Jerry Tarkanian, Who Coached Runnin’ Rebels to Title, Dies at 84

Jerry Tarkanian, the towel-chomping coach who won a national title and compiled one of the highest winning percentages in college basketball while battling accusations of rule violations, has died. He was 84.

He died today, his son, Danny Tarkanian, said on Twitter. The hall of fame coach had been in a Las Vegas hospital since Monday with a respiratory ailment and infection, the Associated Press reported.

Known as “Tark the Shark,” Tarkanian spent 19 years at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, where his team won the National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s championship in 1990. He collected 761 wins and 202 losses during his three-decade career as a major college coach, according to the Sports-Reference.com website. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.

At UNLV, Tarkanian used a fast-break offense and smothering full-court defense that forced turnovers and ran up triple-digit scores in sold-out arenas filled with fans whipped up by rap music and laser light shows.

Celebrities and Las Vegas high-rollers paid as much as $1,800 for a season ticket to sit courtside in “Gucci Row.” The Thomas & Mack Center, the Runnin’ Rebels home court, was known as the Shark Tank.

Tarkanian prowled the sidelines, sucking on his trademark wet towel, a superstitious habit that began decades earlier when he was coaching high-school ball in a hot gym, Danny Tarkanian, said, according to a New York Times article in 2013.

‘Father Flanagan’

His UNLV players, many of whom had weak academic records in high school, had a reputation as bad boys. Tarkanian saw their potential while other college coaches passed on them.

“What he’d really like is to be remembered as someone who helped young men, sort of like Father Flanagan,” UNLV’s former President Robert Maxson said, referring to the founder of Boys Town according to the Chicago Tribune in 1987.

Tarkanian feuded with the NCAA at every Division I college where he coached: California State University at Long Beach, UNLV, and California State University at Fresno. Each school saw its basketball program suspended for rule infractions that occurred while Tarkanian was coach.

The alleged incidents included recruiting violations, tampering with transcripts, excessive financial aid offers, allowing stand-ins to write papers and take tests for players, overlooking boosters who made payments to team members, drug abuse and point shaving by athletes.

Recruiting Violations

In 1976, the NCAA placed UNLV’s basketball team on probation for two years and ordered the university to suspend Tarkanian for the same period. The move came after an investigation concluded that the coach and the school “were guilty of numerous recruiting violations in the mid-1970s,” according to a Times story.

Tarkanian sued, claiming he had been denied due process. The case eventually wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1988 ruled 5-4 supporting the NCAA’s position.

In 1992, Tarkanian was forced to resign from UNLV after the Las Vegas Review-Journal published a photograph, taken three years earlier, showing several UNLV basketball players sitting in a hot tub with a well-known gambler who had twice been convicted on federal charges of sports bribery.

“The picture is the most significant part of the stigma that lingers over Tarkanian,” according to the 2013 Times story.

Soon after leaving UNLV, Tarkanian and his wife sued the NCAA for unfairly targeting him during his career. In 1998, the NCAA settled the case, paying the couple $2.5 million.

Painful Years

“They can never, ever, make up for all the pain they caused me,” Tarkanian said when the deal was announced, according to the Los Angeles Times. “ All I can say is that for 25 years they beat the hell out of me.”

Tarkanian was born on Aug. 8, 1930, in Euclid, Ohio, to George and Haighouhie “Rose” Tarkanian, Armenian immigrants. His extended family’s suffering at the hands of the Turks during and after World War I was a frequent topic of conversation at home, he wrote in a 2005 memoir, “Runnin’ Rebel,” co-written by Dan Wetzel.

His father, who had a grocery business, died of tuberculosis when he was 10. Soon afterward, the family moved to Pasadena, California, where his mother remarried and he played on the local high school’s basketball team.

Tarkanian attended California State University at Fresno on a basketball scholarship and wrote that his only interests were sports and parties. He met the woman he would marry, the former Lois Huter, when he appeared before a student tribunal for a prank that ruined a school dance. She was one of the judges.

‘Greatest Impact’

For pocket money, Tarkanian worked for the university’s football coach, Clark Van Galder.

“When it comes to influencing my career as a coach, he had the greatest impact,” Tarkanian said in his memoir.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1955, Tarkanian got a master’s degree in educational administration at the University of Redlands, in California. He spent several years managing high school basketball teams, then landed coaching jobs at two California junior colleges, Riverside City College and Pasadena City College. He took both teams to state championships.

In 1969, at California State University at Long Beach, Tarkanian began the first of his 30 seasons as a Division I basketball coach. He was known for recruiting more black players than was customary during his early years as a coach, and he made the effort to have personal relationships with his student athletes.

“The key to coaching kids like that is communication and loyalty,” he said in his memoir.

After leaving UNLV, he returned to college hoops in 1995, to coach at his alma mater. He led the Fresno State Bulldogs to a record of 153 wins and 80 losses in seven seasons.

Fresno State’s basketball program was placed on probation by the NCAA after he resigned in 2002.

“The NCAA would probably like to investigate my retirement,” Tarkanian wrote.

Tarkanian and his wife had four children: Pamela, Jodie, Danny and George.

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