- Associated Press - Saturday, February 19, 2011

LAS VEGAS (AP) - The show was over, the lights had come on, and Jerry Tarkanian sat with a microphone in his hand halfway up the crowded theater at the Palms hotel and casino.

He was among his people, even if some of the cheerleaders in UNLV red probably weren’t even born when the Runnin’ Rebels ruled college basketball. But some of the regulars who once cheered from Gucci Row were there, along with several hundred other Las Vegans eager to relive the glory of the past.

It should have been a night for celebration. In a way, it was. There were cheers when images flashed on the screen of Larry Johnson dunking, Greg Anthony playing despite a broken jaw, and Tark chewing on a towel.

And then the NCAA spoiled everything once again.

“Nobody knows what it’s like when you buck the NCAA,” Tarkanian said. “I’m still bitter to them today.”

Twenty years have passed since one of the greatest college teams of all time lost in a shocking upset to Duke in the Final Four. Nine years have gone by since Tarkanian last chewed a towel courtside at Fresno State.

He’s 80 now, and he shuffled as he moved slowly to his seat Friday night for the premiere of the HBO documentary on his remarkable run at UNLV. It’s an age where many are content to play with grandchildren and forgive those who may have caused them grief in the past.

But time has healed nothing in Tarkanian’s blood feud with the powers that be. And the crowd that had come to celebrate now listened somewhat uncomfortably as Tarkanian lit into his old enemies one more time.

“I think they went too light on the NCAA,” Tarkanian said of the HBO producers. “If I had my way I think they (the NCAA) all deserve to go to Devil’s Island.”

Unfortunately for Tark, HBO doesn’t have the power to send them there. But the documentary that airs March 12 does have the power to help shape history. For the most part it is sympathetic to the coach who spent almost as much time battling the NCAA as he did putting together teams that changed the way college basketball was played.

Indeed, one of the more striking moments of the night was when the $2.5 million check from the NCAA made out to Tarkanian and his wife, Lois, and their attorneys flashed on the screen. The money was paid in 1998 to settle a suit Tarkanian brought against the NCAA, claiming it singled out the UNLV program for investigation and penalized it three times unfairly.

“That was nice, winning the lawsuit,” Tarkanian told me earlier. “The amazing thing is we got beat up in the press all the time and then when we won hardly anything was written about it.”

Tarkanian remains convinced there was always some sort of conspiracy between the media and the NCAA to run him out of basketball, the same way he’s convinced that the NCAA looked the other way while suspect boosters were helping UCLA win at the same time Tarkanian was first being investigated just a few miles away at Long Beach State.

For its part, the NCAA was convinced the sad-eyed Armenian who won in places coaches had no business winning in was crooked, though his programs were never charged with any major violations. No sooner had Tarkanian’s 1989-90 team destroyed Duke 103-73 to win the national championship than the NCAA tried to put the Runnin’ Rebels on probation the next season.

Tarkanian brought on some of the NCAA attention himself by recruiting players with questionable backgrounds other schools wouldn’t touch. As he pointed out in the documentary, though, the point guard of his best team (Greg Anthony) was the head of the local chapter of the Young Republicans and talked about running for Senate one day, and the others weren’t the thugs the media tried to make them out to be.

The NCAA might not have exactly been pure, either. Tarkanian still chuckles at the time his assistant saw an NCAA investigator renting a car at the airport and followed him to a local strip club.

“What we did was get some of their brochures and we’d mail it to him and tell them there was a special on,” Tarkanian said.

Lost in the feud he can’t seem to put behind him is that Tarkanian was a revolutionary coach who won big everywhere he went, something the Basketball Hall of Fame seems to ignore every year it snubs him.

He should get in just for first Final Four team in 1976-77, which scored more than 100 points in 23 games in an era before both the shot clock and the 3-point shot. He owns other numbers that are just as gaudy, including a career mark of 706-198 while chewing on his towel courtside.

But the statistics don’t define Tarkanian. They never will.

His battle with the NCAA does, and that’s mostly Tarkanian’s fault. He should have just declared victory in 1998 and moved on, but he can’t let go.

Certainly not on this night, when what should have been a feel-good moment didn’t feel nearly as good.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org

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