Earlier today Jerry Tarkanian passed away at the age of 84. The colorful and outspoken head coach was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013. To commemorate his death, here’s the story of how Tarkanian turned UNLV from a middle-of-the-pack program into a National Title-winning team from the December 2012 issue of Playboy.
The Runnin’ Rebels’ Stacey Augmon flashes downcourt with one long, elastic Mr. Fantastic arm outstretched— calling for the ball. Teammate Larry Johnson is on the other wing, muscles rippling, ready to take flight. Guard Greg Anthony pushes the ball up the middle. Which way will he dish? Duke guard Bobby Hurley sure doesn’t know, but either way the next sound you hear will be the kwanng of a rim-rocking dunk and the deafening roar of a frenzied mob.
It’s April 2, 1990, the 52nd NCAA championship basketball game, a battle of polar opposites. Duke, college basketball’s “good guys,” against UNLV’s “outlaw program.” Academic exemplar vs. a commuter school known as Tumbleweed Tech. Jackets and ties vs. thug hoodies. Coach K.’s Xs and Os vs. Tark the Shark’s running gunners. Vegas oddsmakers say the game is likely to be close. UNLV fans have a two-word answer to that: “Duck, Duke!”
Jammed to capacity, Denver’s McNichols Sports Arena can’t contain the decibels. Millions at home crowd their TVs to see if college basketball’s outlaws—the Rebels of the University of Nevada–Las Vegas—can crown their season with a first national championship. In Vegas, gamblers, showgirls, politicians, high-level mobsters—all are tuned in to the action. And on the sideline, the ultimate outlaw—UNLV’s coach, Jerry Tarkanian—marches back and forth with all the intensity of a pugilist charging into the ring, except he’s stuffing a towel into his mouth and chewing it.
This is the story of Tarkanian’s UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, a band of gifted misfits who lit up scoreboards, ruled Las Vegas and showed the world what a blast college hoops could be. All the while, they broke every rule in the book. Or did they? As the Rebels filled highlight reels with speed and acrobatics, they incessantly dodged the iron fist of NCAA officials and, at times, the law itself. Never had the NCAA seen anything like them.
They made a run at history that night in Denver, a run that had begun many years earlier, the day Jerry Tarkanian first appeared in Las Vegas. The Strip would never be the same.
“People forget how small Vegas was when Tark came to town,” says documentary filmmaker Stan Armstrong. With a population of 125,000 in 1970, Las Vegas was smaller than Jackson, Mississippi and Evansville, Indiana. The local commuter college was called Nevada Southern until 1969, and even after becoming the University of Nevada–Las Vegas it kept its Old South mascot, a rootin’, tootin’ Confederate cartoon wolf named Beauregard—not the best symbol if you’re recruiting in the city’s fast-growing black neighborhood. “Vegas was totally different in those days,” Tark recalls, looking back on his arrival almost 40 years ago. “Still a small city. You could get a nice hotel room for $19. People didn’t think of Vegas as a basketball town, but I thought it could be.”
Sin City’s racial history wasn’t pretty. In the 1940s and 1950s, black stars such as Sammy Davis Jr. headlined at El Rancho, the Sands and other whites-only resorts but weren’t allowed to rent rooms there or show their faces in the casinos. The lone exception was light-skinned chanteuse Lena Horne, a favorite of Flamingo owner Bugsy Siegel. Horne was allowed to stay in a Flamingo bungalow as long as she didn’t eat or gamble in the hotel, and after she checked out, her towels and bedsheets were burned. Even after the hotel-casinos were integrated in the 1960s, local blacks were confined almost exclusively to a downtrodden neighborhood called the Westside, uncelebrated, mostly unseen.
Then came Tark the Shark, a basketball coach who trolled Westside streets where white men weren’t welcome. A balding, slump-shouldered Armenian American with the sunken eyes of a sleep-deprived raccoon, Tarkanian appeared in Vegas in 1973, fresh off a 26–3 season at Long Beach State. He’d won four straight Pacific Coast Athletic Association titles at Long Beach, challenging the west-of-the-Mississippi dominance of mighty UCLA. “In those days nobody knew there was college basketball west of Bloomington and Lexington except for John Wooden and UCLA,” says Las Vegas Review-Journal hoops writer Steve Carp. “Hell, from 1964 to 1973 UCLA won every NCAA championship but one. Tark was the upstart.”
