By Ray Hagar, Nevada Newsmakers
The fall of legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian 30 years ago was swift and absolute, with enough political intrigue to rival the court of a Russian czar.
Yet the underhanded tactics used to oust him opened wounds on the soul and spirit of Las Vegas that have yet to heal.
That’s my opinion after reading “Rebel with a Cause,” a recently published book about the Tark’s life, written by Danny Tarkanian, Tark’s eldest son and staunchest defender.
I was pleasantly surprised by the writing talent displayed by Danny, who played point guard for his dad at UNLV in the mid 1980s and coached with him later at Fresno State. Danny spoke about the book in a recent two-part interview on Nevada Newsmakers.
This book is a must-read for any college basketball fan who remembers the “Glory Days,” when Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels were the hippest thing in the basketball world, a national brand making fashion statements with baggy shorts and black basketball shoes.
In 1990, Tark’s Runnin’ Rebels brought glory to the state by winning the NCAA national basketball championship. It remains the Silver State’s first and only major college, big-time national championship. It was a victory for all of Nevada, Tark said at the time.
Even Reno cheered.
In 1991, UNLV again advanced to the Final Four with an undefeated record and perhaps a better team. But the Rebels were upset by perennial blue-blood, Duke, by one basket. Whispers that some UNLV players “threw” the game for gamblers lingered after that, like smoke from a cigarette.
In about two months, it all came crumbling down, Danny said.
“We lose to Duke by two in the semifinals when we were big favorites, Then all of a sudden, they forced my father out in six weeks after that loss,” Danny said.
Tark was sitting on the top of the world entering the Duke game. He had the No. 1-ranked program in the nation. His coaching peers considered him to be the greatest defensive coach in the history of basketball.
“One of the great things about this book is that it lays out where they (UNLV basketball team) were at — at the pinnacle at the national championship and how quickly it turned,” Danny said on Nevada Newsmakers.
Coach Tark’s “Father Flannigan” approach, where he recruited and saved African-American players from some of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation, was no longer welcomed in Las Vegas. UNLV President Robert Maxson wanted to transition UNLV’s image into the “Harvard of the West.” Tark lacked the elitist Ivy League persona for that.
The anti-Tark forces had influential people like gaming icon Steve Wynn in their corner, Danny writes. Many blue-collar Las Vegans stood by Tark. It polarized the town.
“They got the big power boosters behind them,” Danny said of his father’s opponents. “But if we would have beaten Duke in the second year, there is no way Maxson could have fired him at that time. It (Tark’s program) would have continued.
“After they lost to Duke, … from what we were told, (Dennis) Finfrock, our athletic director, leaked it to the media, saying that (UNLV player) Stacey Augmon was crying in the locker room after the game because he had thrown the game. It was horrible. That never happened. And that started this point-shaving thing.”
Less than two months after the loss, the Las Vegas Review-Journal published a photo of three UNLV players in a hot tub with a convicted illegal gambler and fixer of basketball games, appropriately nicknamed, Richard “The Fixer” Perry.
That photo was the tipping point. That, plus point-shaving rumors, attempts to change UNLV’s image and the constant harassment by NCAA investigators led to a perfect storm that drowned Tark the Shark.
“That hot tub gave them the excuse that maybe something did happen with the player because here they are in the picture with the sports villain,” Danny said.
How cozy it looked: Fixer, players, point shaving allegation — cooking UNLV’s goose in a bubbling hot tub.
However, it was more benign than that, Danny said. Two of the players were not even on the UNLV team when it lost to Duke. The third, Anderson Hunt, could hardly be accused of point-shaving against Duke since he was the game’s top scorer with 29 points. Both the NCAA and FBI investigated the point-shaving and came up with zero.
“First of all, this fixer, nobody knew his true identity when he came to Las Vegas because he had changed his name,” Danny said. “Only later on did they learn he was involved in point shaving. And this guy was also an AAU coach in New York City. He coached a bunch of kids with St. John’s, other schools. He happened to be the AAU coach of (UNLV’s) Moses Scurry, who was one of the players in the hot tub.
