If you love basketball at any level, and you were fortunate enough to watch the “Runnin’ Rebels” of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, you witnessed the game at its finest. The UNLV Rebels, coached by Hall of Famer Jerry Tarkanian, were fast, graceful, had a stifling defense, and were nearly unbeatable. College basketball lost one of its finest coaches today. Tarkanian succumbed to failing health at the age of 84.
Jerry Tarkanian stood apart in more ways than one. He was a standout with his shaved head, and the towel he kept between his teeth. But he was far more than an iconic figure; he was a teacher and innovator who inspired the young men under his guidance to achieve true greatness. The legendary John Wooden mentioned ‘Tark the Shark’ in his book, “They Call Me Coach,” when asked who he believed were the best coaches in the game after his retirement, Tarkanian was included. He commended him for his innovation, and the fact that they shared a similar concept; players claimed that practices were harder than the games they played.
Tarkanian began his Division I coaching career at Long Beach State in 1968. He revolutionized the game of collegiate basketball throughout his tenure between 1968 and 1973. He broke an unwritten rule by having more than three black players on the court at one time. Tarkanian was one of the first to actively recruit junior college players. He raised the level of basketball at Long Beach State to a position of regional notoriety. UCLA decided not to put Tarkanian’s team on their schedule. When they did play in the Western Regional Finals in 1971, Long Beach lost by just two points.
When he moved on to UNLV, Jerry Tarkanian became a name known nationally. Between 1973 and 1992, he led the Runnin’ Rebels to four Final Fours. UNLV lost to North Carolina in the 1977 semi-finals. In 1987, they were defeated again by the Indiana Hoosiers, coached by Bobby Knight; Indiana won the championship that season. His most glorious year came in 1990, when the Rebels defeated Duke in the championship game. The final score was 103-73, which set an all-time record for the largest margin of victory in the championship game. The next year UNLV lost to a star-studded Duke team in the semi-finals, 79-77.
In 1977 Jerry Tarkanian was offered the position as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers; he declined, preferring to stay at the collegiate level. He did take that same position with the San Antonio Spurs in 1992. Disagreements with the team’s owner led to his firing after only 20 games. He moved on to coach Fresno State, his alma mater, between 1995 and 2002. The Bulldogs had six consecutive 20 win seasons.
He boasted 729 wins in Division I basketball with a success rate of more than 75 percent. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2013.
Stacey Augmon, who was a member of the 1990 championship team, gave insight into Tarkanian’s methods. He doesn’t believe that coaches would allow the strenuous practices of the Tarkanian era. He also talked about their defensive drills. He said that their impressive offensive statistics were the result of an unending pressure defense designed by Coach Tarkanian.
Two of the all-time greats have been taken from us; last week ‘the Dean,’ and today ‘the Shark.’
By James Turnage