While UCLA coach Wooden was seen as a saintly figure, his program was less than pristine. NCAA players were forbidden to accept cash, gifts, even a free newspaper. According to Bill Walton, who starred for Wooden before going on to a Hall of Fame pro career, “UCLA players were so well taken care of—far beyond the ground rules of the NCAA—that even players from poor backgrounds never left prematurely.” In Walton’s view, if the NCAA had investigated the Bruins, “UCLA would probably have to forfeit about eight national championships and be on probation for 100 years.” And yet it was UCLA that dropped a dime on Tarkanian. The year after Tark’s Long Beach State team gave the top-ranked Bruins a hellacious scare in the tournament’s west regional, UCLA athletic director J.D. Morgan suggested—confidentially, of course—that the NCAA look into possible recruiting violations by Tarkanian.
Tark’s career-long war with the powers that be was under way.
In 1973, the year the MGM Grand opened and vice cops arrested 52 hookers at Howard Hughes’s Frontier Hotel—after rumors of an orgy featuring “six girls and a German shepherd”—Tarkanian took over UNLV’s basketball program. Elvis Presley was selling out the International Hotel and Frank Sinatra was about to make his triumphant return to Caesars Palace. Sinatra had vowed never to play there after a spat during which a Caesars manager pulled a gun on him, but Sinatra relented after the manager was sacked. His prospects looked better than those of the local basketball coach.
Tarkanian inherited a 14–14 Rebels unit that played home games in the crumbling, half-empty Convention Center downtown, where fans waved giant Confederate flags. With no size and less talent, his team played a 1-2-2 zone. On offense they walked the ball up and worked it into the low post. It was boring but effective enough for UNLV to go 20–6 in Tark’s first season, the best record in the school’s Division I history. Then, that winter, the NCAA put Long Beach State on probation for infractions such as letting players watch a $7 movie in their hotel, which Tark defended as perfectly legal entertainment. There was talk that the association’s chiefs were out to get Tarkanian. He was unsavory. He seemed to have a fondness for poor, academically challenged kids who were desperate for a shot at college hoops, the kind of kids college-basketball boosters were always wooing with cash, cars, girls. Urban black kids who seemed like gangbangers to lily-white crowds in Provo, Utah and Pocatello, Idaho.
Tark’s rising stature didn’t help his popularity with enemy recruiters, who scared recruits’ parents with tales of how their sons would rub elbows and more with hookers, gamblers and Mafia dons if they went to UNLV. Tarkanian hated his enemies’ backdoor tactics. He understood their drive to beat him—nobody burned to win more than he did—but not the way they stooped to sneak and snoop on him and send secret reports to the NCAA. He never talked down other programs to recruits or their parents; he talked up UNLV. He knew he was losing players to rule-breaking schools. Recalling the booty UCLA players glommed from a booster named Sam Gilbert, the Bruins’ notorious “sugar daddy,” Tark joked that coach Wooden’s team was “way over the salary cap.” But he never dreamed of turning them in.
“I would never be a rat,” Tark said.
It wasn’t as though Tark was drawing aces in the recruiting wars. He lost all the blue-chippers to bigger, more respectable schools. (By the time his UNLV career crashed and burned, he had signed a total of only four McDonald’s All American prospects in 19 years.) But in 1974, his second season as the Rebels’ coach, he realized he couldn’t compete with the national powers unless he outsmarted them. So he threw out his playbook.
“We had no size. We had no stars. But we had a couple of things going for us,” Tark recalls. “Good athletes. Good speed.” So he reinvented UNLV basketball. From that moment on his team would be more than the UNLV Rebels. They’d be the fast-breaking, record-breaking Runnin’ Rebels, the highest-scoring team in college hoops. But at what cost?
“We started running and never stopped,” Tarkanian says. “People loved our style of play, but that’s not why we played it. We played it because it worked.”
