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The suspicion persists that at times unnamed boosters have become too wrapped up in UNLV basketball. After columnist John Henderson of the Las Vegas Review Journal criticized Tarkanian for bringing the troubled Daniels to campus—"prostituting the university," he wrote—and described a group of boosters as actually applauding Tarkanian's defense of Daniels "like a herd of seals at feeding time," the paper received nearly 150 letters, some of them demanding that Henderson be fired. Moreover, his apartment was mysteriously broken into and trashed, with nothing missing except a phone recording machine.
It was Sig Rogich, a Vegas ad man, who brought Tarkanian to UNLV in 1973 from the relative obscurity of Long Beach State. Rogich was "basketball nutsy," as he put it, and a key member of the UNLV booster club. He sent another booster, Davey Pearl, the boxing referee, to Long Beach to sign Tarkanian to a contract and then in one day made 24 phone calls to Pearl before being persuaded that Tark was in the fold. But Rogich wasn't just nutsy; he had a vision for his city. "The town needed to show another side of itself, to bring its factions together," Rogich says. "The quickest way to let the world know you're alive is through sports. Not that we didn't have our priorities straight. Now we just have them straighter. The Rebels were the catalyst that caused the community to recognize the campus."
They were a strange pair: Rogich, with his Italian designer suits, $3,000 watches and friends in high places (Sinatra, Newton, Senator Paul Laxalt), and Tark, who had such a hard time recognizing celebrities that he once met an overalled Harry Belafonte at the Hilton and thought he was the janitor.
Rogich recently moved from Las Vegas. Having helped direct the national ad campaign that contributed to Ronald Reagan's landslide election in 1984 and quietly partnered Roger Ailes in producing the controversial Dukakisbattering commercials for George Bush last year, Rogich was named the new assistant to the president for Public Events and Initiatives (read: image-maker).
Can Tarkanian have survived so long that he now has connections in the White House? "All I know is, Sig's supposed to be the hardest guy in D.C. to reach, but whenever I call, he's back to me in an hour," says Tark.
As if Tarkanian really needs any more highly placed buddies. Rickles invites him backstage between shows. Sinatra tells Tark he "prays" for the Runnin' Rebs. Diana Ross sang Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand) to the players on the night Thomas & Mack Center opened in 1983. The list of performers at UNLV's annual fund-raising dinner has included Pat Henry, Helen Reddy, Charlie Callas and Joey Heatherton. Are we talking heavy Vegas or what? Soon, the one-and-only Newton will be costarring with Tarkanian in a UNLV basketball video.
Possibly there has never been more glitz and glitter surrounding a more unadorned, common everyday Jerry. Amid the bobbles, bangles and bright lights of America's showplace slumps a gloomy-looking man who still and ever appears as if life were a glacier and his team the Exxon Valdez.
To most fans, Tark is best known for his run-for-your-lives offense. Most of the scoring records broken last season by the Loyola-Marymount circus act were held by Tark's Runnin' Rebels. Yet it is the Rebels' aggressive full-court pressure defense and work ethic that earn Tark's team the most respect. "We're the hardhats' favorite, the laborers' team," he says. "Every working man who has to sweat for his pay has got to root for us."
Then there's the spectacular pregame light show at Thomas & Mack, the fireworks, the enormous mounted shark hanging from the rafters, the shark holograms racing around the rim of the arena, the shark hats and shark shirts and shark puppets and the high-rent ($1,800-a-year per seat) Gucci Row. Gucci Row?
Normally sitting among Tark's inner circle at courtside across from the teams' benches are glamorous representatives from TV and films (Irwin and Susan Molasky of Lorimar; Dick Manoogian, a cosmetics entrepreneur and the producer who is responsible for hiring the renowned Chick Hearn to broadcast Vegas games back to the lucrative Los Angeles market), the hotel industry (the Wynns), boxing and medicine (Dr. Elias Ghanem, the chairman of the Nevada boxing commission); and the restaurant industry (Freddy Glusman, owner of Vegas's posh Piero's restaurant), along with goshknowswhatall visitors to Johnny Carson's late-night couch.