Rebel beat: 'Tark the Shark' always swam upstream while defining NCAA legacy

02/17/15 by Matthew S. Vandriak



In less than a week, two of college basketball's most well known coaches have passed away. First, on February 7th, it was Dean Smith. Then on February 11th, it was Jerry Tarkanian. But when it came to the way they were revered by the NCAA, these two coaches were complete opposites. While Dean Smith made running a clean program a part of his legacy, Jerry Tarkanian seemed to always be under the NCAA microscope for various rules violations.
Some of the first things college basketball fans remember about Jerry Tarkanian is his nickname, "Tark the Shark", and for chewing on towels on the sidelines. But some of the things Tarkanian is less known for are way more important than a famous nickname and sideline image. During Tarkanian's run as head coach at Long Beach State, which was his first Division One coaching job, he was one of the first coaches to rebuke an unwritten rule at the time that 3 of the starting 5 players on the team had to be white. Tarkanian also became a pioneer in using junior college players to build a successful program. As became his style, Tarkanian challenged authority by starting a predominately black lineup, and by giving junior college players an opportunity at a time when that practice wasn't popular amongst major college basketball programs.
As mentioned above, Tarkanian began his career as an NCAA head coach in 1968 at Long Beach State University. He compiled an overall record of 122 and 20 in his five seasons there while leading the team to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances. But off the court, this is where Tarkanian's battles with the NCAA began. He wrote a newspaper column which claimed the NCAA went after smaller schools when looking for improprieties, while ignoring the same improprieties at the larger, more powerful schools. In 1973, Tarkanian would leave Long Beach State to take the head coaching job at UNLV. Shortly after he left, Long Beach State was given probation by the NCAA for recruiting violations that occurred during his tenure.

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It was at UNLV where "Tark the Shark" would make his mark, by turning a program that was lacking fan support and an identity into the Runnin' Rebels. Tarkanian's teams were known for their fast paced offensive game and for having a stifling defense. UNLV became known for their ability to score points in bunches with their run and gun offense, and using that pressing defense to create turnovers, which led to more offense, and allowed them to blow games wide open. In 19 seasons at UNLV, Tarkaniain's teams compiled a record of 509 and 105. He led UNLV to 11 NCAA tournaments, 3 Final Four appearances, and 1 national championship in 1990.
And with that success came more of Tarkanian's battle with the NCAA. Before the 1976-77 season, the NCAA placed UNLV on two years probation for alleged violations deemed as "questionable practices". However, these alleged violations dated back to 1971, before Tarkanian became coach at UNLV. The NCAA then pressured UNLV into suspending Tarkanian for two seasons. He sued, and received an injunction from a Nevada court that allowed him to return as coach. In 1991, the NCAA investigated UNLV for after a newspaper showed pictures of some UNLV players interacting with a known, prominent, sports gambler. This resulted in the NCAA originally banning UNLV from the 1991 tournament, and taking away the chance for them to defend their title. The NCAA agreed to defer the sanctions to 1992, which would be Tarkanians last at UNLV.
Tarkanian became the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs after leaving UNLV. But his tenure as an NBA coach would be short lived. Tarkanian was fired just 20 games into the season after clashing with Spurs ownership about the make up of the team. Tarkanian received a $1.3 million dollar settlement after being terminated.
He would take that money and use it to file a harassment lawsuit against the NCAA, claiming the governing body unfairly harassed him for more than two decades. Tarkanian claimed the harassment started after the newspaper article he wrote while at Long Beach State. The lawsuit was settled out of court in 1998, with Tarkanian receiving a $2.5 million dollar settlement.
Tarkanian would end his coaching career as the head coach at his alma mater, Fresno State University. He coached the Bulldogs from 1995 through 2002, compiling a record of 153 and 80. His teams won 20 + games his first six seasons at Fresno State, and appeared in the post season all seven years (twice in the NCAA tourney, and 5 times in the NIT). After retiring, Fresno State was placed on probation for NCAA violations that occurred during Tarkanian's tenure as coach.
"Tark the Shark" finished with a college basketball coaching record of 784 and 202. Although the NCAA took away 49 of those wins he accrued at Fresno State, and 6 he got at Long Beach State. Tarkanian was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013. Jerry Tarkanian rebuffed segregation and racism by starting mostly black players, reversed the thinking that junior college players weren't good enough to play Division One college basketball (and set a trend of recruiting junior college players that just about every college basketball program does today), and turned what was once an unknown mid major program into a college basketball powerhouse while reinventing offense and defense along the way. All of this while continuously battling with the NCAA. It's fitting that his best years were coaching a team nicknamed the Runnin' Rebels, because Jerry Tarkanian truly was rebel both on and off the court.

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