The Legend of Jerry Tarkanian


Last week the basketball world lost two of it’s all time great coaches, Dean Smith & Jerry Tarkanian. The fanfare for Smith was full of how he did things the right way with a social conscious. Dean Smith to me was one of the most overrated, did less with more, coach of the entire last century.

I know my place, and I know, De Mortuis Nihil Nisi Bonum or Don’t Speak Badly of the Dead. I will point out, however, that despite coach Smith being known as a good coach who never cheated, his former program is currently getting looked at for violations that dates back to ’93.


1991 NBA Draft: Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony, Jerry Tarkanian, and Larry Johnson

Jerry Tarkanian was the coach coaching the guys on their third chances. Tark was a guy who got punched over and over, and turned the other cheek, and then won in another way. Tark was a winner, a hall of fame coach, who coached one of the greatest college basketball teams of all time. The 1990 NCAA Champion, and when that team came back in 1991, the Runnin’ Rebels won 41 games in a row before getting upset by Duke in the Final Four.

Three players on that team went in the first round of the draft, Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony, and Stacey Augmon. (pictured above with Tarkanian)

Tark was a basketball coach, who wanted to be a basketball coach, and in the 1980s and early 1990s, he was on par with Coach K and Dean Smith. The Shark wasn’t just a victim of the NCAA picking on the little schools, he was the example. Tark filed a lawsuit in 1992 against the NCAA, and in 1998 he was given a check for $2.5 Million from the NCAA.

It just happened way too late, and went under the radar.

Of the 784 wins he had as a coach, only 48 of the victories were vacated. Not bad for a guy who was always taking athletes who were on their second and third and FOURTH chances.


Coach K himself said, “for two years UNLV was one of the best teams of all-time,” and they were.

And Tarkanian was their leader. He turned the small, unnoticed campus in Los Vegas into a powerhouse. The school was called, “Tumbleweed University,” before he arrived. Tark was the little guy standing up to the man, and he won.

It is the equivalent of a one stop shop winning against Walmart.

Tark wasn’t just coaching the Runnin’ Rebels, he was a leader by example. A true rebel. The NCAA exploited kids who often came from families struggling to pay the bills, and they made millions. Tark was ahead of his time, and he said what many thought.

Jerry Tarkanian

The Coach

All that aside, how good of a coach was Tark, really?

One season they averaged 110.5 points a game, and that was pre-shot clock.

In his 19 seasons UNLV won 30 NCAA tournament games. In the 22 since he left, it’s won three.

His 879 wins are fourth all-time in men’s hoops.

His specialties included teaching pressure defense, using the lead guard and small forward at the point of attack. It is the same defensive practices that many schools employ today.

Kansas Jayhawks’ coach Bill Self remembers him fondly.

“The thing about Tark that amazes me, obviously he won a ton of games, obviously he recruited unbelievable players, obviously he got them to play together and to play hard. The players that play for him, the ones that I know, all sing his praises. They say he was a tough, tough guy. He loved the game. He had great respect for the game and for other coaches. I love Tark.”


The Stories

Tark was a near great coach, but one of the things that stands out besides his coaching is his way of putting things into perspective.

“I always love getting transfers, especially from the Pac 10 because they always have their cars paid for.” Jerry Tarkanian

There was the time a transfer showed up from Oral Roberts driving a big, expensive Lincoln. “I told him, ‘You can keep the Lincoln, but you have to leave the Oklahoma license plates. I don’t want to see a Nevada plate. That way they won’t think I bought it.’ ” There was the time he negotiated his UNLV contract and somehow became a full professor … with tenure.

There was the time he sent Frank Sinatra in on a home visit in Jersey because the recruit had an Italian mother (didn’t work). There was time he’d pick up a recruit after school in Brooklyn for weeks on end, drive him to his girlfriend’s house and then wait outside in the car as they, ah, got re-acquainted (worked).

There was the time he sprinted out of a home visit with a mother because he thought the NCAA had bugged the joint.

There is the valedictorian story. Tark was recruiting a player who was in arrested for stealing a car and held in the El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility. Tark wasn’t gonna stop on the 6’10 big man just because he was locked up. He visited the kid behind bars, and when he came back he was ready to sign him.

UNLV and the NCAA was already watching Tark heavily at this time, and he knew they wouldn’t budge on a kid currently locked up.

UNLV just put in a new plan that stated no matter where a kid went to high school, anywhere in America, they would receive a full academic scholarship to UNLV if they graduated as the valedictorian.

Tark said they read about this in the newspaper one day and one of his assistants immediately cracked a joke: “Hell, Clifford was the valedictorian of that El Paso de Robles GED program. He should qualify for a full academic scholarship.”

“We all laughed,” Tarkanian said, “but then I got to thinking …”

If Allen was on an academic scholarship then that freed up one more basketball scholarship to bring in another guy. Plus they could publicize it and would help Allen’s reputation. Win-win.

An assistant was dispatched to the youth correctional facility and an official paper was drafted.

However it was done, Allen was declared the valedictorian of the prison GED program, even if no one knew if a prison GED program could even have a valedictorian because, you know, it’s a prison GED program and all.

The prospect never came to UNLV, he was arrested before he could, and how did Tark feel about losing his prized big man?

“I could always say I recruited a valedictorian.”

The stories will continue for a long time, and as Jerry Tarkanian turns into legend, the stories will continue to be told. I have my own story with Tark the Shark, but I will save that for another day.

catfish hughes & Tark

Rest in Peace Tark! Written by @CatfishHughes

The following two tabs change content below.
Official member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association and host of Thru the Wire Sports Talk Radio. Avid Sports Fan that always wanted to be a sports authority, and here I am. @CatfishHughes on twitter and