LAS VEGAS -- Two years ago, when former Villanova basketball coach Rollie Massimino came to Nevada-Las Vegas to replace Jerry Tarkanian, then-UNLV president Robert Maxson said, "We had to hire someone who, the day he walked onto campus, we would be perceived as a better university, and Massimino was a perfect fit."
To which a teary-eyed Massimino replied, "I never had as nice a compliment in 20 years at Villanova."
Today, the Nevada Ethics Commission will be looking into what has become known in this town as "The Massimino Mess."
Maxson, who left earlier this year to become president of Cal State-Long Beach, allegedly negotiated an under-the-table contract with Massimino that guaranteed the coach $375,000 in addition to his $511,000 annual salary.
The ethics commission will be investigating allegations that the contract, signed in April 1992, may have violated a state law prohibiting public employees from accepting supplementary income from private sources. Reports of dummy corporations set up to funnel money to Massimino were published by the Las Vegas Sun this past summer.
The State Attorney's office and the Nevada Board of Regents are conducting their own inquiries into the Massimino contract. The controversy has split the gambling capital into two factions -- those loyal to Tarkanian and those who support Massimino.
Last month, UNLV interim president Kenny Guinn said that because the contract giving Massimino an extra $375,000 a year above his base salary never was approved by the 11-member board of regents, the university is not obligated to pay the coach.
The fallout has started. UNLV vice president John Irsfeld, who served as Maxson's chief deputy and allegedly helped arrange the confidential deal, was demoted to the English department last week.
Massimino did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article. Maxson could not be reached for comment, but last month Maxson was quoted as saying, "There was never a record of the president not being brutally honest with the board in his 10-year tenure. In fact, this honesty several years ago regarding severe problems in men's basketball negatively affected his relationship with certain regents."
Many UNLV boosters certainly had their differences with Maxson, who forced Tarkanian to resign in 1992. Tarkanian coached 19 years at UNLV, and his teams reached four Final Fours and won the national championship in 1990. He has the highest winning percentage in Division I history (625-122, .837), but also ranks among the leaders in NCAA investigations. In November 1993, a six-year NCAA investigation ended with UNLV's admitting 26 violations that occurred during Tarkanian's tenure.
In Massimino's first season, the Runnin' Rebels went 21-8. But last season they were 15-13, losing to Utah State, San Jose State and intrastate rival Nevada. Attendance at the 18,216-seat Thomas & Mack Center dropped to 8,915 a game.
The basketball program, which once provided 80 percent of the school's $9 million athletic budget, was no longer a cash cow. Many boosters began boycotting games.
"We used to have to cut season-ticket requests off at 17,000 to allow some game-day sales," said restaurateur Fred Glussman. "For this coming season, they've sold only 2,700 so-called scholarship seats to regular donors.
"Nobody in town likes this Massimino, not even the Italians," Glussman added. "When Tark was coaching, he'd make appearances at every civic club, even garden clubs. Massimino won't go anywhere. He even stiffed the Rotarians. The man's a loser. We got rid of Maxson. When Rollie goes, too, the fans will come back."
Glussman is not exactly a neutral observer. A close friend of Tarkanian's for 20 years, he has a "Tark Room" filled with UNLV memorabilia in a corner of Piero's, his restaurant.
But Glussman has plenty of allies.
One is neurosurgeon Lonnie Hammargren, a member of the board of regents who is running for lieutenant governor.
"Maxson and Massimino perpetuated a fraud on UNLV," said Hammargren. "They had not one, but two contracts approved without the board of regents' blessing. . . . Then they set up this dummy corporation -- The Varsity Club -- to illegally funnel money to Massimino, who personally requested all this secrecy."
Attorney Shelley Berkley, a former state assembly member and now a regent, also wants to void Massimino's contract.
"At the time, we were told by Maxson the contract had not been completed, but that basically it was a five-year deal worth $511,000 a year," Berkley said. "Then we find out it was for eight years, plus all this supplementary pay that made the deal worth $7.8 million. . . . No one would have voted for Massimino to get $886,000 a year.
"These were the people brought in to clean up athletics," said Berkley, a UNLV alumnus. "But they've caused us more embarrassment than anything that happened under Tarkanian."
Tarkanian, who recently settled a conspiracy suit with UNLV over his ouster, says he has tried to remain neutral.
"I'm a close friend of Rollie," he said. "My beef is with Maxson. He's a total hypocrite. How can you say your prime concern is academics, and then offer a coach close to $1 million a year?
"I haven't been at a game the last two years. Nothing against Rollie. I just told him I couldn't be present if he said something nice about Maxson. It would make me sick. But I'll be there this winter. I still the love the school, and the game."