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God must have a soft spot for rascals. As Jerry Tarkanian blinked open his bloodhound eyes, he saw a gauzy light. Heaven was lit with a halogen? With his bald head and ample ears gently cupped in a pillow (or was it a cloud?), Tarkanian looked around in a delighted daze at seeing his stooped old body encircled like a campfire by dozens of loved ones. Standing room only. In the summer of 2009, here lay Tark the Shark—the pride of Sin City, the NCAA's serial pain in the ass, the outcast coach of Rebels at UNLV—being fitted for a halo. Well, wasn't this sweet justice? One delicious thought after another swished around his mind like brandy in a glass as Tarkanian indulged in the splendor of the afterlife.
For a day or so, Tarkanian lingered in his ethereal state without a peep. Then, with a crack of his raspy voice, Tark said aloud to the full house in his hospital room, "Isn't this nice that when you die, God still has the whole family come by to see you?" After a slight pause, his four adult children, in near unison, said, "Dad, you're not dead." What the hell? "I thought I'd died," Tarkanian explains. "I really did. I'm telling you: dead."
It's a Tark's Tale, and he's telling it as only he can. He arches the folds in his brow, leans over a plate of salmon and steamed broccoli and waves a fork for emphasis at a corner booth in Landry's Seafood House—a chain restaurant in Las Vegas that shares a stretch of Sahara Avenue with a bridal shop for quickie weddings and the Palace Station Casino for fast money. Tark's table is near the bathroom. He goes a lot. The man is 79, with 80 looming on Aug. 8.
The restaurant hostess calls him Coach, as do the other patrons who know and love him. "Most people will tell you that their favorite time in this town was when I was coaching here," says Tarkanian, who was hired on March 23, 1973. "You could get anywhere you'd want in 15 minutes. No traffic." The coach gave even the most luckless dreamers in Vegas a home team of winners during his turbulent 19-season run. The sold-out crowds clapped insatiably, blood-thirsty Sharks, rooting on their Tark; pregame pyrotechnics made every game feel like a Vegas act; the players wore black sneakers, as if to underscore their villainous rep; and the cheerleaders had dance steps like no others. Showgirls, people whispered. "I promise you, they weren't," says Tark. "People said a lot at our expense. The Arizona assistants, they were always telling the parents of our recruits that the mob is going to get your sons or the hookers are going to get your sons if they go to UNLV. We heard it all."
A morality play always surrounded Tarkanian, now 20 years removed from the most controversial and conspiracy-laced run to an NCAA title in history, culminating on the night UNLV's reputed bad boys laced the goody two shoes of Duke by a record 30 points. "I couldn't believe it myself," says Tark. He's a Vegas retiree but looks pretty much the same, a knockoff of Uncle Fester, even without a wet towel in his mouth. The only noticeable difference in Tark is the limp. He walks like a stagecoach rolls, uneven, a slight wobble, as he makes his way across a room. The fall that killed him—or nearly did—occurred in San Diego, near the vacation condo he and his wife, Lois, own. "Right on the water," he said. "Got a great buy from a booster." (Of course he did.) Tark was on his way back from a walk with his family when, needing a bathroom stop badly, he hustled too quickly and stumbled a few feet from home. His head hit the pavement, his shoulder broke in three places and an existing bone spur on his spine nearly severed the cord. Lois, after 53 years of marriage, was putting her foot down again. She alertly held his head still. When he called, "Let me up," Lois hovered over him and said, "I'm not letting you move." Everything is a blur after that: the ambulance ride and surreal awakening in the hospital. Tarkanian would require spinal surgery, but as the doctors told him, Lois saved him from paralysis and, likely, saved his life.
Tarkanian liked the illusion of living large. It was his recruiting tool. "Old Tark, he had style," former UNLV star Larry Johnson once told me of his beloved college coach. "The other coaches drove rented Toyotas to summer leagues; he drove up in a white Rolls." It was a borrowed luxury ride. A booster in Texas let Tark drive it around Dallas when he was recruiting players like Johnson. "Beautiful car," Tark recalls. "I had a great time."