With holdover Ricky Sobers, a cat-quick point guard, and the new wave of Tarkanian’s Rebel recruits—“a bunch of six-foot-six guys who were good athletes”—Tark installed a pressure defense and a fast-break attack designed to get shots off before opponents had time to set up on D. The team’s scoring average jumped from 78 points per game in his first season to 91 in his second. To coaching legend Pete Newell, the move was a stroke of genius. “For years Tark was the best zone coach in the country. He had a very controlled offense,” Newell told sportswriter Terry Pluto. “In one year, he ripped up his whole book of coaching and tried something entirely new. There aren’t many coaches who would have the courage to try that, because if you flop, it looks like you lost your mind.”
Tark shrugged off talk of how ballsy he was. “We had no choice. Our kids weren’t going to get any taller.”
His 1974–1975 team lost two of its first three games. Then UNLV won 24 of 29 to claim the West Coast Athletic Conference title. The Rebels were off to the races.
The following season, Tarkanian’s third in Vegas, saw the team average 111 points per game. Tark’s gunners whacked South Alabama 122–82 and Northern Arizona 139–101. At Hawaii-Hilo they had 85 points at halftime and won 164–111. Hoops fans all over the country took notice, and the school derided as Tumbleweed Tech was just getting warmed up. That year’s roster featured a freshman who would help lift the fastest-improving team to heights that would dizzy even Tark.
Reggie Theus came from Inglewood, California, where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers played home games at the Fabulous Forum. The rest of Inglewood was bullet-pocked and poor. One day Theus came home to find his father, a janitor, lying dead from a heart attack apparently brought on by exhaustion. A tireless six-foot-seven guard with movie-star looks under a mountainous Afro, Theus made it his mission to lead the Rebs to the Final Four.
As a sophomore he came off the bench most nights, a crucial cog in the hard-nosed eight-man rotation reporters dubbed the Hardway Eight. Before home games UNLV fazed opponents with a light show worthy of Cirque du Soleil, each Rebel taking the floor in his own spotlight as the jammed Convention Center shook with cheers for the most crowd-pleasing college team ever. Home or away, the Runnin’ Rebels came out firing, with shooter “Sudden” Sam Smith launching long-range bombs years before the college game had a three-pointer. “He threw in 25-footers as if they were layups,” Tarkanian said of Smith, who hit 52 percent of his shots that year, some from zip codes in other states.
On defense, UNLV employed a man-to-man full-court press from the opening buzzer until the game was won. The season’s most telling stat wasn’t Smith’s shooting percentage, Theus’s 14.5 points off the bench, a 29–3 record or 107-point average. It was 28: UNLV’s pressure defense forced an average of 28 turnovers per game. “We just swallowed teams up,” said Tark. After finishing the year ranked in the top five, UNLV faced San Francisco in the opening round of the 1977 NCAA Tournament. The Dons were ranked number two. Tarkanian saw the draw as proof the NCAA was biased against him. “How could two top-five teams meet in the first round?”
The University of San Francisco featured seven-foot-one superstar Bill Cartwright, who would go on to score 12,713 NBA points and a trio of NBA championships as third wheel for the Michael Jordan–Scottie Pippen Chicago Bulls. If the NCAA was out to put Tark in his place, it couldn’t have chosen better: UNLV’s quick, vertically challenged sprinters had nobody to match Cartwright’s size and skills. Nobody—not the NCAA, the hoops writers or the millions of TV viewers getting their first look at the so-called streetball team from Sin City—expected the Rebels to run USF out of the gym. Except maybe the coach who knew how hungry his players were.
Flying over and around Cartwright, UNLV forced 32 turnovers and shocked USF 121–95, with Theus scoring 27 points in 23 minutes. “The team was really catching fire. The basketball players were heroes,” says a former UNLV football player. “Nobody more than Reggie Theus. He came across as a real cocksman, and every girl was after him. If you hit on some beauty and she left with Reggie, you’d just think, Well, the best man won.”
After their conquest of USF and the regional finals, it was on to the Final Four in Atlanta. Upon their arrival, Tarkanian heard from another coach that the Rebels might as well run back to the desert: “There’s no way the NCAA will let you win. The refs will make sure of it.”
