For this question, as for most others, Jerry Tarkanian draws his answer from the game he coaches: Why didn't he want his son Danny to play basketball for him at University of Nevada, Las Vegas? Oh, Danny has been playing—and splendidly. He's the 6'2" point guard on a Runnin' Rebel team that at week's end was 22-1 and ranked No. 7 by SI, and his average of 9.5 assists per game was the second best in the nation. All things considered, says Lois Tarkanian, Danny's mother and Jerry's wife, the son's playing for the father "has been a beautiful experience for our family."
But Jerry had been dead set against it, was sure it wouldn't work out. He'd thought long and hard about it, called around, talked to other fathers who had coached their sons, guys like Al McGuire (see box, page 35) who had counseled him not to do it. Plus, Tarkanian had a good reason of his own, and last week he bounded to the chalkboard in his office, to explain.
Tark doesn't just have a basketball answer to the question. He has got an entire play. If the 53-year-old Tarkanian sometimes expresses himself in X's and O's, it's because the sport is all he has ever lived for—save for an occasional high school football game when Danny was quarterbacking Vegas' Bishop Gorman High to an 11-0 record and the 1979 state championship. Says John Schumacher, who covers UNLV basketball for the Las Vegas Sun, "Ask Tark about Grenada and he'll want to know what league it's in."
"So we're playing at Wyoming, the end of the '79-80 season," Tarkanian is saying at the board. "And nobody wins in Laramie. But if we win we go to the NCAA tournament. And we're up by one, four seconds to go, with the ball out of bounds under their basket. So I put in [reserve guard] Billy Cunningham, who'd been a quarterback in high school, to inbound. And I call this play."
And Tark diagrams it. A pair of Rebels will set up a diversionary screen in one corner, while Michael (Spiderman) Burns fakes and goes long. A fly pattern with play action. "It works perfectly," Tark continues, chalk dust flying. "Spiderman is wide open. And the kid with the ball freezes, passes to someone else, who gets fouled and misses the first of a one-and-one. Wyoming rebounds and throws in a halfcourt shot at the buzzer to win. Afterward, no one'll even talk to Billy. So I put my arm around him and tell him it's not so bad, we're still going to the NIT. And he says, 'College basketball has been a bad experience for me. It's caused me a lot of pain.' And I realized it's the same for a lot of other kids. I knew right then I didn't want that for Danny."
In a city whose existence depends on losers, Danny's dad has been a stubborn winner. Including the five seasons he spent at Long Beach State (1968-73), Tarkanian has the highest winning percentage of any active major college coach (368-84, .814). Last season, with a team that wasn't even a clear-cut pick to win the Pacific Coast Athletic Association title, UNLV won 28 games and the PCAA regular-season and postseason championships. Tarkanian was UPI's Coach of the Year. The Rebels' 1983-84 preseason prospects seemed even shakier, yet Vegas is only a game off its '82-83 pace. Tark wins by favoring simple execution over highfalutin strategy and by recruiting inner-city kids, usually from junior colleges or other four-year schools, who find Tarkanian's background—a childhood of poverty and a father who died young—easy to relate to. "Tark ain't white, man," one of his former players, Lewis Brown, used to say. "He's Armenian!"
Tarkanian likes to call his two most recent clubs "teams of character, not characters." Yet the public's long-held perception of the Runnin' Rebels makes it hard for Tark to sell that assessment. Year in and year out, no team in America has played so true to its nickname. The two stiff probationary sentences the NCAA slapped on Tarkanian teams, first at Long Beach immediately after he left that school in 1974 and then at UNLV in 1977, have only reinforced the outlaw images of the coach and his program. "The NCAA gave Jerry something," says Lois, who reacted to both investigations by falling into depression. "He's got it now, and it's not going to change."
Back when Tark was known as the Shark and he could find an NCAA investigator behind every clipboard, his Runyonesque mien and nervous manner didn't exactly inspire trust. Take, for instance, the towel. Of course, lots of coaches find security in towels. Georgetown's John Thompson drapes one over a shoulder, and Houston's Guy Lewis wrings his like Wednesday's wash. But Tark, fidgety and obsessive, dips his in water and sucks on it throughout the game.
He still does, though nowadays he makes an altogether different impression. He looks a little more world-weary, a little more resigned—like a man who has spent too much time in a pressure cooker. Tarkanian admits there's substance behind that impression—"I'm more mature," he says—and people who know him well credit Danny's presence for that maturity. "I've seen a transition in Jerry," says Lonnie Wright, a former Rebel player. "And a lot of that has to do with his son being on the team." Adds UC Santa Barbara coach Jerry Pimm, "Coaching Danny has been a real good emotional break for him at this time in his life."
Danny's arrival at UNLV is both a prodigal son story and a tale full of Turgenevian twists. He'd been a marvelous athlete—not to mention an excellent student—at Gorman, when he was twice selected to all-state teams in both football and basketball. During his senior year in high school it wasn't even clear which sport he would play in college. "I wanted him to go to the University of Redlands [in Southern California], play both, join a frat and chase girls," says Jerry. "Lois wanted him to go to Stanford or Harvard." But Danny settled on Nevada, Reno for a number of reasons, including assurances from Wolf Pack coach Sonny Allen that Reno needed a point guard.