As card-carrying mavericks go, Jerry Tarkanian was George Steinbrenner times Al Davis. He would never bow before the establishment or those he felt were protected by its double standards, John Wooden included.
No other college basketball coach would dare criticize the game's most revered statesman, not for public consumption anyway. Tarkanian? Long after he was done fighting what he called the N-C-Two-A at UNLV, he was still wondering aloud why the sport's governing body investigated his first Division I program, Long Beach State, while a booster named Sam Gilbert was acting as an ATM for Wooden's mighty UCLA Bruins.
"You could've made every booster at Long Beach dish over every cent they had," Tarkanian once told me, "and it wouldn't have covered Sam Gilbert's expenses."
Tarkanian called part of Wooden's dynastic run at UCLA "the Sam Gilbert era." He famously complained that the N-C-Two-A would get mad at Kentucky and punish Cleveland State to get even, that the little guys always had to pay for the sins of the knighted big guys. He swore that the same reporters questioning his full-court-press recruiting tactics never interrogated coaches who had poached prospects from him (He started calling Arizona's Lute Olson "Midnight Lute" after one such poaching).
"In my years as a coach," Tarkanian said, "George Gervin, Byron Scott, Ed O'Bannon, Shon Tarver, Matt Othick and Maurice Lucas all made verbal commitments to me and were stolen away. How come nobody ever mentions that?"
Yes, Tarkanian played the victim like nobody else could. "For four and a half years there were headlines about the NCAA's investigation of UNLV," he said, "and when I got cleared of anything major, I got a paragraph."
Truth is, Jerry Tarkanian, who died Wednesday at 84, always got more than a paragraph for good reason: He was the most unique and fascinating sports figure I've ever covered, with Steinbrenner running a distant second. Tarkanian had friends and enemies, and not much else in between. But he had a desperate need to be liked, and so he often tried like hell to win those enemies over to his side of the divide.
He'd maintain over and over that the news media was unfair to him. "I should treat you guys like Bob Knight does," Tarkanian said. But he couldn't bring himself to be anything but the open book his life turned out to be.
Covering Tark the Shark in Vegas was a sportswriter's equivalent of covering an alleged mob boss admired and beloved in some corners of his community and despised by the feds out to nail him. Tarkanian was trying to hold on to what he'd built at UNLV in the early 1990s when battling the school's president, Bob Maxson, as fiercely as he battled the N-C-Two-A. Maxson had decided he couldn't elevate UNLV's academic standing among higher institutions with Tarkanian in place as his lead Runnin' Rebel, creating a turf war in the desert that was almost as comical as it was bloody.
The coach and president were fighting for control of the university, really, and their opposing camps waged a public-relations war to end them all. Back then newspapers could afford to travel far and wide for this kind of copy, and one rule of thumb for the out-of-town writers making the trip (before cellphones were popular and/or reliable) was to find a hotel with rooms featuring two available land lines -- one for Maxson sources, one for Tark sources (the Blue Moon off the Strip would do).
Near the end of the 1991-92 season, Tarkanian rescinded a resignation that had been forced by the earlier publication of a photo showing three former UNLV players sharing a hot tub with a convicted sports fixer. The coach and the president traded accusations over this and that and ultimately held dueling news conferences on the same day, with Maxson choosing to go last in an attempt to get the final word on his coach.
Tarkanian wasn't about to let that happen, not after taking the N-C-Two-A all the way to the Supreme Court. Tark had an answer for everything, which is why N-C-Two-A officials ultimately paid him $2.5 million to make his lawsuits against them disappear, and why he earned an overdue induction into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.
In the end, Tarkanian did resign at UNLV and, after a mere 20 games as coach of the San Antonio Spurs, he did later resurface at Fresno State, where he faced a new round of investigations into alleged misconduct. In the wake of reports of possible point-shaving in his program, Tarkanian gave me the phone number of a prominent oddsmaker he said had information that would clear the team's name.
That was vintage Tark. He never stopped defending the recruitment of players Mike Krzyzewski and Dean Smith didn't have to recruit. He believed in giving third and fourth chances to prospects black (Lloyd Daniels) and white (Chris Herren), and in using what he saw as N-C-Two-A hypocrisy to create an us-against-them mentality that fueled his teams.
It worked. There's a reason why Greg Anthony played for him at UNLV with his jaw wired shut, and why the Rebels, who destroyed the Duke Blue Devils for the 1990 national title before losing their 45-game winning streak to them at the '91 Final Four, played as hard for Tark as any college athletes have played for any coach. I'll never forget walking into a UNLV practice for the first time and being blown away by the relentless intensity of the defensive drills being performed.
Tarkanian was the X's and O's equal of Dean Smith, who died Sunday, and yet he won't be remembered the same way. That's OK. Tark had a different mission statement.
He believed his job was to win, and win you over, at all costs. Tarkanian once offered to fix a speeding ticket I earned while racing off to Maxson's office (declined). Tarkanian once offered up a ride on his team plane to the Final Four in Indianapolis with the 34-0 Rebels expecting to win their second consecutive national title (accepted).
The morning after the devastating Duke loss, Tarkanian called my room -- enraged over a story I'd written about Maxson's intentions to oust him -- and profanely threatened to have me "taken out." Three calmer phone calls and 10 hours later, he invited me to the lobby bar to vent again about Maxson, the N-C-Two-A, and UNLV's failure to contain Christian Laettner.
Over the years I've missed those conversations with him on the phone, or in his office, or over a late Las Vegas dinner with a few other writers at his friend Freddie Glusman's place, Piero's, where the bureaucrats were always on the menu. I like fighters and underdogs, so I liked Jerry Tarkanian, flaws and all. I'll remember him as an American original, and as a Rebel with a clearly defined cause.