Final Four, 1977: Nevada–Las Vegas against North Carolina. Jerry Tarkanian vs. Dean Smith. Renegade program vs. traditional powerhouse. The Rebels had the edge, 49–43, at halftime, but the Tar Heels pulled out a win that went down to the final seconds, 84–83.
Tark wept after that loss. “That hurt so bad, but it put us on the map nationally,” he remembered. “It hurt, but we wouldn’t let it kill us.”
Five months later, the NCAA put the Runnin’ Rebels on probation, banned them from the tournament for two years and ordered UNLV to suspend coach Tarkanian. The charges included putting one player up in a motel that turned out not to exist and flying another player on a flight that never happened.
The NCAA’s David Berst, who led the investigation, crudely ripped Tark as an Armenian “rug merchant.” His upstart program threatened more-respectable powers with friends at NCAA headquarters and fed racial biases about black athletes. Sports Illustrated described Tarkanian as the “Pied Piper of Negro youngsters,” while opposition fans called his players niggers and ghetto blasters. Theus, for one, detected racism and envy behind charges of cheating in Vegas. “I never took a dime at UNLV. Neither did the other players when I was there,” he said. “I had a car, and people kept insisting that the school got it for me. The truth was that I made the payments from the Social Security checks that came to me because my father died. So if you want to know who paid for my car, it was my father’s death.”
Tark was hardly alone in his loathing of college sports’ rulers. Jim Murray, Pulitzer-winning columnist for the Los Angeles Times, once compared the NCAA to the Gestapo. Hall of Fame coach Al McGuire said, “The NCAA does it like Pontius Pilate. It pretends to be washing its hands when what it’s really saying is ‘Crucify that guy.’”
Vegas was changing. In February 1979, the FBI raided the mobbed-up Tropicana. The “Valentine’s Day Raid” helped break gangsters’ control of Strip casinos, leading to an era in which city leaders sought a clean, corporate image for the fast-growing city. Tarkanian, with his up-all-night eyes and old-Vegas cronies, looked like a throwback. His team went 20–8 in the first year of its tournament exile, 21–8 in the second. The NCAA kept him under surveillance, while he kept his eye on the ultimate prize, an NCAA title.
Soon his Rebels had a new home, a palace at the southwest corner of the campus, fast-break distance from the Strip. The Thomas & Mack Center, a scarlet and gray colossus that seats 19,000, was nicknamed the Shark Tank in honor of the coach who prowled the sidelines, often grinding a folded towel between his teeth. Tark’s basketball program, which generated $6 million a year, and boosters covered the lion’s share of the arena’s construction costs. The week the place opened in 1983, the Runnin’ Rebels took over the top spot in the NCAA polls.
“You’ve got to remember, Vegas never had a big-league sports team,” says the Review-Journal’s Carp. “UNLV basketball became the prime focus of everyone’s attention and affection. And now they’re not just number one in town, they’re number one in the country.”
With guard Danny Tarkanian, the coach’s son, dishing to six-foot-six shooting guard Larry Anderson and six-foot-nine forward Sidney Green, UNLV won 24 in a row before losing to Cal State–Fullerton. After that game, Tarkanian roared at his 24–1 Rebels: “You guys, I’m getting tired of losing!” Then he laughed.
The greatest show in Vegas sold out every home game, with celebs packing courtside seats. Those seats became known as Gucci Row. Bill Cosby, Sammy Davis Jr., Don Rickles, Diana Ross and casino mogul Steve Wynn cheered the home team to another conference title. “In the town of Frank Sinatra, Wayne Newton and Siegfried and Roy, Tark was the most beloved of them all,” says Jimmy Kimmel, who grew up in Vegas. “The others were here for the tourists. Tark belonged to us.” One night Kimmel and four drunken buddies spotted the coach outside an arena in Los Angeles. They were singing his praises when Tarkanian asked them to give his wife, Lois, a lift home. “Jerry turned his bride over to a van-load of intoxicated teenagers. He knew he could trust us because the bond between the city and the coach was so strong. Lois, on the other hand, was a little freaked out.”