This high-roller image stood as another tweak of the NCAA's idea of what college coaches should be: saintly types preaching the virtues of collegiate life. Tark never played games of pretense. From the get-go, beginning with the powerhouse he built at Long Beach State from 1968 to '73, through the glory-filled Vegas years, and ending in 2002 after a seven-year stop at Fresno State, Tarkanian resisted the pious mandate that made him either the most crooked coach in college basketball (could more than 60 rules violations be wrong?) or a marked man for an NCAA police force on a perpetual witch hunt (didn't his $2.5 million lawsuit settlement in 1998 against the NCAA for harassing him prove there was a vendetta?). Tark will go with the latter. He'll tell you he landed on the NCAA's most-wanted list in 1972 when he wrote a scathing guest column in the Long Beach Press-Telegram deriding the NCAA for its draconian punishment of Centenary College of Louisiana. The school had been placed on a six-year probation, and all its statistics were wiped from the record books. Tark hated the hypocrisy, writing that the NCAA let the "big money-maker" colleges off but made examples of the little guys. "I blistered the NC Two A," as Tark calls it. "I probably went too far." A letter from NCAA executive director Warren S. Brown hit the desk of Jess Hill at the Pacific Coast Athletic Association: "Dear Jess ... It always amuses me when successful coaches become instant authorities."
What followed that letter was an unblinking game of Catch Me If You Can between the NCAA and its droopy-eyed nemesis. The feuding formed the backdrop of UNLV's 1990 championship year. "The NC Two A knew we were going to be good that year, and they went out of their way to destroy us," Tarkanian says. "They were scared to death of us winning." Scared of what? In truth, the Rebel thugs weren't so thuggish. Johnson, a dean's list student and the NBA's No. 1 draft pick in 1991, returned in 2007 to complete his B.A. in social science. Stacey Augmon played 15 years in the NBA and works in player development for the Denver Nuggets. Greg Anthony is a prominent television basketball analyst and is active in the Republican Party. Never mind reality, though. The Rebels had been billed as evildoers by the NCAA authorities and were essentially placed under surveillance for an entire season. Ten players on the 1990 roster were suspended for at least one game during their careers at UNLV. "It was always something petty, absurd," Tarkanian says. "It was me they were after." Midway through the season, a change in bookkeepers in UNLV's accounting department left Anderson Hunt's tuition payment overdue. He was pulled the day before a tough road game against Temple. "The next morning I sat down the team," Tarkanian explains. "I said, 'Fellas, we think we're going to have a great team and the NC Two A thinks so too. They're screwing with us. You can either let this ruin us all year, or we can get tougher and go out there and kick everyone's ass.' We beat Temple without Anderson."
UNLV entered the NCAA tournament with yet another warning from its coach: Win each game by double digits because, as Tark told them, "the NC Two A won't let us win a close one." They had no worries against Duke, a blowout from the tip. Vegas nearly blew a fuse as revelers forced police to divert traffic from the Strip for a nightlong block party. The euphoria lasted about as long as a hot hand at The Mirage. In December 1990 the NCAA filed a letter alleging infractions in the recruitment of Lloyd Daniels—in 1986. That was followed by the publication of the infamous hot tub photo: three shirtless Rebels (Moses Scurry, Hunt and David Butler) chilling in the bubbles with Richard (the Fixer) Perry. Investigations were launched, but no major violations were uncovered. Still, the cascade of scandals, perceived or real, ultimately drove a wedge between Tarkanian and a UNLV administration wrestling with a paradox: how to seek a highbrow identity in a town marred by corruption with a team steeped in seedy accusations. Under pressure from the NCAA, Tarkanian departed in 1992. He soon had a cameo as the Spurs coach (going 9--11) and ended up at Fresno State, his alma mater. His roots were always in the sand, though. Tarkanian never sold his sprawling home in Las Vegas. "One of my closest friends told me," Tark says, "and I'll never forget this, he said, 'You take the job in Las Vegas, and you won't want to leave there until you go to heaven.'"
The beeping noise in the hospital room last summer wasn't an angel getting its wings. It was a monitor. Tark was indeed alive. He slowly recovered and lived to see the birth of his son Danny's fourth child, Jerry Tarkanian Jr., born last December. Baby Tark is grandchild number 11 and was a star in ads during Danny's campaign to be the Republican nominee to try to unseat Nevada's Democratic senator, Harry Reid. "I didn't even know Danny liked politics," says Jerry. "But he's a hard worker." He knows this from personal experience. Danny was, after all, the point guard of the winning Rebels teams of the early 1980s. Danny got a law degree and, last year, decided to run for the U.S. Senate. "Tell you what, I don't know how he does it," says Tarkanian. "I don't like politics at all." But Tark knows his role and the persuasive power of his presence in Vegas. Despite his father's help in campaigning, however, Danny finished third in the Republican primary on June 8. Political observers remarked that his choice to stay above the fray probably hurt him. A Tarkanian above it all? The NCAA would never believe it.