For the past 14 years, basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, 56, has been fighting a bitter battle against the NCAA and the forces of public opinion. In January 1974, nine months after Tarkanian left Long Beach State for the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, the NCAA put Long Beach State's football and basketball programs on probation for violations the NCAA said were "among the most serious" it had ever considered. Two basketball players, Roscoe Pondexter and Glenn McDonald, were found to have fraudulent test scores. In 1977, citing 18 rules violations, the NCAA put UNLV's basketball program on probation and recommended that Tarkanian be suspended for two years from the school's athletic program. Tarkanian filed suit in Nevada's Eighth Judicial District Court, and Judge James Brennan granted an injunction to allow Tarkanian to remain in his job. In 1984, after a 10-day trial, Nevada District Judge Paul Goldman upheld that 1977 injunction, issuing a scathing denunciation of the NCAA's enforcement policies. Five weeks ago the Nevada Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the appeal.
Tarkanian remains a controversial figure. In February 1983, with UNLV vying for the No. 1 spot in the national polls, four coaches—St. John's Lou Carnesecca, Notre Dame's Digger Phelps, Washington's Marv Harshman and USC's Stan Morrison—omitted the Runnin' Rebels entirely from their ballots for the UPI's Top 20 amid speculation that those coaches regarded UNLV as an outlaw basketball school. But Tarkanian has his defenders. "I happen to like him," says George Raveling, the current coach at USC. "Some people think he's unethical. But I've recruited against him, and I've never seen it. He is willing to take a chance on the kid nobody else will, and I know he stood up for what he believed in."
Pete Dexter, a syndicated newspaper columnist and novelist, visited Las Vegas and found that Tarkanian does indeed stand up for what he believes.
At first glance, nothing seems to be alive in the desert, but a closer look will turn up some real surprises, growing right under our noses.
First of all, I cannot prove that Marlin Perkins said those exact words. That's the way I remember them, though, Sunday afternoon on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. In fact, I remember calling my brother Tom into the living room. I said, "You better come in here, Marlin Perkins is about to get bit by a snake."
I only bring Tom into this because he was three times as smart as I was, went to the University of Chicago for about 14 years and doesn't know anything, either. Which, I think, just about polishes off higher education.
Anyway, 20 years after Marlin Perkins spoke words like those above, I find myself in just such a desert, in a Cadillac with the basketball coach of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Jerry Tarkanian, who is more of a surprise than anything Marlin came up with that Sunday afternoon. We are following some unknown freeway that connects the university to Tarkanian's home in the West Charleston section of town when the subject of higher education comes up.
Now the plain truth is that Jerry Tarkanian and higher education do not cross-reference in anyone's dictionary. What they have together is a kind of marriage of convenience, which is not to say it is a marriage without passion. There is no kind of cheating Tarkanian has not been accused of publicly, and perhaps because of his response to those accusations—which is, essentially, yeah, I mess around a little, everybody does—he has been singled out as the godfather of college cheating.
"You ever wonder," he says, "the difference between some of those fancy places back East and a place like UNLV?"
I catch a glimpse of a bank's thermometer. One hundred and sixteen degrees. I take a stab. "Poodles die faster in parked cars here?"