamed him because they don't have degrees or better jobs. "I told Tarkanian when he was recruiting me that the main thing to me was to get a degree," David McLucas, who played for Tarkanian at Long Beach State, said to PEOPLE magazine for an article in March 1984. "He said, 'Don't worry about it. We've got help. You'll get a degree. You'll start. You'll play pro ball....' My whole world ended when my eligibility ended in 1972 and I quit school. I was almost suicidal. I couldn't face my friends. I dropped out of society for a year."
According to PEOPLE, McLucas sensed "that he has been deprived of a future.... When I came out of my depression I realized I had to make something of myself.... But the next step in the company is closed to me because I don't have a degree."
The reader, of course, can assign as much blame to Tarkanian as he wants, but another of Tarkanian's former players, Reggie Theus, who now plays for the Sacramento Kings, says, "He never lied to me, at least that I remember. I get mad when I hear all that stuff, how he exploits his players. You came to the wrong place for that. Look, college exploits athletes, that's a fact of life, but I don't think Tark ever did anything out of the ordinary. It's a trade-off. You trade your talent to the school for a shot at professional basketball or a chance at an education. Life is a trade-off, too. That's what work is.
"Everybody that ever played for him, that I know of, still likes him. I still think of him as my coach. There's always going to be a few guys that don't like somebody they played for, we're dealing with human beings here, you can't be close to everybody. But the idea Tarkanian cheated his players is bull——."
"Every time I say something like 'You can help a kid without graduating him,' it gets me in trouble," Tarkanian says, shaking his head as he drives. "That's the biggest problem you got with education today, the hypocrisy. You say what you think, you get murdered. You talk like that guy [football coach and athletic director] Vince Dooley at Georgia, they [the NCAA] leave you alone, at least until some newspaper or magazine investigates the program and makes them come in. You ever heard Vince Dooley speak? About building character, preparing kids for life, teaching honesty and values? He says, 'My kids are the kind of kids you'd want to go out with your daughters.' I never had a kid yet I'd want going out with my daughters.
"The program that guy runs, you'd think somebody would have to pull words like that out of his mouth with pliers. But that's how it works. The NCAA is always after some little guy, they never go after the big money-makers unless they're forced into it."