“It (hot tub story) should have been nothing,” Danny said. “Except the power of that picture led to the perception that something was wrong.”
For years, it was speculated that Maxson or his ally may have leaked the photo to the Review-Journal. It remained a mystery.
Danny said he has met and talked with the person who supplied the photo. It is not Maxson nor his representative. Danny would not divulge the name of the person on Nevada Newsmakers but seemed to have little animosity toward him.
“I can’t remember right now but I could find out,” he said when asked the leaker’s identity
Why would this person give that photo to the newspaper?
“He (guy who supplied the photo) said that he wanted the R-J to run a story about his father and something that happened to his father and he thought the R-J would do this in exchange for the hot-tub picture,” Danny said. “He said how sorry he was that it turned out the way it did.”
The hot tub photo did not get Coach Tark fired, Danny stressed.
“That was not the reason why my father was fired, it just expedited things,” Danny said. “The university had made up its mind … that my father was not good for the university’s image any more and that they would find a way to push him out. The NCAA was a big part of it because they were still investigating and had an infractions committee case going on and the university did not want to support my father.”
Maxson was vilified by the pro-Tark factions back in the day. But the book is kinder to him that some might expect.
“I went though all the documents of the NCAA court cases going on and Maxson supported my father very strongly in front of the NCAA and not to ultimately have him fired,” Danny said. “This was in (19)87, ’88. I think there just came a point — and I said this in the book — that Maxson just concluded that we can’t continue to fight the NCAA and change the image of our university with Tarkanian as the coach.”
The NCAA harassed Tark relentlessly through his career. The NCAA had active investigations into Tark’s programs at UNLV, Long Beach State and Fresno State in 16 of the 31 seasons he coached major-college basketball, Danny said .
It stemmed from the NCAA’s two-tier system for enforcing rules, Danny said.
If you were a marquee program that brought millions into NCAA coffers, the enforcement division would look the other way.
Smaller schools, like UNLV, Long Beach State or Cleveland State, were treated like pariahs, punished for small infractions that made little sense in the real world.
One of the funniest lines in the book is Coach Tark saying, “Recently the NCAA got so mad at Kentucky that they put Cleveland State on probation for another two years.”
Danny gave an example ridiculous NCAA rules his father broke.
“One of the violations I talk about (in the book) was with the UNR game,” he said. “The UNR coach said he thought his players were as good as UNLV’s and my dad gave each player a copy of that (Reno Gazette-Journal) newspaper so they could read it before the game. The NCAA said that was a violation, giving them a 25-cent newspaper for free.”
As the book details, the NCAA was a constant, complicated and cumbersome issue for Coach Tark. In 1998, however, Tark finally beat the NCAA, collecting a $2.5 million judgement against it for harassment. Author Charles Pierce, in his obituary of Coach Tark from 2015, said the lawsuit was about “the curious circumstances surrounding how he’d lost the job at UNLV.”
The NCAA’s lead investigator, David Berst, said on the witness stand that he called Tarkanian “a rug merchant.” It was a reference to Tark’s heritage. His mother had escaped from the Armenian Genocide of the Ottoman Empire (1914-18) before coming to America. The book deals with the Armenian Genocide and its impact on the Tarkanian family in early chapters.
“My father fought the NCAA,” Danny said. “He brought in a lot of kids that had problems off the court and in the classroom. So his image was tarnished in a lot of people’s eyes.
“To me, I think it was a wonderful thing he was doing. He would stand up and fight an unjust organization and gave opportunities to people who needed it the most. But for a lot of national media people, they thought, ‘This is a bad thing’ and dad had a bad image.
Some people didn’t like the image of Tark mixed with the notoriety of Las Vegas, Danny said.
“When he came to Las Vegas, Las Vegas had a horrible image — Sin City, prostitution, the Mob,” Danny said. “So they mixed together.
When Las Vegas tried to clean up its image, anti-Tark forces felt the Coach got in the way.
“They thought, Maxson included, that my father’s image brought the city down, hurt the city’s image and that he should no longer be a part of it,” Danny said. “And that is what led to his downfall, that along with the pressure from the NCAA.”