Sports column | ‘Tark the Shark’ could out-coach the best
There will never be another Jerry Tarkanian in the state of Nevada. Tarkanian put the state on the national sports map. His UNLV Runnin’ Rebels captured the imagination of an entire nation that once thought Nevada was just a collection of neon, showgirls, quickie divorces, unmarked graves in the desert, nuclear test sites and cheap buffets. Tarkanian’s players loved him. The city of Las Vegas loved him. If you met Tark, you loved Tark. Yes, the NCAA hated him and Northern Nevada was jealous of him (Tark was 23-2 against the Wolf Pack as UNLV’s coach) but that was only because he made them look bad. Nobody outside of Clark and Washoe County would even know there is Division I sports in Nevada if not for Tarkanian. He gave the entire state a sports identity. There was never anyone like him in Nevada before he arrived in 1973 and there hasn’t been anyone like him since he left the Rebels in 1992. He is the greatest coach in Nevada college sports history. And nobody else is even in the conversation.
Tarkanian never got the credit he deserved for being one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history. Tarkanian accomplished the incredibly rare feat of allowing his players to be the show while also getting them to play exactly how he wanted them to play every second they were on the floor. He won nearly eight of every 11 games he coached in his career and five out of every six at UNLV. Tarkanian, though, was always looked upon as a blatant cheater who seemingly did nothing during games except chew on a towel. He looked like Uncle Fester of the Addams Family sitting down to dinner and not knowing that he wasn’t supposed to eat his napkin. That was the unfair image. The reality was that he could out-coach (and out-recruit) anybody on the planet. Tarkanian got a bunch of supposedly undisciplined inner city kids who were always the pampered star of their high school and junior college teams to play amazing team defense, unselfish offense and hustle like every trip down the court might be their last. He was a coach’s coach, a player’s coach and a fan’s coach.
The Wolf Pack, at 7-16 with seven games remaining in the regular season, are likely headed to their fourth losing record in the last five seasons. UNLV is also just 5-6 in the weak Mountain West. Will the Wolf Pack or Rebels ever attain the level of success that Tark’s Rebels enjoyed? Not likely. The Pack has only briefly approached national success over its century-long history and that lasted only as long as Nick Fazekas was on campus. The Rebels have always been talented but no Rebel coach the last two-plus decades has been able to blend all that talent into a hard-working, unselfish team like the ones that thrilled Southern Nevada for two decades under Tark.
It is kind of ironic that the week Tarkanian passed away a team from Las Vegas was awarded a championship because their opponent cheated. The public reaction to Jackie Robinson West of Chicago being stripped of its United States title because it used players outside its boundaries is that everyone feels sad for the Chicago kids, that the Chicago coaches are all to blame. Well, that’s true. But what about the Las Vegas kids who were robbed of their title by a team that likely wouldn’t have even been in Williamsport if it didn’t cheat? There are no winners here. It’s just a bunch of adults who should be ashamed of themselves.
Joe Santoro writes a weekly sports column for the Sierra Nevada Media Group.