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.