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William F. Reed
December 10, 1990
In a turnaround, the NCAA lets UNLV defend its title
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December 10, 1990

Rebel Reprieve

In a turnaround, the NCAA lets UNLV defend its title

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Tarkanian responded to the order by going to the Nevada district court and getting two injunctions—one against the university, preventing UNLV from suspending him, and another, against the NCAA, preventing them from ordering his suspension. So began the long court battle between the NCAA and Tarkanian that wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court, which on Dec. 12,1988, ruled in a 5-4 decision that the NCAA, as a private organization of voluntary members, had every right to make UNLV show cause why Tarkanian shouldn't be punished.

Predictably, the Nevada district court took its sweet time—more than 15 months—dissolving Tarkanian's injunction against the NCAA. When that finally occurred, on March 26 of this year, exactly one week before Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and their UNLV teammates smashed Duke in the national title game, the NCAA renewed its efforts to punish Tarkanian. On July 20 it announced the latest penalty for Tarkanian's long-ago transgressions: His Rebels would not be allowed to participate in postseason play in '91. This placed Johnson and Augmon, both likely NBA first-round picks, in a bind since the NBA's deadline for early-entry candidates had passed. They could have taken their skills to a pro team in Europe or transferred to another school, where they would have been immediately eligible to play. Eventually both opted to remain at UNLV, gambling that the infractions committee would ultimately allow UNLV to defend its title.

Here are the events that lead up to last week's NCAA reversal: In a meeting in Kansas City in June, the infractions committee asked UNLV to do the same thing it had asked 13 years earlier, to show cause why the coach shouldn't be suspended for two years. The university threw itself on the mercy of the committee, saying its hands still were tied by Tarkanian's injunction against it, which remained in effect.

"Our position was that the university had suffered all the penalties," says Max-son. "We didn't know what else to do at that point."

The committee gave UNLV no indication that it might be willing to consider alternative penalties. "By the nature of the show-cause order, [the committee] invited the university to come back with alternative proposals," NCAA spokesman Jim Marchiony said last week. "But [UNLV] didn't. It said, basically, 'Let's let bygones be bygones.' The committee then said, 'That's not good enough. Boom, you're out of here."

About a week after the announcement that Vegas would be banned from the 1991 tournament, Tarkanian went to Maxson and for the first time offered to step aside for a time if the infractions committee would consider a compromise that would allow the Rebels to defend their title. After huddling with lawyers and Finfrock, UNLV officials contacted the NCAA and asked for a special hearing on the basis of "new information."

The infractions committee agreed, and the two sides met at Chicago's O'Hare Hilton on Oct. 28. Fittingly, or so it seemed at the time, the meeting was held in the Montgolfier Room, named after the brothers who popularized the hot-air balloon. That's all it would amount to, right? Hot air. Instead, the committee members listened with open minds as Maxson outlined four alternatives, ranging from simply sitting out the 1992 tournament instead of the one in '91 to a complex agreement by which Tarkanian would not coach in the '91 tournament, would forfeit the bonus he would stand to get out of UNLV's share of the tournament revenue and would agree to recruiting limitations. To sweeten the deal, Tarkanian agreed to take no further legal action against either the NCAA or UNLV.

The committee considered the matter, made its historic offer, and—following the Rebels' selection from the two options—everybody was happy. Well, maybe not quite. Up in Vancouver, B.C., where UNLV was preparing to open its season last Saturday against Alabama-Birmingham, Tarkanian indicated that he was not exactly ready to enjoy a nice, relaxing dinner with David Berst, the head of the NCAA's investigative division. "Sometimes I feel the NCAA is the only organization that's above the law," said Tarkanian bitterly.

One reason for Tarkanian's pique is that he knows the NCAA isn't finished with him. Within the next couple of weeks UNLV will receive the NCAA's findings in the sordid matter involving Lloyd Daniels, the celebrated New York City player who signed with Vegas in 1986. Later it was discovered that Daniels, who became the legal ward of a Rebel assistant coach, was virtually illiterate and had a drug problem. Although Tarkanian says UNLV isn't guilty in the Daniels case, the NCAA's harpoon could stick the Shark again. According to Williams, the Daniels decision, whatever it turns out to be, probably won't come down until next summer, so there's no chance that the NCAA will kick the current team out of the 1991 tournament—again.

John Weistart, a Duke law professor and co-author of the authoritative book The Law of Sports, says, "This is another situation where one's first impulse—to be cynical—is probably appropriate."

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