"True," says Miller, relaxing on his patio in Tempe, Ariz., where he is now the athletic director at Arizona State. "There were no channels to go through in those days, no real athletic department. We were an appendage of the phys ed department and we had to grub for everything. Our budget was so tight you could play a tune on it."
Jerry Tarkanian found that out in 1968 when, without bothering to ask about salary, he came to Long Beach State from Pasadena City College and discovered that his $13,300 annual reward for making it to the "bigs" represented a $4,900 pay cut. Tarkanian was Miller's No. 1 choice to bring the school fans, fame and fortune, probably in that order. In four seasons at Riverside City College and two at Pasadena he had taken a pair of last-place basketball teams and run up a 201-11 record, winning four conference and four state junior college titles in the process.
Tarkanian, a native of Euclid, Ohio, who migrated West after his father died when he was 11, looks like a retired welterweight boxer. That tough-guy visage helped gain him a reputation as a coach who had rapport with what he calls the question-mark kids, the talented but often troubled youths who come off the asphalt courts carrying a basketball and a grudge.
There were, for instance, the Trapp brothers, John Q. and George, whose parents moved from Detroit to California for the expressed purpose of having their sons play for Tarkanian, "the only man," said their father, "who could ever handle those boys." Recalls Tarkanian: "John Q. couldn't hold a conversation or look you in the eye when I first got him. George was mean, vicious. You should see them today." John Q. is now back with his mentor in Las Vegas, completing the few credits he needs for his degree. George, meanwhile, is a $120,000-a-year forward for the Detroit Pistons.
Then there was Sam Robinson, a high school All-America from Los Angeles who moved to Pasadena with his mother and younger brothers so he, too, could play JC ball under Tarkanian. It was one big—very big—family.
Tarkanian's wife Lois, who has a master's degree in education, helped the players brush up on their reading skills, did their laundry, sent turkeys to their homes at Christmas, arranged job interviews and regularly drove their relatives to work. Tarkanian, a shouter of the old school, added the finishing touches—or hard knocks, when needed—on the court during practice.
Word got around that Tarkanian was a special kind of coach, that he would rip you and jive you but never deny you, that, as Lewis Brown, one of four high school All-Americas who followed him to Las Vegas, puts it, "Tark ain't white, man, he's Armenian."
Teachers and playground leaders in the inner cities of Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, New York and points between began to send Tarkanian players for placement in junior colleges throughout the West. He obliged, in effect developing a vast and highly effective farm system that served him abundantly as he moved into the four-year college ranks.
Known as Tark the Shark to rival coaches, he came to Long Beach State as a kind of Father Flanagan of the hardwood whose teams were havens for the wayward. Of course, only supershooters need apply.
If Tarkanian was Spencer Tracy, then Ivan Duncan was his Mickey Rooney, a brash, wisecracking type who joined his old junior college coach at Long Beach State as a graduate assistant after nine years of "jocking it up" for the Air Force in the Far East. An honors graduate in English literature, Duncan communicated with players in a stream of hip street talk that not only got through but seemed to come out in iambic pentameter.