The biggest star of all, Sinatra, phoned Tark after big wins: “Congratulations, Coach. I’m takin’ you to dinner!” Tark held court with his pals at Piero’s Italian Cuisine, where the bar was a shrine to Runnin’ Rebels hoops and where Martin Scorsese shot scenes for Casino, with Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone and Joe Pesci playing slightly fictionalized Vegas mobsters. Other, shadier figures—the kind Sinatra was said to be connected with—watched from less conspicuous seats. The Tarkanian story featured enough guy-who-knew-a-guy connections to make NCAA investigators drool. In 1979 Vic Weiss, a reputed bagman for the Mafia, was working on a deal for Tark that could have made him the Lakers coach. On the night he drew up the contract, Weiss disappeared. He was found a few days later in the trunk of a Rolls-Royce, his hands bound behind his neck, shot twice through the head. A newspaper reporter wrote that Weiss got whacked because he was helping Tarkanian leave UNLV. Tark didn’t want to believe it. The case is still unsolved.
“The mob guys kept a low profile,” says a UNLV athlete who worked at the arena. “Tark didn’t court them, but in Vegas they’re part of the picture. You’d see Anthony ‘the Ant’ Spilotro and Frank ‘Lefty’ Rosenthal—the guys Pesci and De Niro play in Casino—rooting for UNLV.”
“I can confirm that,” says Oscar Goodman, the criminal lawyer who went on to be mayor of Las Vegas. “They were clients of mine, and like everybody else in town, they were Runnin’ Rebels fans. The team galvanized the city, and then it went beyond the city. I started seeing UNLV caps on kids in New York and Philadelphia. Before the Tarkanian era I’d go into a courtroom and they’d say, ‘Here comes that shyster lawyer from Las Vegas.’ In the 1980s, lawyers and judges started saying, ‘How are the Rebels doing? Are they going to win it all?’”
In 1983, coach Jim Valvano’s North Carolina State Wolfpack slipped past UNLV in the tournament thanks to a miracle tip-in at the last second.
“We were close,” Tarkanian recalls. “We kept getting close, but we couldn’t clear that last hurdle.”
His mid-1980s records alone might have brought another coach some love from the hoops Hall of Fame. Tark, who hasn’t made the Hall despite one of the best winning percentages in NCAA history, put up records of 28–3, 29–6 and 33–5. In 1987 the top-ranked Rebels were 37–1 going into a Final Four to face yet another old-school power, Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers. Indiana won by four on its way to the crown, but by all accounts the Rebels were on the verge.
By 1989 Tarkanian had the team he wanted. His unit starred a guard tandem, six-foot-one Greg Anthony and long-armed six-foot-eight Stacey “Plastic Man” Augmon, along with six-foot-seven forward Larry Johnson, a junior-college transfer who became the college game’s most complete player. All three would go on to be NBA stars. At Thomas & Mack they led a Rebels attack that outran high-scoring Loyola Marymount in the season’s lid-lifter, 102–91. After splitting the next four games, UNLV won 11 of 12 before losing a 107–105 thriller to an LSU team led by Shaquille O’Neal. From there the Rebels ran off 21 victories in 22 games.
Along the way they heard the usual catcalls. Venomous crowds, reporters and opponents called them thugs and worse. Against Utah State, an Aggies player dared UNLV’s Chris Jeter to “Hit me, motherfucker.” Jeter complied, touching off a brawl in which the Rebels’ Moses Scurry decked Utah State’s coach. After the game, UNLV president Robert Maxson blamed the Rebels. “I am ashamed and embarrassed,” Maxson announced.
