Billy Tubbs was told a couple of days ago that his friend did not have much longer, so when he heard that news that Jerry Tarkanian had died, it was not a shock.
“He was a dear, dear friend,” Tubbs told me in a phone interview today. “Basketball really lost two really good ones this week.”
Former North Carolina coach Dean Smith died earlier this week. Both of these men are in the Basketball Hall of Fame, but their respective impacts and legacies could not be any more different. Tarkanian, 84, was one of those iconic characters of men’s college basketball that we see increasingly less of; men such as Dean Smith, Lou Carnesecca, Jim Valvano, Tark, Tubbs, Norm Stewart, John Thompson, Nolan Richardson, Guy Lewis, Jim Calhoun, Bob Knight, Gene Keady, Lou Henson, Johnny Orr and a few others were of the generation that helped make the sport big, before the players ran to the NBA after one year.
As much as those men have in common, none of them was like Tark.
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Jerry Tarkanian was a polarizing figure you hated or loved.
Personally, I hated what I thought Tark stood for but ... I can never hate him. Because he was nice to me when he didn’t have to.
In 1991, his UNLV Runnin’ Rebels were in Indianapolis to prepare for the NCAA Final Four. There was a rumor going around my high school that UNLV was going to practice at the gym after school. As a senior, I had access to some video cameras in the Radio/TV/Film department, and it was here I learned the value of a camera, and not asking for permission. I simply walked in to their practice, when I had no business being there.
On that floor was one of the greatest college teams ever assembled - Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Anderson Hunt, Greg Anthony and George Ackles. In the middle of the floor was the demon of college basketball - Jerry Tarkanian, who was answering questions from a few reporters. I nervously walked up, turned on my camera, and asked away. Not only should I have not been there, but he had no reason to talk to me.
I was 17, yet Jerry Tarkanian treated me like a regular hack. I will never forget that. To learn of his passing is a reminder that while I may not have liked what I thought it was stood for, he ultimately did possess a streak of decency and was a man who positively affected so many. In any life, that’s pretty good.
Long before it was chic to call out the NCAA as hypocrites, Tarkanian stood by himself (with lawyers), fighting an organization that previously went unchecked. His motivations may not have been pure or full of idealism, but Tark was not afraid of the organization that ran college sports as if it was approved by the United States’ government. Along with so many former players who loved Tark, his willingness to call out the NCAA may be his greatest legacy.
Tark’s constant fights with the NCAA, and his constant rolling the dice on players with questionable character overshadowed the fact he could coach the game. Tark would take anybody, especially when he was at Fresno State where he became the subject of a scathing report by 60 Minutes and the late Mike Wallace. There was a line, there was a minimum, and Tark had no problem pushing both if it meant he could get one more kid on his team, and win a game.
Tarkanian is forever known for his days with the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, where he coached from 1973 to ‘92. He won a national title in 1990 against Duke. He briefly coached the Spurs, and finished his career at Fresno State. He was in the Western Athletic Conference with TCU for several seasons. His last appearance in Fort Worth was Feb. 15, 2001 when TCU defeated Fresno, 102-88.
“His ability to coach was over looked, for sure,” Tubbs said. “He was a great coach. His players loved him. His teams were so well prepared. I don’t know if there was anybody with any more pure coaching ability than Tark. But you are right - he was ahead of his time in that he was not afraid to go after the NCAA. I think he was the first person to beat the NCAA. There was a time when the NCAA would earmark certain programs and coaches, and I think Tark’ was the poster child of that.”
Tubbs had a pair of favorite Tark stories to share:
“I was at Oklahoma, and we had just beaten Arizona in the Final Four (in 1988),” Tubbs said. “So we go back to the hotel, and there was Tark’. He was not particularly fond of Arizona, but he was so happy for me that I had won. We just stayed up talking ‘til about 3 in the morning.
“And my other one was we were both judges on some Hawaiian Tropicana beauty contest. They had us and Tark as the judges on some cruise. And I was amazed how much the girls just loved Tark. I think they gave him more attention than anybody else on that panel. I always noticed the girls loved Tark.”
With the exception of the NCAA, most people did, too.
Mac Engel, 817-390-7760