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Better late than never. Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame finally is legitimate. One of its newest members is Jerry Tarkanian.
Jerry Tarkanian was born in 1930 near Cleveland and moved to Pasadena at age ten. He went to Fresno State and started coaching high school basketball in 1956. He got his first college job at Riverside Community College in 1961, then moved on to Pasadena City College, which he had once attended. His teams won four straight California junior college championships.
He moved up to Long Beach State in 1968. In five years, he ran up a record of 122-20. His team made the NCAA tournament, which then was limited to 32 teams. He did it in the shadow of the great UCLA teams. He relied heavily on transfers from junior and city colleges. And he broke an unwritten rule … he started three or more African American players in a more racist time when that just wasn’t done.
His success at Long Beach got attention. In 1973, UNLV hired him to coach its basketball team. The president at the time, Donald Baepler, felt Tarkanian would make UNLV nationally known. That he did. By 1977, the Rebels had made it to the Final Four with such great stars as Ricky Sobers and Reggie Theus.
By then, the Rebels had become the Runnin’ Rebels. Throughout his career, Tarkanian had been known for his zone defense. But his early recruits with the Rebels tended to be smaller and faster. So he totally changed his approach, figuring speed would make up for the lack of height. His teams still played great defense, but the emphasis was on the run-and-gun offense.
He was right. By 1976, the Rebels averaged 110 points per game. That was when teams often passed the ball around for minutes at a time and there was no shot clock, like in the NBA. The Rebels then played in the Convention Center rotunda, which seated about 7,000 screaming fans.
In 1983, the Rebels moved to larger quarters … the Thomas and Mack. It seated 18,000. It often was filled. The fans had a lot to cheer. In the first five seasons there, Tark’s teams went 155-20 and reached the Final Four in 1987.
Then came the 1989-1990 team with stars like Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony, and Stacey Augmon, each of whom would be an NBA first-round draft pick. The team went 35-5. In the national championship game, the Rebels played the Duke Blue Devils. It was a mismatch. The Rebels won, 103-73. Las Vegans partied in the streets.
The next year, the Rebels lost in the semi-final game to Duke, 79-77. Tarkanian would coach UNLV for one more season. He would go back to his alma mater, Fresno State, and coach there from 1995 to 2002. They won 20 games a year in six straight seasons, including two NCAA tournament appearances.
After that, Tarkanian retired from coaching with 778 wins in Division One play. The NCAA lists only twenty-seven coaches who have won more than 700 games. Its official records rank him tenth all-time in winning percentage. And those are just some of the reasons he’s going into the basketball hall of fame. Next time, we’ll talk about why it took so long for him to get there.