If the tales its rivals tell are to be believed, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball team has blackjack tables at courtside, Howard Hughes as its athletic director, the point spread on the scoreboard, laundered money, Robert Vesco's jet and horizontally striped uniforms, complete with balls and chains.
All of the above is merely the wailing of disappointed men. The fact is that the most lurid thing about the UNLV team is its nickname—the Rebels. Sure, Las Vegas has dazed its opposition by averaging almost as many points as the Golden State Warriors and dazzled some of its recruits by having Frank Sinatra croon to them. Indeed, the plush Strip is within easy walking distance of the campus, and the coach is considered a fugitive from justice by many of his peers. But in the eyes of their opponents, the most irritating thing about the Rebels, who were unheralded before the season, is the quiet way in which they have built a glittering 24-1 record. In a town replete with unfulfilled promises, UNLV has become that rarest of rarities, an almost sure thing.
And Las Vegas' foes are not likely to stop complaining. Even though most of the Rebels' victories have been against weak opponents, they have looked so impressive that they are a genuine threat to break the bank when NCAA tournament time rolls around next month.
In one game a wary opponent attempted to slow down the tempo and Las Vegas scored only 69 points—in the first half. The Rebels are pumping in 108.8 per game and shooting to break the collegiate record of 105.1 set by Oral Roberts in 1972. Meanwhile, Coach Jerry Tarkanian is improving his record as the winningest active coach at a major college; he has won 85.9% of his games in eight seasons. Tarkanian also leads the nation in biting things—fingernails and towels, but never the hand that feeds him—and in being most investigated and persecuted for some alleged white-collar crime. The NCAA has everybody except Fearless Fosdick on his case, but Tark the Shark continues to proclaim his innocence. Either Tarkanian is being unjustly hounded, or he is the most steadfast stonewaller since Watergate.
Perhaps the investigators' senses have been knocked askew from watching too many of the Rebels' SRO home-game spectaculars. The school is located only half a mile from the glitter of the Strip, and a lot of show biz rubs off. A visiting coach once showed up wearing a tuxedo. Players are introduced in the darkened Convention Center as a band plays, fans clap and whirling, multicolored spotlights zigzag wildly. Stars such as Wayne Newton, Bill Cosby and Totie Fields stare from the stands, mesmerized by behind-the-back passes, between-the-legs dribbles, over-the-rainbow jump shots and a helter-skelter offense that needs only start and finish lines to turn into a genuine track meet. No wonder everyone in the city has tired eyes.
It is a mistake to laugh off Las Vegas as an uncontrolled bunch of outlaws, even if Assistant Coach Ralph Readout once worked in a reformatory. The Rebels' style may be high tempo, but they play with discipline and intelligence. They practice long and hard, with Tarkanian screaming at them like the boss of a chain gang, and they are not allowed to converse during pregame meals on the road. Las Vegas picks apart zone defenses, is impossible to press and defends tenaciously. Guard Glen Gondrezick took so many charging fouls last year that he developed a cyst on his chest and needed an operation. The Rebels have beaten good teams—Michigan, Arizona, New Mexico and Houston—and their average margin of victory is 20.9 points, partly because they mashed one hapless opponent, Cal, Irvine, by 72.
The Rebels' success is predicated on their explosive offense. Vegas was down by nine points at halftime against Nevada, Reno, scored 75 points in the second half and won easily. After Las Vegas came to Albuquerque and beat New Mexico, losing Coach Norm Ellenberger said, "We've never seen such quick hands. They're the best ever to come in here."
As good as the Rebels are, none of their fans are getting flush on them—at least not legally. Las Vegas betting shops, which handle action on college games all over the country, are not allowed to list UNLV contests. This is fine with a lot of Rebel supporters, many of whom complained when the band played Jesus Christ Superstar at a game this season. And how many teams have a backer who wears an orange "Jesus Is The Lord" shirt while watching his team play? He is the same man who rode his bicycle to Tempe, Ariz. last year to see the Rebels perform in the NCAA West regional.
Despite his glittering records at Long Beach State and Las Vegas, Tarkanian has not slept well for years. The NCAA probably has a wanted poster of him hanging in its mailroom. He built Long Beach into a national power during his five years there, using mostly junior-college transfers, a breed that has as bad a reputation as New Jersey politicians. Long Beach eventually was put on probation by the NCAA, but by then Tarkanian had moved to Las Vegas. Some thought "escaped" was a better verb. The Long Beach president subsequently proposed to the NCAA that a coach who leaves an institution that is put on probation be put on probation himself at his new school. It is commonly called "The Tarkanian Rule."
The NCAA is investigating Tarkanian anew. It has interviewed all of his present and former players, and the majority of those he tried unsuccessfully to recruit. Not long ago sleuths were going through old campus parking tickets to see if Tark had fixed those his players had received, and an investigator visited a local automobile dealer to determine what kind of car Ricky Sobers, now a rookie guard with the NBA Suns, drove when he played for Las Vegas. "It was a '68 Mustang," says Tarkanian. "He was probably the only All-America in the country driving a '68."