“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.”