Reflecting on the great Jerry Tarkanian

Discussion in 'Tarkanian Court' started by Ernie Baer, Mar 1, 2015.

  1. Ernie Baer

    Ernie Baer All American
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    Jan 22, 2011
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    There are a lot of things people can say and write about the life of Jerry Tarkanian. On the surface he was a simple man. Later in life he did take up reading somewhat, in particular he enjoyed John Grisham's books, for the most part however he was really didn't have many hobbies or overly in tune with pop culture.

    So many good stories alone can be told about his disconnect with the times. Anyone who was around at the time will remember what a big news story the Iranian hostage crisis was. We were on the road at Wyoming shortly after they were released and we walked into their arena and there was a banner which read, "Welcome home hostages!" Upon seeing it Jerry looked a bit puzzled, turned to us and asked, "Whats that all about?"

    Even with all that there were certainly layers to Jerry, things that I think defined his life. The couple of things that stood out to me were fighter, family and basketball.

    Given the recent health issues Jerry was going through receiving the call to come that Monday morning, although still disappointing, was not a big surprise. Similar calls had become more frequent. His health began taking a turn for the worse in the summer of 2009 when he suffered a bad fall in San Diego which injured his spine, it took an even worse turn last April.

    He spent a fair portion of this past holiday season in the hospital. Seeing him in the rough state he was in shortly before Christmas on oxygen, with a feeding tube, it unfortunately seemed a matter of time. Jerry was such a fighter throughout his life and the last few years were no different as he battled an assortment of ailments. Just as during his coaching days he always seemed to have a counter. Sadly despite his gaudy winning percentage father time has an even better one.

    Jerry was never much of a go with the flow establishment type. One of the more under reported stories following his passing was his impact on civil rights in the game. Not to take away from what Don Haskins did at Texas Western or Dean Smith with Charlie Scott; but for a good number of minorities, especially in the inner city, Jerry and his good friend Al McGuire were the real trailblazers in this area.

    In the 1960's there was an unwritten rule in basketball followed by many called the three-fifths rule. Essentially you couldn't start more than two blacks. The notion was line-ups needed to reflect the majority of their paying customers at the time and as such pressure was put on coaches to follow. Jerry began smashing this rule in the early 1960's at Riverside CC , nd continued throughout the decade at Pasadena JC as well as Long Beach State with majority if not an all black starting five.

    Although they lost in the championship game one of his favorite accomplishments came during the 1968 Olympic basketball trials. Back then players were grouped into their respective classifications; Division I, Junior college, NAIA, Armed Forces, etc and they would compete against one another. The person selected to coach the Olympic team would observe these games and select their roster from it.

    Based on his outstanding success in the junior college ranks at the time Jerry was selected to coach the JC led team. In one of the games his JC team featuring the likes of Spencer Haywood, Sam Robinson, George Trapp and Ollie Taylor dominated the Division I team coached by DePaul's Ray Meyer and featured Pete Maravich. A bit lost in the accomplishment was it was the first time in the history of the Olympic trials there was an all black starting five. To Jerry the color of a player's skin wouldn't stand in the way of winning.

    Of course most have some degree of familiarity of his twenty-five plus year battle with the NCAA. Jerry was by no means the only coach at the time who felt that way about the NCAA and their enforcement rules, he was however the only one who had to the guts to make those views public. This was one of the many reasons he was beloved by many coaches in the business, his willingness to do their fighting for them.

    Over time though the battle would be something that a good part of him regretted. Over the years he lamented how he wished he listened to people like Norm Sloan, Tates Locke, Abe Lemons, Hugh Durham and others who told him to take his lumps from the NCAA and move on.

    Although the bulk of his legal fees were eventually paid for by the NCAA and UNLV as part of a settlement, many don't realize the amount of his own time spent fighting them. So many hours were lost meeting with attorneys and NCAA officials, testifying in court and various committees, over those years that could have been spent focusing on other things.

    One of the really underrated things about his and his team's accomplishments were achieving all of this despite of all these obstacles. Particularly considering how much emphasis Jerry placed on mental focus both from himself and his players.

    Even though he received the substantial settlement from them in 1998 the battle hurt him as well, among them cost him coaching jobs (SDSU twice, USC in 95) and severely damaged his reputation in some eyes. Obviously the length of time it took him to be elected to the Basketball HOF serves as a prime example.