By now the nation’s top basketball team was at odds with former supporters including Wynn. The casino king was riding high after opening the Mirage in 1989. He donated millions to UNLV and agonized over the program’s reputation. Tarkanian’s players swore they got a bad rap. Who else would get blamed when several surfboards went missing during a trip to Hawaii? As Tark recalls, “The hotel just said some black guys stole them, and the NCAA decided to suspend a couple of my players.” One protested, “Coach, we don’t even swim!” Yet Tark had invited scrutiny. In addition to numerous minor infractions, he had recruited New York playground legend Lloyd “Swee’ Pea” Daniels, a rangy guard with Magic Johnson talent and a crack habit. A UNLV assistant coach became Daniels’s legal guardian, which was one of the kindest or most cynical recruiting moves ever, depending on your point of view. University officials’ view of Tark’s tactics darkened after Daniels was busted trying to buy a $20 rock at a Vegas crack house. It turned out his friend and mentor Sam Perry, a team booster, was actually Richard “Richie the Fixer” Perry, convicted of fixing horse races and Boston College basketball games. Perry was connected to the Lucchese family and Henry Hill, the wiseguy Ray Liotta played in Goodfellas.
“That embarrassed the team and the town,” says a UNLV insider. “Things were going downhill for Tark. One night they’re losing to an inferior team, and Jerry’s cussing them out at halftime. Steve Wynn was in the locker room. He said, ‘Tark, take it easy.’ Jerry told Wynn to go fuck himself. He was making too many enemies.”
One was Maxson, the headline-hungry president who saw the basketball team as a threat to his school’s reputation. Along with NCAA investigators who harassed the Rebels by suspending them just before game time—pulling players off team buses for such violations as taking a bag of peanuts from a hotel room—Maxson chipped away at Tarkanian’s credibility.
“There’s only one thing we can do,” Tark told his team. “Kick everyone’s ass.”
In the 1989–1990 season, all but three Runnin’ Rebels would be suspended for at least one game. Larry Johnson, a good citizen who led by dint of supreme talent but never said much, was among the saintly three. Greg Anthony wasn’t. Anthony wasn’t well respected by his teammates either. Point guards are supposed to be leaders, but the cocky Anthony came off as self-centered if not soft. Until the Fresno State game. That was the day Anthony went down so hard his face bounced off the hardwood. “We thought he broke his nose or his neck,” Tark recalls, “but it was just his jaw.” Doctors wired Anthony’s jaw shut. He wouldn’t eat solid food for weeks. “We thought he might be out for the year. Then he shows up at our next practice with a hockey helmet on.” A hockey helmet with a football face mask.
Anthony mumbled through his mask, “Hi, Coach.” He grabbed a ball and launched a shot. Swish.
Three days later he led UNLV to a win over New Mexico State. Anthony struggled to get enough air with his mouth wired shut, so a doctor cut the wire during time-outs to let him breathe, then rewired him and sent him back in. Says Tark, “Oh, the guys loved Greg after that. That’s when we really came together as a team.”
UNLV averaged 93 points per game and led the nation in victory margin and shooting percentage. Tark rolled to his first-ever title game, a run-in with yet another old-school power, Mike Krzyzewski’s 29–8 Duke Blue Devils.
While the Rebels sported sweats and backward baseball caps to the game, Duke’s players—Christian Laettner, Phil Henderson, freshman Bobby Hurley—wore suits and ties. It was thugs vs. Boy Scouts, a theme one reporter sounded in a pregame press conference. “Coach,” he asked Tarkanian, “is this a game of the good versus the bad?”
“That really upsets me,” Tark said. He paused like a Vegas comedian. “Because I’ve met some of these Duke kids, and they are good kids once you get to know them.”
Before the game, Duke’s mascot waved a sign that mocked the Runnin’ Rebels: WELCOME FELLOW SCHOLARS. Ten minutes later Larry Johnson’s behind-the-back save of a loose ball triggered the Rebels’ fast break. Augmon took Johnson’s pass to the hole—bang! UNLV took a 12-point lead to the locker room at halftime.
“Tighten the vise,” Tarkanian told his squad of outcasts.
Early in the second half, leading 57–47, UNLV scored 18 straight in three minutes. Guard Anderson Hunt knocked down five shots. “The level we were playing at,” said Augmon, “that’s just plain desire.” Johnson, who would finish with 22 points, 11 rebounds and four steals, took a seat as the Rebels put the game away.
“We could have beaten them by 50,” Tark said, “but I didn’t want to run it up.”
