LAS VEGAS -- What's the deal?
University of Nevada-Las Vegas Coach Jerry Tarkanian is seated behind his expansive desk, not far from his built-in, pull-open blackboard and to the side of the huge window with a pleated gray curtain that's pulled back to reveal yet another sunny day in Las Vegas.
The sunshine is lost on Tark. He shuffles through some phone messages, arrayed in front of him like playing cards for solitaire or blackjack.
"ANNETTE" he rasps in the world's worst voice to Annette Fazio, his executive secretary. Tarkanian's voice sounds like it's emanating from somewhere deep in his sinuses. It's as scratchy as a coarse wool sweater and as sad as his deep-set eyes.
"How should I make this out?" the Runnin' Rebels coach asks about a $180 check for some fruit baskets he just purchased from the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Should he write it out or just use the abbreviation? Geez, how did he even get on their hit-up list, he wonders. What's the deal?
Hey, Annette, how do you spell foreign, anyway, the coach of the defending NCAA champions asks. And what about this picture session he has scheduled? Isn't he supposed to be having lunch somewhere else on that day?
They call Jerry Tarkanian, the guy the NCAA has been chumming for since 1973, the Shark. He looks more like a turtle without a shell. In tight games the balding coach with those sad Armenian eyes will chew on a towel like it's a piece of lettuce.
In person, however, Tark looks about 10 years younger, more like the former athlete he is than an always-embattled coach. His gray and white-striped sweater is sharp even by Vegas standards. Tark, however, says he hasn't been feeling too good of late.
"This off-season has been so different, a real drain," he says. "So much of my attention has been on this NCAA thing. It has bothered me a lot. Usually, my head is always into basketball, but up until the first day of practice I couldn't get back into it.
"I get sick of talking about it. We win the national championship, we've got four starters back and that's all anyone wants to talk about. Our win was great for the whole state and we earned it. We worked harder than anybody, we played harder than anybody, and in one swipe they can just sit in a room and wipe that out."
On July 20, Tarkanian learned that his hugely talented team anchored by sure NBA first-rounders Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon would be barred from defending its national championship. The penalty was unusual if not downright bizarre because it stemmed not from anything that UNLV's NCAA champions did, but from something that happened when most of the current group of players were in elementary school.
In 1977 the NCAA had concluded an investigation of UNLV basketball and found the school guilty of 38 infractions, 10 of which mentioned Tarkanian and ranged from recruiting violations to charges of grade-fixing. Part of the NCAA penalty was that Tarkanian was to be suspended for two years.
Tarkanian, who still denies doing anything wrong, then broke the biggest unofficial NCAA rule, he refused to accept his punishment.
He challenged the ruling, and his own school's right to dismiss him, in court.
"The NCAA has constantly argued that Tark had a home-court advantage because he was in Las Vegas," said Don Yaeger, the Tallahassee-based author of "Undue Process: The NCAA's Injustice for All." "But it was that home-court advantage universities felt when they try to beat the NCAA's enforcement division.
"I don't know that he didn't do anything, ever. But I looked at specific allegations where it was clear that the evidence was on Tarkanian's side. He may have been guilty, but the bottom line was that he was treated unfairly.
"He stayed in college basketball to fight these guys. It stained his reputation, it has hurt him a lot, but it impresses me. You would not believe the number of coaches who are rooting him on."
Tarkanian is still trying to cut some kind of deal with the organization he has clashed with for most of his collegiate coaching career. Recently the NCAA Infractions Committee received four alternative proposals from UNLV officials that would allow the current UNLV team to defend its title in this year's NCAA tournament. They were:
UNLV would not compete in the 1992 tournament.
Tarkanian wouldn't coach in this tournament, would abstain from recruiting for one year and would forfeit as much as $100,000 in playoff revenues.
Tarkanian wouldn't coach in the 1991 and 1992 tournaments.
UNLV would not appear on network TV for the 1991-92 season, would reduce official recruiting visits and scholarships in 1991-92 and would not permit anyone on its basketball staff to recruit off-campus for a year.
There are those who say a large part of Tarkanian's NCAA problems are location, location and location. In the spotlight of Sin City, any basketball program is bound to attract attention. It's a wonder that any parent sends a daughter or son to school in Las Vegas, which is the least likely college town in America.
Slot machines aren't just in the casinos, they're in the corner drugstores. The Las Vegas phone book has has a large listing for escort services, complete with color pictures. Even the traffic is bad in Vegas, which is now threatened by Los Angeles-style gridlock.
But Tarkanian's NCAA problems started when he was head basketball coach at Long Beach State. He compiled a sparkling 116-17 record in his five years there, and he also wrote a couple of newspaper columns for the Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram. In one, he touched on an NCAA investigation of Western Kentucky, saying, "The University of Kentucky basketball program breaks more rules in a day than Western Kentucky does in a year."
That ran in 1972. In April of 1973, the NCAA expanded a probe of Long Beach's athletics to include Tarkanian's basketball program. The NCAA charged there were 23 rules violations and the result was a two-year ban from the NCAA tournament.
By March of that year, however, Tarkanian was headed for UNLV. There, the man who had earlier won four straight California junior college championships would begin to run a very similar program at UNLV.
"Our program should be what the NCAA is all about," Tarkanian claims. "Half our kids have come from the junior college, many of them have come from the inner city." He says the school now has a 47 percent graduation rate, but it used to be lower. And Tarkanian has maintained, to the chagrin of academicians, that a kid could be helped by the college experience even if he didn't wind up with a degree.
"There's something to be said for that, provided that the kids are bettering themselves," University of Texas basketball coach Tom Penders said. "He recruits a different kind of kid. Maybe he has to where he is. But I don't think college should be just for the advantaged.
"What I respect is the way his teams play. They play like they're playing for their last meal every time out."
Two of Tarkanian's stars, Johnson and Augmon, could currently be making a lot more than meal money in the NBA. But while UNLV's top recruits, Ed O'Bannon and Shon Tarver, decided to head for UCLA because of UNLV's NCAA troubles, Johnson and Augmon chose to remain and play their final year.
"You look around the country, everyone else would have left in their position," Tarkanian said. "If our program was not a great program, certainly these two kids would have taken the money and left. ... In the 17 years I've been here, we've had only two kids transfer out of the program. Other places have two kids transfer a year."
So what's the deal at UNLV?
After all these years, Tarkanian is still waiting to hear.