He was replaced as athletic director by Lew Comer, a God-fearing Texan who lived by the Good Book—the NCAA manual. Aware that the protectors of the NCAA commandments might one day be hearing confessions, he distributed manuals like a Gideons society disciple to all the Long Beach State coaches. "If you were sitting in my chair," says Comer, "a hundred things, illegal kinds of things, could be happening and you would never know it. If you snooped around with helicopters and binoculars, you'd see lots of stuff."
What Basketball Coach Tarkanian saw in his fourth and fifth seasons at Long Beach State were glimmerings of the big time. His nationally ranked 49ers were in the process of making a permanent shift to the 9,600-seat Long Beach Arena and, though only a hard-core 4,000 or so fans continued to show up, they at least had more elbow room. Tarkanian, doing some elbowing of his own, was given tenure, a private office and, compliments of the boosters, a nine-day vacation in Hawaii, which he found nerve-racking. "I sat on the beach drawing plays in the sand with a stick. I kept thinking I was losing somebody."
Not with Ivan the Terrible manning the battlements. Beginning with their fourth season on the recruiting circuit, Tarkanian and Duncan's backyard operation spread—thanks in part to the $61,000 share of tournament money the team got for appearing in two straight NCAA playoffs—to the neighborhood. Any neighborhood. Suddenly, there was Tarkanian, the man who had trouble making fan-belt ends meet, in the distant wilds of East Rutherford, N.J., laying claim to Les Cason, a 6'11" schoolboy he had never seen play.
Suddenly, too, there was George Gervin, a sharpshooting forward out of Detroit, and Ernie Douse, the 1971 New York City Player of the Year, and Leonard Gray, a highly touted transfer from Kansas, checking in at Long Beach State. And all along the Father Flanagan hot line was tied up with calls for help like the one from Creighton Coach Eddie Sutton: "Tark, we've got this 7-footer named Nate Stevens who's not working out here. Take him off our hands, will you?" Tark took him.
Jerry and the Vagabonds, as chiding opponents were wont to say, had gone national. But nowhere was there a worse example of the grubby infighting that was going on in college recruiting than right up the freeway in Fresno, Calif. at the four-room house of Roscoe and Clifton Pondexter.
Roscoe, the highest-scoring schoolboy in California history, recalls the day "a TV star drove into the ghetto in a big white Caddy. He took me across town and showed me a five-bedroom house. Then he showed me a brand-new blue sunroof. That was hard to turn down." When the mayor of Fresno tried to cajole him into remaining on the home front, Roscoe shot back, "Why should I go to Fresno State when you won't even pave the road in front of my house?"
At the time, says Roscoe, "I'd never even heard of the NCAA. I thought it was like the pros, where you just sat back and waited for the best offer. But I didn't like the idea of somebody trying to buy me. You know, they figure we're from a poor background so just lay out the green and we'll jump at it. Well, my mom said that if I let them buy me they'd own me forever. Tark said that, too. That's one reason why I went to Long Beach State."
While Roscoe was wooed, there was lusting for Clifton, too. Soon the Pondexters had a front man to keep the suitors off the back porch. Says Ken Delpit, the Pondexter boys' former assistant high school coach, "The recruiters started coming around in Clifton's sophomore year and there got to be so many of them that he wouldn't come out of his room. He had over 300 offers and 80% of them were illegal.
" Washington State offered Clifton an Eldorado and sent him $100 to pay for phone calls to his girl friend. Fresno State offered me an assistant coach's job if I delivered him. When the West Coast Relays came to Fresno at least 10 schools offered Clifton free hotel rooms where he could throw a party and charge anything to room service.
"A Pac-8 school put $10,000 on the dining-room table next to the letter of intent. Mrs. Pondexter was so insulted she got up and walked out of the room. Clifton took me into the kitchen and said, 'What is going on?' What if Clifton had been an undercover agent for the NCAA? Wow!"