The image of "Tark the Shark" with the droopy eyes and the towel in his mouth was not the Coach Tark I knew, admired and respected.
When I think of Jerry Tarkanian, I think of a great coach and teacher.
Coach Tark did not recruit the blue bloods of college basketball. Those players typically went to UCLA, North Carolina and Kentucky. He recruited hard-playing, tough kids. Some needed a second chance, while some just needed an opportunity. People who took offense to that didn't get the man. Yes, he gave players a second chance. But once they arrived on campus, he was very demanding. What he did back then with transfers is no different than what we are seeing today with coaches. His players were held responsible and learned to work, compete and be part of something bigger than themselves. He demanded much from his players, loved them and treated them with respect. His players played hard, competed and loved him back. He treated them like his family.
When you faced UNLV, as I did as both an assistant and head coach, you were challenged every time down the floor. They came at you. No one had more discipline. No one was more prepared than those UNLV Runnin' Rebel teams. He wasn't a good coach; he was a great coach. Great coaches are defined by how hard their players play for them because they aren't playing for themselves -- they are playing for something bigger than themselves. No one played harder than those UNLV teams.
I won't remember Coach Tark for the wins. I'll remember him as an everyman who loved to talk basketball. When he visited Long Beach State, where I would become the head coach 17 years after he'd held the same job, we would get together and talk at Kelly's Restaurant. He liked nothing better than to just sit down with a group of coaches and discuss ball. He was a coach's coach.
He was also a genuine human being. Despite all the glitter and everything that came with being in Las Vegas, you'd walk through the hotel with him and the bellman would come over to him. In that moment, the bellman would be the most important person in the room to Coach Tark. He asked the bellman questions, such as, "Do you like the way we're playing? Should I make any changes?" And he legitimately cared about the answers. That's just the type of person he was.
The perception and reality of Coach Tark were of two different people. He had a lot of the same traits that former North Carolina coach Dean Smith had, including a great attention to detail. Like Smith, Tark was demanding, but always had time for his players and coaches.
Yes, Tark was vilified, though other coaches were doing similar things that we'd find out later were for sure in the gray area. But his battles with the NCAA were a very small part of who he was, and not the part that those who really knew him will remember.
We had this perception of him -- this guy with droopy eyes and a bald head, wearing a short-sleeved shirt and sucking on a towel -- but that was society's perception of him. Not the great communicator, terrific coach, kind person and coach's coach who saw the best in people.
RIP, Jerry Tarkanian. You might have been one of the most misunderstood coaches in the history of college basketball.