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Into the Limelight
John Feinstein
December 12, 1988
After years of coaching in obscurity, Dick Tarrant got a pair of dazzling wins in the NCAAs and put Richmond on the map
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December 12, 1988

Into The Limelight

After years of coaching in obscurity, Dick Tarrant got a pair of dazzling wins in the NCAAs and put Richmond on the map

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Dick Tarrant has his feet resting comfortably on the desk. A huge grin creases his face and his eyes are alight with satisfaction. Though he has watched this highlight tape on dozens of occasions, Tarrant beams like a movie director viewing his completed picture for the first time.

"When we show this, the kids get all excited," Tarrant says. "They really go for all the glitter."

Glitter? It's not a word that springs to mind here in the office of the head basketball coach at the University of Richmond. This Virginia campus is a long way from Hollywood—and in many regards just as far from Bloomington, Chapel Hill, Georgetown or Durham, to name just a few of college basketball's more glamorous outposts. And yet, right there on the highlight tape...look, there's Tarrant being congratulated by Bob Knight. And there he is shaking hands with Georgia Tech's Bobby Cremins, and now with CBS's Billy Packer. And there he is with a smiling Dick Vitale. "I'm proud of you, big guy," Vitale is saying as the tape rolls.

Tarrant grunts happily from behind his desk and says, "I'm five-nine and 163 pounds and he calls me 'big guy.' "

But last March, Dick Tarrant was big. Big news. Big time. Big surprise. In the NCAA tournament, Tarrant took his Spiders—a team the selection committee considered no better than 49th in the 64-team field—and beat Knight and Indiana, then Cremins and Georgia Tech, all in a 48-hour period.

With two waves of the wand, Tarrant's fairy godmother had taken an obscure, 57-year-old ex-Marine with a gray perm and transformed him and his team into the Cinderella of the Sweet 16. Suddenly all kinds of people were talking about what a great basketball coach this Tarrant fellow had always been. "Dick Tarrant was a good coach before I was even in coaching," Knight said to the media masses after Indiana's 72-69 loss to Richmond. "He and his kids deserved this. They worked for it."

Work. Now there's a word that's more commonly attached to Tarrant. The man is nothing if not hard-working, and his players love to talk about their intense and demanding coach. "Every time you start to think he's cool, he nails you," says junior guard Kenny Atkinson. "Then, just when you think you can't stand him another minute, he does something great for you. None of us would ever doubt him, though. He knows exactly what he's doing. I like to think of him as a sane Bobby Knight."

The affection Tarrant's players feel for him is apparent in the way they giggle as they gossip. "Never ever tell him something is unfair," says senior guard Benjy Taylor. "That gets him going." Taylor puts on his best New Jersey accent. "He goes like this: 'Don't tell me about unfair. If life was fair, there wouldn't be Seeing Eye dogs. If life was fair, there wouldn't be war veterans. If life was fair, there wouldn't be cerebral palsy centers.' "

Life may not be fair, but it does occasionally offer its just rewards. The victories over Indiana and Georgia Tech constituted Tarrant's payoff for 10 years of hard work at Richmond, first as an assistant and, beginning in 1981, as head coach. In that time, the Spiders crawled out from under a 4-22 record in 1977-78, just before Tarrant arrived, and last season registered a school-record 26 victories, including those in the dazzling postseason. Says Taylor, "No one in the world thought we had a chance to beat Indiana except the players and our parents. And our parents were just humoring us."

Never mind that the clock finally struck midnight when Temple turned back Cinderella, 69-47, in the East Regional semifinals. And no matter that three senior starters from last spring's dream team are gone. The magic lingers on the Richmond campus. Says assistant coach Bill Dooley, "When I talk to people now, they say, 'We know you guys are going to be a little down this year, so you might only win 18 or 19.' When I was a junior here [Tarrant's first season as head coach] we won 18 and it was a miracle. Now it's a rebuilding year."

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