UNLV 103, Duke 73. That final score was (and still is) the biggest blowout in title-game history. “This wasn’t a game of Xs and Os,” Duke’s coach Krzyzewski said. “It was one of complete domination.” Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels were (and still are) the only team ever to score 100 points in the championship game. While fans poured onto the court, UNLV players unveiled the souvenir T-shirts they’d commissioned with the words SHARK TAKES HIS BITE.
Twenty-two years later Tark remembers cutting down the net. “That’s the best, the best,” he says. “That’s happiness.”
Eight months after the championship game the NCAA announced new sanctions against Tarkanian. By then, president Maxson had named a new interim athletic director, a former wrestling coach named Dennis Finfrock, who has been described as Maxson’s hatchet man. Finfrock—who would later say he regretted working with Maxson against Tark— ran the Thomas & Mack Center.
Tarkanian’s 1990–1991 unit is sometimes called the best college team ever. The top-ranked Rebels went 34–0, capping a 45-game winning streak. Their average victory margin was 28. The NCAA kept sniffing at him. “We got shadowed nonstop,” he said. “The NCAA did not want us to win the national championship.” After Nevada-Reno players popped off in the local newspaper that they could beat UNLV, Tark bought a bunch of papers and passed them out in the locker room. “They think they’re as good as we are!” he said. The pissed-off Rebels went out and thrashed Nevada-Reno by 50, but they couldn’t celebrate for long. Tarkanian got word that he had broken NCAA rules by giving players free newspapers.
Meanwhile Maxson and Finfrock dispatched undergrads to spy on Tarkanian, his players and assistants. They planted stories in local newspapers. (One Vegas newsman called the school’s tactics “public relations in reverse.”) And in what may be the most extreme instance of a college turning against its own team, UNLV officials secretly videotaped practices, placing a camera in an air-conditioning duct above the gym floor.
Maxson led the NCAA champs onto the floor at their homecoming rally, waving his hands as if he’d scored 30. But by 1991, the reputation of the college game’s winningest coach was in tatters. Moses Scurry and two other Rebels were photographed enjoying beers with “Richie the Fixer” Perry in the Fixer’s hot tub, and the Review-Journal ran the picture on its front page. The hot-tub photos sealed Tark’s doom.
He sent Maxson a letter. “Allow this to serve as notice of my resignation.…”
Later, Tarkanian attended a rally at a Methodist church on the Westside. “What a night that was,” says Carp of the Review-Journal. “He gets up to talk, and the people start chanting, ‘Keep Tark! Keep Tark!’ And Tark’s choking up. He says, ‘Thank you, but I gave my word to the president. I’ve gotta keep my word.’ But they won’t stop. ‘Keep Tark! Keep Tark!’ And then he blurts, ‘I am rescinding my resignation!’ A bizarro moment. They cheered and just about carried him out of there.”
The crowd loved him, but it wasn’t to be. “I called the president that night,” Carp recalls. “‘What’s your reaction?’ The president said, ‘We have an agreement. I have his resignation.’”
In his last Rebels game—a 12-point victory over Utah State—Tarkanian capped a 23-game winning streak, finishing the 1991–1992 season 26–2.
Today, 20 years after leaving Nevada–Las Vegas, Tarkanian wouldn’t mind chewing a few more towels. Now 82, he has had six heart stents put in place before his latest heart attack last spring. He struggles to speak but still loves talking about the old days. “You know that towel thing, that started in high school ball,” he says. He was 30, coaching at Redlands High in California. Nervous under pressure. “We were playing Ramona High School for the Citrus Belt League championship. It was a hot afternoon. I kept running to the drinking fountain. Finally I wet the towel and chewed it on the bench. We won in overtime, my first championship. So I kept doin’ it. You keep doin’ what wins.”
At his retirement Tarkanian held the fourth-highest winning percentage of all college basketball coaches in history. Asked if he belongs in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame—his exclusion is an ongoing scandal—Tark shrugs. “I think about our team, not me. We had a hell of a team. The best ever? That’s not for me to say, but you know something? If you put our 1990 and 1991 teams against anybody, we might run ’em out of the gym.”