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Before the glorious flotilla that is college basketball sails off into another season on uncharted waters, I am going over the side of the Good Ship Tarkanian. Like others captivated by coach Jerry Tarkanian's UNLV teams—including the defending national champions, about whom I write elsewhere in this issue (page 52)—and beguiled by his charming-rogue personality, I have valiantly tried to ignore the excess baggage that weighs the man down as surely as do those drooping eye sacks. But no longer.
Forget that Tarkanian has caused three teams, at two different schools, to suffer NCAA sanctions. Forget that for 13 years he battled his suspension—which was mandated by the NCAA—a matter that wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court, with Tark on the losing side. Forget that even as UNLV is appealing its latest punishment, the Runnin' Rebels are being investigated anew, this time for Tarkanian's incomprehensible recruitment of Lloyd Daniels. A four-high school truant barely able to read, Daniels became the legal ward of a UNLV assistant coach and was soon videotaped in a Vegas crack house.
Well, forget all that. UNLV basketball continues to spin out of control, and new questions can and should be asked about the Runnin' Rebel program. How were UNLV players able to run up enormous comped meal tabs, as a source tells me they did in at least one Vegas gaming house? Why do I keep seeing a casino host who is also a known gambler hanging around the UNLV basketball office? And don't give me that stuff about gambling being legal in Nevada; from even a cursory reading of history, every college basketball coach should know that his sport and gambling don't mix.
How could Tarkanian call a press conference to announce his offer not to coach during the 1991 NCAA tournament, in exchange for the NCAA's allowing his team to compete in it (an offer that is the heart of the current UNLV appeal), without the knowledge of the UNLV president?
Such questions are warmed-over lounge material compared with the bizarre circumstances surrounding UNLV's schedule, TV contracts and tickets. The Rebels open their season in a nontournament game against a nonrival, Alabama-Birmingham, in a nonbasketball city, Vancouver, B.C. That's Canada! Why? Two companies a continent apart—one of them run by a Tarkanian crony—are involved in a lawsuit over the TV rights to many Vegas games. Why? Tarkanian refuses to reveal what he does with the 223 season tickets—223!—allotted him in his contract. Why? It's small wonder that a year ago, when Sig Rogich, now an aide in the Bush White House, was on the University of Nevada Board of Regents, he pronounced the school's athletic department "a joke."
Tark's defenders claim that the school is being punished too harshly, that the NCAA actually banned UNLV from the 1991 tournament to pay Tark back for his refusal to accept his punishment in '77. But this begs the question of why Tarkanian has, with characteristic brazenness, continued to flout the rules even while mounting that challenge. As for the argument that the current UNLV players shouldn't have to pay for past transgressions, well, these Runnin' Rebels are big boys. When they hired on at UNLV, they knew all about their coach's rep, rap and M.O. They rolled their dice and they took their chances.
Tark always speaks of getting "screwed." He habitually points the finger at other schools. "We're getting tired of it," says one coach with a refreshing ingenuousness. "Jerry has never understood that we all don't cheat the way he does."
A goodly segment of the Las Vegas corporate community—which is to say, hotel honchos—have also wearied of Tarkanian. This group, led by Steve Wynn of the Mirage and his ex-wife, Elaine, who is the chairperson of the UNLV Foundation, is embarrassed by the constant negative vibes from the campus across the cactus. Some well-heeled Las Vegans reportedly stand ready to make it worth Tarkanian's while if he resigns. It's encouraging that a serious power struggle exists between UNLV president Robert Maxson and Tarkanian, with the interim athletic director, Dennis Finfrock, a no-nonsense former wrestling coach, acting as Maxson's point man.
If Tarkanian, 60, whose contract allowed him to pocket some $100,000 of UNLV's windfall from last season's NCAA tournament, who spends his career at Vegas being comped—house, car, meals, clothes, life—and who has become a very rich man, had stepped aside this season, the NCAA might have reduced his team's penalty. Moreover, his tedious plaints about how much he cares for his poor wronged urchins might be believable. Might.
But Tarkanian didn't, and his pitiful appeals and contrived scenarios have surely fallen on bull-proof ears.