It was a case with
enough extraordinary elements to lift it far above the run-of-the-mill NCAA vs.
State U. tiff over basketball recruiting violations. At the start there were
allegations of bought players, illegal transportation of prospects, fraudulent
grades and illegal cash handouts. Along the way came claims of vendettas,
intimidation of witnesses, covert wiretappings and overt lying. And at the end
there was a judge's decision that may have far-reaching effects on the
governing of college sports.
The massive cast
included an ornithologist become university president, the Nevada attorney
general's office, the NCAA staff, numerous ghetto athletes, a head coach's
impassioned wife, a freelance playground scout from Brooklyn, an ex-coach
suddenly born again and enough attorneys to fill a free-throw lane.
The case began six
years ago when the NCAA opened an investigation of alleged basketball
recruiting violations by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and its coach,
Jerry Tarkanian, and its former coach, John Bayer. The case was supposedly
closed on Aug. 23 this year, when after numerous hearings and reviews the NCAA
informed Las Vegas that its basketball team would be put on probation for two
years. Included in the judgment was a recommendation that both Bayer and
Tarkanian be barred from all formal or informal participation in the school's
athletic program—Tarkanian for the duration of the probation, Bayer
Bayer took the
blow quietly. He had already disassociated himself from the athletic program,
having shifted to the UNLV physical education department when Tarkanian arrived
in 1973 to coach the basketball team. Tarkanian's position was quite different.
Though deemed by many college basketball insiders to be the perfect fall guy,
he refused to go down. Not only would the suspension cost him his job for two
years, but it would also mean loss of income from his biweekly newspaper
column, his TV and radio programs, his summer camps and his lectures at
basketball clinics. The NCAA's case, he claimed, was a trumped-up arrangement,
a vendetta to get him out of coaching. "Ever since I wrote a column
blasting the NCAA while I was at Long Beach State, they've been after me,"
Tarkanian says. His attorney, Sam Lionel, asserts that the NCAA Committee on
Infractions simply will not listen to fact. "Jerry has been denied due
process, which is completely wrong," Lionel says. "But even without due
process, the man is innocent."
In hopes of
obtaining a permanent injunction against the suspension, Tarkanian filed suit
on Sept. 8 against the university in Nevada's Eighth Judicial District Court.
It was a move loaded with irony, because until Tarkanian's suspension the
school had been squarely in his corner. Indeed, UNLV President Donald Baepler,
an ornithology professor and a tropical bird expert, had written letters to the
NCAA proclaiming his coach's innocence. The irony was compounded when the
Nevada attorney general's office, which normally would defend the state
institution in such a case, refused to get involved. "Our own 21 months of
investigation showed conclusively that Jerry was not guilty," says Deputy
Attorney General Brian McKay.
Because the NCAA
is a voluntary organization—that is, no school is required to join it—and had
only "recommended" that Tarkanian be suspended, it was not cited in the
coach's suit. Nevertheless, it obviously had a lot at stake in the case. A
Tarkanian victory in court would be a sharp slap at the NCAA and would call
into question its investigatory and enforcement procedures. The most immediate
result would be an undermining of the so-called "Tarkanian Rule"
enacted by the NCAA in 1975 after Tarkanian had abruptly left Long Beach
State—which was about to go on probation—for Vegas. The regulation stipulates
that a coach who has been suspended may not shift to another member college
without his new school losing its eligibility to appear in postseason play for
two years. Many of Tarkanian's supporters maintain that it was his opportune
transfer from Long Beach to UNLV, not any newspaper column, that put the NCAA
so relentlessly on his trail.
And a Tarkanian
victory would be an open invitation to other coaches who might be suspended to
bring their cases before the bar. In effect, that would take a large measure of
the NCAA's disciplinary power over college athletics out of its hands and rest
it with the courts. Of course, though the NCAA might lose its authority over
individuals, it would still be able to take action against universities, and
this became a cause for concern at UNLV. If UNLV reinstated Tarkanian at the
court's order, the NCAA technically could put the school on indefinite
probation for not following the NCAA's recommendation to suspend him. According
to the rules, the NCAA could even suspend Las Vegas from the association.
However, it is questionable whether the NCAA could make either of these
penalties stick if Tarkanian chose to return to the courts to sue for a second
injunction to protect his livelihood.
As the date for
Tarkanian's hearing grew near, he and his outspoken wife Lois, who is studying
for her doctorate in clinical psychology and preparing a book on her husband's
coaching career that can only be described as an apologia, told their story to
anyone who would listen. They encountered plenty of skeptics. Tarkanian, stocky
and swarthy, unfortunately looks like a shady operator and even more
unfortunately has the nickname Tark the Shark. He has been a marked man for
When he brought
unheralded Long Beach State to overnight national prominence in the early '70s,
he aroused suspicions that he had cut recruiting corners. Indeed, a subsequent
NCAA investigation showed that the Long Beach basketball program under
Tarkanian was guilty of 23 infractions. And his departure for Las Vegas and his
sudden success there have not helped him gain a reputation as a rule-abiding
is I get black kids from the ghetto, a lot of kids other coaches are afraid to
recruit, and nobody can believe I don't give them anything," he says.
"My reputation has been ruined. My goal in life now is to expose the NCAA
for the fraud it is."