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Curry Kirkpatrick
November 20, 1989
Behind the glitz of UNLV basketball is a real school in a real city
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November 20, 1989

Crass And Class

Behind the glitz of UNLV basketball is a real school in a real city

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Fine. O.K. But Wynn means specialists' stuff, degrees in Baccarat Etiquette or Open-Neck-Shirt Management, right? "Naw," says sophomore Mike Jerlecki, who came to UNLV from Goshen, Ind.—and not to play basketball. "English, biology, finance. My friends back home say, 'They have those classes there?' I've just about convinced them I don't spend all day sitting around making parlays."

Last month, in its annual survey of America's cathedrals of higher learning, U.S. News & World Report rated UNLV as a "rising star" and among only three "up and coming" universities in the 15 Western states. School president Robert Maxson couldn't have been prouder if the Runnin' Rebs had just drilled UC Irvine. "Academic excellence isn't one of the priorities here, it is the priority," Maxson says. "Because this is Las Vegas, we have to work extra diligently to prove ourselves, to not permit anything to detract from the academic mission."

The Las Vegas image is difficult to overcome. While Alistair Cooke appears in a lecture series on campus, the towering neon billboards located nearby read: ENGLEBERT HUMPERDINCK. Not to mention PAI GOW AND PAI GOW POKER; SLOT PLAYERS DRINK FREE. Since the NCAA is suspected of having snoops behind every roulette wheel, UNLV knows it must behave in a manner that is above reproach.

Elsewhere, meanwhile, the scantily clad Memphis State pom-pom squad can shimmy-shake in the precincts of the Via Veneto—which they did recently at the McDonald's Open—yet remain Southern belles just kiddin' around. But Maxson had to persuade UNLV's cheerleaders to forgo their sensational bare-midriff outfits in the NCAAs last spring lest Tipper Gore or somebody slap an X-rating on the tournament.

Then there's Tarkanian. At a basketball camp last summer, when some coaches' heated discussion of abortion turned to Roe vs. Wade, the oblivious-as-usual Tark piped up with "[Matt] Roe should have never left Syracuse." And Maryland shouldn't have forced Bob Wade's resignation, right, coach?

In the same 1987 season in which UNLV's proud collection of true students, nice guys and terrific players was reaching the Final Four in New Orleans, Tarkanian was wooing Lloyd Daniels, a talented player from New York City who could barely read after attending four high schools in three years and was busted in a drug sting in downtown Las Vegas. Tark was also hot on the trail of Clifford Allen, who was in a juvenile detention home as a result of a probation violation of an earlier armed robbery conviction. That neither Daniels nor Allen became a Runnin' Reb wasn't because of any misgivings Tarkanian had.

And so too this year. While Tark may have not only the best team in the country but also the best player—6'7" Odessa (Texas) Junior College transfer Larry Johnson, who originally signed with SMU but never attended because questions were raised about his SAT scores—he must cope with two pending NCAA decisions, one from his 12-year-old lawsuit against the NCAA (the Supreme Court ruled against him last December) and the other stemming from the investigation into UNLV's recruitment of Daniels. "The NCAA can find any little thing on anyone, but they are just not going to find any major violations on Daniels," Tarkanian says firmly. Yet there is speculation that a couple of T-shirts given to recruits—along with Tark's wife, Lois, having paid the rental on former Rebel player Armon Gilliam's cap and gown—might mean the end of his reign at UNLV. Says a close friend, "Jerry thinks they're finally going to get him this time."

His two Final Four appearances, seven Big West titles (in seven years in the league) and a colossal winning percentage (.823, second by .004 to Clair Bee among all the college coaches in history) aside, Tarkanian, 59, will always be known as the man who recruited dead-enders and druggies and kept the NCAA in courtrooms for more than a decade as he fought the organization's ruling that UNLV suspend him for two years or be put on probation.

"Tark the Shark. Coaching a team called the Rebels. In Las Vegas. Seems only fitting, doesn't it?" says Larry DuBoef, the Rebels' former radio broadcaster. Tark allowed DuBoef to come into the locker room at halftimes and into the huddles during timeouts—all for the benefit of KDWN listeners.

"Listen, Tark put this town on the sports map," says DuBoef. "All our lives we've been fingered and ostracized about the nature of our life-style and the gaming industry. So the NCAA stuff is just another notch in our belts. What difference does it make? This team makes us feel good about ourselves, good about Las Vegas."

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