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THE SHARK GETS A RULING WITH BITE
Rick Telander
October 10, 1977
Suspended for recruiting violations, University of Nevada, Las Vegas Basketball Coach Jerry Tarkanian went to court and won reinstatement in a decision so severely critical of the NCAA that its powers are now threatened
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October 10, 1977

The Shark Gets A Ruling With Bite

Suspended for recruiting violations, University of Nevada, Las Vegas Basketball Coach Jerry Tarkanian went to court and won reinstatement in a decision so severely critical of the NCAA that its powers are now threatened

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Tarkanian felt he had all the evidence he needed to back up that allegation. Typical of the information he and his wife had amassed was an affidavit signed by Jackie Robinson, now a senior on the UNLV basketball squad, that concerned a conversation Robinson says he had with NCAA investigator Lester Burks in April 1973. Robinson was then a widely recruited high school senior who had decided to attend Las Vegas, and he claims he told Burks of several illegal offers made to him by West Coast colleges. These included cash, automobiles and guarantees that he would graduate. Only when Robinson mentioned Las Vegas—which he stoutly maintains never offered him anything illegal—did Burks show intense interest. In the Robinson affidavit, Burks is quoted as saying, "Between you and me, I'm not supposed to be saying this, but I know a guy who attended Las Vegas a couple of years ago and he quit. It's easy to pick up $50 or $60 a day there. To tell you the truth, if I were a kid coming out of high school, I wouldn't go there. You were recruited by UCLA, weren't you? They told me they wanted you. Why did you choose Las Vegas over UCLA?" According to Robinson, Burks also said, "Tarkanian, he's just one step ahead of us. But we're out to get him and we will."

In another affidavit, Dwight Taylor, a former Long Beach State player, says that NCAA investigator David Berst told him, "We're out to get Tarkanian and we're going to hang him." To Roscoe Pondexter, who also played for Long Beach State, Berst allegedly said, "I'm going to get Tarkanian if it takes the rest of my career."

With the NCAA refusing comment on the matter except to say it was satisfied with its investigation and review of the case, Tarkanian seemed to have the weight of the evidence on his side as the hearing began early last week. The defense presented by UNLV's lawyer, Thomas Bell, was simply that due process is not guaranteed a plaintiff against the NCAA, because the NCAA is a voluntary organization, like the Elks or Boy Scouts. If one does not like the NCAA's decisions, he implied, one is free to get out of the association.

Tarkanian's lawyer, Sam Lionel, countered by saying that every American has the "right to liberty and due process" whenever his right of property—in this case, Tarkanian's freedom to earn a living at his chosen profession—is threatened. He then produced a heap of evidence designed to disprove the NCAA's findings. There was, for example, a transcript of a taped conversation between Rodney Parker, who scouts schoolyard players in Brooklyn, and Berst. Lionel purported to show that Berst had later misrepresented the discussion while testifying about it at a hearing of the NCAA's Committee on Infractions.

Near the end of the trial, Lionel produced the so-called "pink file," a collection of sworn statements from players, coaches and others alleging that NCAA investigators were determined to pin something on Tarkanian, whether he was guilty of rule violations or not. Included in the file were affidavits from current and former UNLV and Long Beach State players stating that they had been harassed by investigators in search of information. Evidence was presented that former UNLV Assistant Coach Tony Morocco had not told the truth when he accused Tarkanian of recruiting violations. Lionel charged that investigators used Morocco's statements against Tarkanian, even after the former assistant, who says he recently "got back into" religion, had informed the NCAA that he had told untruths.

Last Friday, four days after the Tarkanian hearing, District Court Judge James Brennan rendered his ruling. Even to the Tarkanians it was a victory of shocking proportions. After granting a permanent injunction against the coach's suspension. Judge Brennan ripped into the NCAA. He denied its right to make autonomous decisions, stating that when a plaintiffs property rights and liberty are threatened, "the association's action becomes judicial business." Calling the NCAA "a monopoly," he questioned whether there is any viable alternative to its "voluntary" membership. He then castigated the NCAA investigators, calling their evidence against Tarkanian "total 100% hearsay." He said that Berst had "an obsession to the point of paranoia to harm the plaintiff," and that Morocco was "an inveterate liar." In summary, he said the NCAA's case against Tarkanian could be "reduced to one word: INCREDIBLE."

UNLV will appeal, and it may be months before the full significance of the case is understood. The NCAA may further discipline UNLV, or it may choose to do nothing, allowing its original, though tainted, probation to stand. The NCAA also may want to take a hard look at its investigative staff, which, says Nevada's Chief Deputy Attorney General, Lyle Rivera, uses procedures so slapdash that a law enforcement agency would be "crucified" for employing them. A congressional investigation of the NCAA, requested by Representative Jim Santini of Nevada, is being considered by John Moss, chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

Despite these mounting difficulties, the NCAA last weekend continued to remain silent. "Our policy is not to discuss a case once it has been completed," said NCAA spokesman Dave Cawood.

Not surprisingly, Tarkanian was exercising no such restraint. He wanted the NCAA investigators to know he is not satisfied yet. "They better tape their ankles," says the coach, "because the game is just beginning."

 

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