We would be surprised if each of you hadn’t heard about the death of Jerry Tarkanian and followed some of the countless articles and television shows that have talked about him. We thought we would tell a few aspects of his story, in part because he was truly a pioneer.
Jerry Tarkanian was the son of refugees of the Armenian Genocide inflicted by the Turks during World War I. He was born in the Cleveland area and relocated to southern California. He played basketball at Pasadena City College and Fresno State, and later returned to coach at both schools. He wasn’t the greatest player, but he had an incredible career as a coach, rising from California high schools to community colleges to Long Beach State in 1968. That was his introduction to Division One and to problems with the NCAA. Tarkanian was one of the first coaches at that level—and maybe THE first—to work at recruiting from junior colleges. He knew them, having spent so many years there, and he knew that it was a way to get good players who then had a chance at more higher education. His teams reached the NCAA basketball tournament four straight years.
He also began attacking the NCAA. He was upset at the organization’s hypocrisy. He also didn’t like that UCLA was the king of college basketball—at the time, across the country, but especially in southern California. It upset him even more that UCLA had some issues that the NCAA tended to ignore.
In 1973, UNLV officials and boosters sought out Tarkanian. They later said they felt a great basketball team would bring the school national attention, and that he was the man to do it. They were right. Again, Tarkanian recruited from junior colleges. He also completely changed his approach to coaching. Tarkanian always was known as a great defensive coach—other great coaches attested to that. But at UNLV, he found players who loved running and shooting. Yes, they could still play great defense, but Tarkanian revolutionized college basketball at a time that coaches like John Wooden and Dean Smith emphasized ball control and many of the games were low-scoring. Three-digit scores were common at UNLV games.
So was show business. Tarkanian and his teams were in a city known for glitz, and they joined in the fun. Player introductions became a show unto themselves. Local celebrities frequented the games, and UNLV games moved from the Convention Center rotunda to the Thomas and Mack, which held about two-and-a-half times as many fans. Yes, this also led to some problems: the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels already were under scrutiny from the NCAA, and this only increased the attention. Nor did it help when Tarkanian recruited some questionable characters, and some of those he recruited went on to get into trouble on their own.
And the scrutiny and attention led to another way in which Tarkanian was a pioneer: when the NCAA bullied him, he wouldn’t take it. He first got in trouble for publicly attacking the organization in newspaper columns in Long Beach, and he kept at it in Las Vegas. He took the NCAA to the U.S. Supreme Court, lost, and later sued the NCAA for harassment and won a 2.5-million-dollar settlement. He went into the national basketball hall of fame in 2013, less than two years before he died. He was recognized as a great coach and as a pioneer … as he should have been.
Nevada Yesterdays is written by Associate Professor Michael Green of UNLV, and narrated by former Senator Richard Bryan. Supported by Nevada Humanities