|Thursday, March 14
Season of turmoil takes bite out of Shark
By Andy Katz
Jerry Tarkanian had visions of a Final Four run when the 2001-02 season started. Now, however, he has decided to slip into his second retirement on the heels of a season that never materialized. A season that kept testing his fervor to continue coaching.
"I don't think I can go any longer," the 71-year-old Tarkanian said a couple weeks ago. "I've gotten lazy recruiting wise. And there has been too much pain and agony. I have had such a difficult season. There has been so much promise. I'm just fed up with it."
Before his Fresno State players even started classes, preseason Wooden All-American candidate point guard Tito Maddox was dismissed from the program for accepting extra benefits from an agent. Maddox's backup, point Chris Sandy, was then deemed academically ineligible for the first semester.
But even without Sandy, the Bulldogs reached the Preseason NIT consolation game. The Bulldogs would beat USC, lose to Wake Forest on a buzzer-beater and rebound to beat Michigan State in the consolation game. Without a point guard, the Bulldogs went 2-1 against three teams headed to the NCAA Tournament.
But Fresno State didn't join them in the dance. Why? Well, the season continued to go south when the Bulldogs returned from New York.
Wooden All-American candidate center Melvin Ely was suspended for two games by the school, then reinstated for two and then suspended by the NCAA for four more for an extra benefit. The Bulldogs lost three of the four games Ely missed in his second suspension.
Ely contested that a friend of his accepted the benefit, not him, taking a hotel room from the same agent that provided Maddox with the benefits during a pre-draft workout last spring. Like Maddox, Ely didn't declare for the draft and returned for his senior season.
But while Ely was cleared the play, the news only got worse for the Bulldogs when Chris Jefferies (17.3 ppg) tore cartilage in his knee on Jan. 26. Sandy's situation then got more muddled when he was deemed ineligible for an extra benefit on paying for a correspondence class.
"The whole team has been dismantled," Tarkanian said. "This should have been my best team. We beat USC, Michigan State, Oklahoma State, won at SMU, but have lost games at the buzzer to Reno, Boise State, Louisiana Tech, Wake Forest. It's been such a painful season. I was an optimist. I thought we'd have a great season and I could get Danny (Tarkanian) the job (his assistant)." Instead, the Bulldogs failed to reach its third straight NCAA Tournament. And, Tarkanian said, he doesn't expect his son to get the job, saying he would recommend that Danny get out of coaching and go back to Las Vegas into the business community.
"I feel for Sandy and Melvin because I think they were singled out and made ineligible only because they were playing for me," Tarkanian said. "It's difficult to handle. There was no justification for holding them out. The kids are getting screwed for playing for me. Both of them deserve to play. They were punished unfairly."
But why is this different than another year when Tarkanian was frustrated over eligibility issues in the past? Fresno State has dealt with this issue over the years with plenty of high-profile players. When the losing mounted during the middle of a season, or a loss in the WAC tournament, or when there was a point-shaving investigation, Tarkanian thought about walking away but never did. Why now?
"Because I'm older now," Tarkanian said. "I anticipated this season being a great year and this would be a perfect time to step aside. It's just been one thing after another. When Melvin and Tito said they were coming back I was really excited to be back, because I knew Chris Jefferies would be back too. But then all that stuff knocked us on our ass."
Regardless of what anyone's opinion is of Tarkanian, he remains one of the winningest coaches of all time and the most accessible to anyone in the media. Tarkanian, a yearly Hall of Fame candidate, won a national title at UNLV and put that program on the map, essentially getting the Thomas & Mack Center built. He did the same at Fresno State, resurrecting a stagnant program and getting the school national publicity -- for good or bad -- that it never had before he arrived.
The Bulldogs got to the NCAA Tournament two seasons ago for the first time since 1984. They returned in 2001. They were on national television countless times. They were in the postseason every one of his previous six seasons. And the Bulldogs have begun to build the Save Mart Center on campus, which wouldn't have happened without Tarkanian.
"Everybody in town says I saved the program when I came here," Tarkanian said. "We raised millions for the program, sold out the arena and I raised the first million for the new arena. We even donated $100,000 to the library (from Tarkanian's $2.5 million settlement with the NCAA). Everyone tells me the arena wouldn't have happened without me.
"I'm happy with all of that," Tarkanian said. "But I just wish we would have been to the final eight once or the Final Four. It's sad that we might not win 20 games (the Bulldogs are 18-12 with a game against Hawaii, the WAC tournament and possibly the NIT) because this should have been my best team in Fresno."
But Tarkanian said he has renewed a number of friendships in Fresno and knows that he has left the Bulldogs a better job than when he arrived. The men's and women's basketball and volleyball team are the only high-profile teams at the school without state-of-the-art facilities. That will change with the Save Mart Center.
"The new arena will make this a good job with great offices and facilities," Tarkanian said. "I'm ready for the pasture, just send me out. I'll go watch some college football games. That's what I really want to do."
Tarkanian's replacement will be one of the most important hires for athletic director Scott Johnson, named athletic director last month. The favorite is UC Irvine's Pat Douglass with San Francisco's Phil Mathews, Cal State-Northridge's Bobby Braswell all expected to be in the hunt. The top assistant on Johnson's list will likely be UCLA's Jim Saia, a former Fresno State assistant who has coveted the job for years, like football coach Pat Hill did when he left as an assistant and returned as the head coach.
Tarkanian ranks fourth all-time with 778 career victories, 153 of those coming at Fresno State, where he guided the Bulldogs to the NCAA Tournament two times. His greatest seasons, however, came during 19 seasons at UNLV. His teams won 509 games, the 1990 national championship, and advanced to the Final Four four times in 12 trips to the NCAA Tournament.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the season.