Las Vegas has had its share of new arrivals over the years many of whom fail to deliver on their promises. In the eyes of some, the so-called experts come in driving Cadillacs and smoking cigars before leaving in the back of a Greyhound bus.
However, when Jerry Tarkanian arrived in Las Vegas to take over the UNLV basketball program in 1973, the city discovered a mild-mannered and colorful Armenian who didn’t promise much but would deliver big-time.
Known as Tark the Shark, the former Long Beach State University basketball coach accepted the offer to move to the desert; and a boring basketball program at UNLV suddenly underwent a change that would gain the attention of the entire country.
UNLV had just finished a 14-14 season while Tarkanian guided Long Beach State to a 26-3 record and its fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance.
At UNLV, Tarkanian brought with him recruits including center Lewis Brown, forward Jackie Robinson, forward Glenn Gondrezick and forward Eddie Owens taking UNLV to a 20-6 record in his first season.
Long known as “Tumbleweed Tech,” with Tarkanian powering the nitro methane version of run and gun college basketball, UNLV had unknowingly started a surge that would not only attract a massive following but also result in big revenue for the university.
Those UNLV boosters who had journeyed to Southern California to lure Tarkanian to the desert really recognized the man’s worth when UNLV marched to a 29-3 record and a trip to the 1977 NCAA College Basketball Final Four in Atlanta, Ga.
During a time long before the three-point shot had been instituted into college basketball, Tarkanian’s teams were shooting from 25 feet, suffocating the opposition’s offense with a pressuring defense that was tireless and averaging more than 107 points per game.
When UNLV arrived in Atlanta, there was a fever of fans unlike anything the Southern Nevada school had ever experienced. An estimated 10,000 onlookers showed up for practice to see the team the entire nation was talking about.
The Runnin’ Rebels would lose 84-83 to North Carolina in the semi-finals of the 1977 Final Four when Gondrezick broke the nose of center Larry Moffett as the two went after a rebound. The Tar Heels then capitalized on a game-delaying four-corner offense long before the NCAA installed the shot clock and UNLV finished third in the tournament after beating North Carolina-Charlotte in the consolation game.
Indeed, in a city of movers and shakers, Tarkanian shrugged his shoulders and kept moving as attendance soared to continual sellouts at the 6,200 seat Las Vegas Convention Center. UNLV had reached marquee status in a city dominated by them.
The success of UNLV basketball under Tarkanian’s tutelage continued to soar and was climaxed by the fact that the Running Rebels took the national championship in 1990 with a resounding 103-73 win over Duke in Denver.
Everyone was a fan of Runnin’ Rebel basketball ranging from cab drivers to homemakers and entertainers like Frank Sinatra whose seats on what was known as “Gucci Row” was a true roster of the whose-who of ‘Vegas entertainment.
Over the years, Tarkanian had slowly created a basketball program that accomplished many things. Key, though, was that in a city that is almost manic, Tarkanian had managed to attract a huge following ranging from every aspect of life ranging from cab drivers to homemakers and entertainers.
Football recruit Steve Stallworth visited UNLV and was taken to a Runnin’ Rebel basketball game. He will never forget the trip in January of 1982.
“On my recruiting trip to UNLV, we went to a Rebel game at the old Convention Center,” recalled Stallworth of his visit that resulted in him playing for UNLV from 1985-86. “The energy was unbelievable. That energy and the aura was a major part of what attracted me and a lot of other athletes to the university. His successes were contagious.”
Suddenly, Las Vegas and its umpteen choices of things to do became Las Vegas and its Runnin’ Rebels. UNLV drew the attention of cab drivers, car salesmen, homemakers and even entertainers like Frank Sinatra.
The entire city was talking about UNLV basketball although Tarkanian seemed to take for granted what he had accomplished.
Fearless, Tarkanian took on the NCAA when it ordered UNLV to suspend him. In October of 1977, a Nevada judge issued an injunction against the NCAA and reinstated the UNLV coach.
It was after the 1991-92 season that Tarkanian parted ways with UNLV after a bitter battle with university president Robert Maxson; and the basketball program hasn’t been the same since.
While Tarkanian’s record on the court spoke for itself, it was also his record in the court of law that drew wide respect. While the NCAA continued to hound him, Tarkanian bowed his back, took the college sanctioning body to court in 1992 and settled the case by pocketing $2.5 million in 1998.
The same coaches who did everything in their power to beat Tarkanian on the court were the same ones who admired what he did in a courtroom. The NCAA had immense power, but Tarkanian simply changed clothes and replaced his seat on the sideline with one in a courtroom in what might have been his own form of pressure defense.
In addition, the media found Tarkanian a treat to work with. In somewhat of a role as a comic, he always had interesting reactions to everything from recruits to the NCAA and other coaches.
“Tark really did a lot for the community,” said Tom Dye, who began working for the Las Vegas Review-Journal as a sports writer before serving as sports editor from 1979-82. “He loved his players and I have never seen a more exciting basketball team than his power teams of the 1970s that scored more than 100 points a game.
“There have been so many failures in this town and I admit that I was a little skeptical when Tark arrived. But in the end, what would we have done without Tark’s Rebels? The program really took off.”
“Nobody united this valley like Jerry Tarkanian did when he coached UNLV,” said former KTNV Sports Director Ron Futrell. “There was so much focus on the Rebel game that night in the Thomas and Mack where rich and poor, young and old would come together to cheer for UNLV. It was all because they won, and that was because of Tark.
“The NCAA tournament is not near as much fun without a top-notch Rebel team in the mix, and we haven’t had that since Tark left.”
Added former journalist George McCabe of Brown and Partners Public Relations, “Tark put Las Vegas on the map. He showed that you could play fast break basketball and pressure defense at the same time with great entertainment value and effectiveness.”
Tarkanian died at the age of 84 in February of 2015 after a long illness and Las Vegas mourned the loss of one of the city’s true heroes. With a 30-year coaching record of 761-202, he remains one of the winningest college basketball coaches in the country.
Long-time Las Vegas resident Tony Cordasco was able to get the lights dimmed on the Las Vegas Strip in honor of Tarkanian and a big gathering at Thomas and Mack drew a memorable gathering that included former players such as Ricky Sobers, Reggie Theus, Chris Herren and Eldridge Hudson, among others, who played for the man who took Las Vegas to another level.
In fitting fashion, the crowd simulated the sight of sharks moving their jaws in a fitting re-enactment of the old days when Tark the Shark ruled Thomas and Mack Center. +