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Basketball Coach Jerry Tarkanian Remembered As Successful, Controversial


One of college basketball's most successful and controversial coaches has died. Jerry Tarkanian was 84. He was the longtime head coach at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. And during his nearly two decades there, the towel chomping Tarkanian known as Tark the shark led the UNLV Runnin' Rebels to four Final Fours and a championship in 1990. NPR's Tom Goldman has this remembrance.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: About those towels - Jerry Tarkanian's habit of sucking on them - white, water-soaked towels - began in the sweltering non-air-conditioned high school gyms in Southern California where he first coached. It continued mostly as a nervous habit throughout a college coaching career that stretched from 1961 to 2002. Why the nerves? Tarkanian always was anxious, even while racking up 761 major college wins against only 202 losses. Although 1990, he said a few years ago, was fairly anxiety free.


JERRY TARKANIAN: It was the only time in my career that I went into a lot of games where I didn't think we could lose.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Unintelligible) They have won their first-ever National Championship, and it's free (unintelligible). The shark comes away winner in a record-setting night - 103-73, UNLV.

GOLDMAN: The blowout win over Duke for the 1990 National Championship was Tarkanian's crowning moment, and there was no more fitting team for him to take to the pinnacle than the Runnin' Rebels.

DAN WETZEL: Jerry Tarkanian was a rebel against just about everything his whole life.

GOLDMAN: Sports columnist Dan Wetzel helped Tarkanian write his autobiography in 2005. Tark's early life, says Wetzel, was a bit on the outside. A son of Armenian immigrants, Tarkanian went to junior college before ending up at Fresno State. Early in his career, he coached at a couple of Southern California community colleges where, Wetzel says, Tarkanian was drawn to players other coaches ignored.

WETZEL: So he'd be at a playground and watch and see a kid he liked and say, you want to come to Riverside Community College or Pasadena Community College. Nobody was recruiting these kids.

GOLDMAN: Certainly, as Tarkanian's career progressed to Division I at Long Beach State, UNLV and finally his alma mater, Fresno State, a number of his players succeeded in and out of school, but some didn't, says Wetzel.

WETZEL: Probably to a fault, but he always would believe that a guy could turn it around. And as a result, he would recruit guys that would get in trouble. So it was never a perfect thing. You know, this isn't Hollywood.

GOLDMAN: But it was close. During Tarkanian's UNLV heyday from 1973 to 1992, the Rebels home arena had special seats dubbed Gucci row where celebs including Frank Sinatra would watch the team's thrilling up-tempo offense and amoeba defense combining man-to-man and zone tactics.

For all his on-court battles, Tarkanian had some of his fiercest fights with the NCAA. He railed at what he thought was the organization's attempt to single out his unorthodox teams for investigation and punishment. But according to Wetzel, Tarkanian pushed the envelope on NCAA rules. The two fought it out in court for years. One of Tarkanian's lawsuits got all the way to the Supreme Court. Another was settled in 1998 with Tarkanian receiving $2.5 million dollars. It's said this protracted war delayed his induction into the Hall of Fame, which happened in 2013. It was a final reward for a memorable and complicated life in basketball. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on