    But Jerry was a very principled individual in many respects. For example, in the late 70's there was a group of New Mexico players, Ricky Williams comes to mind, who reached out to him about transferring to UNLV. Given the sanctions and the talent on the roster at the time Jerry could have used them. However, he refused as he did not like how they had been publicly undermining their coach, and Jerry's friend, Norm Ellenberger.

    This set of principals also applied to his battle with the NCAA. Particularly with their mandate that he be suspended for the two seasons UNLV was on probation. He felt that was taking it too far and something other coaches wouldn't be subjected to. If securing freedom meant suing his employer, UNLV, than so be it.

    One of the aspects that can't be lost in the NCAA's drive to suspend Jerry was the pressure placed on them by the media. Yes, by this point there was personal animosity between both sides but the media had no problem fueling the flames.

    In all my years I've never seen a collegiate coach be vilified by the overall media than Jerry was. Some may remember the negative press he received in the 80's/early 90's or his time at Fresno, but much of it really goes back to his time at Long Beach State starting with Sports Illustrated in 1971. It picked up in intensity when he left Long Beach State for UNLV.

    There were numerous articles written nationally from columnists/reporters who thought it was terrible that a coach was leaving a school that was being put on probation while getting a new job which paid him more money in addition to a free home and other perks. They decided to use Jerry as the posterchild and put pressure on the NCAA to make an example of him so other coaches couldn't go this route. Now they never would report that Jerry actually wanted to stay at LBSU and that he was forced out. Never let facts get in the way of your agenda.

    Which speaking of the media there were some memorable dust ups with some of them. From local media members like John Henderson of the Review Journal, Steve Bisheff of the Orange County Register or Danny Robbins of the LA Times, to larger national names like Curry Kirkpatrick of Sports Illustrated and Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes. Needless to say Jerry didn't have an issue pushing back against them.

    Of course there was his battle with UNLV's administration in the early 90's. Although with time, changeover with UNLV's administration and outreach efforts he came to a pretty good place over what happened, he never fully got over it. He was so hurt by their actions at the time and who could blame him. He did everything asked of him when he was hired in March 1973. Won a lot of ball games, made the school quite a bit of money and most importantly made the initials UNLV nationally relevant.

    If you sit back and think about what might have been imagine from his perspective. When your program gets to the level his did by the late 80's/early 90's several aspects such as recruiting, hiring/retaining assistants and scheduling become so much easier. The program in the early 90's was at the point every college coach dreams theirs to be at.

    Some of us tried to warn Jerry years earlier about Maxson and his cronies, but he just didn't want to believe it was possible until things starting becoming apparent in the summer of 91 after he resigned. Jerry always wanted to believe the best in people, some may point to a Lloyd Daniels, Clifford Allen or Avondre Jones, but believing in Maxson was his biggest oversight.

    While he got along well with most coaches they weren't immune either. There was Roy Chipman when he was at Pitt, Marv Harshman of Washington and of course Lute Olson and Jim Harrick who once when Jerry asked to give his thoughts on Harrick said, "He's as straight as the letter S."

    Many may remember the brawl between UNLV and Utah State in February 90 but in reality the fight was an extension of the feud between Jerry and their coach Kohn Smith. A few hours prior to their game in January 1989 Smith ran his mouth to reporters questioning the program Jerry was running, the character of the players and that he was glad they lost to Louisville. The message got back to Jerry.

    Following the game in the handshake line Jerry went right after Smith and told him, "Its your first year in coaching, you should win some games before you try running your mouth." In the locker room he told the team, "'Our goal from here on will be to play our two best games of the year against Utah State. We will dedicate ourselves to having our best games each year against the Aggies."

    By in large Jerry wasn't the type to seek out a fight, but make no mistake he never backed from one in the event it presented itself. As Danny poignantly said at the funeral much of this came from his mother Rose.

    When you are a first generation immigrant during the Great Depression who had to raise several children for a while as a single mom you have to be a fighter. Many of his teams took on his scrappy side. Jerry was always a believer that teams take on the personality of their head coach.

    Outside of basketball Jerry had no greater love than his family. One of the many awards he won was "Father of the Year" in Riverside County for what he did for both his family and his Riverside players. Unfortunately the obligations of a big time basketball coach are not easy on a family. Sporting events, birthday parties, proms are missed entirely or attended in abbreviation. Lois was such a rock for everyone.

    After his family basketball was the other love in his life. His passion for the game was something else. He took the analogy of eating, drinking and sleeping something to another extreme.

    One example to illustrate was back in the late 70's when he went to visit "Bud" Presley. Most may not be familiar with Bud but he was one of the most respected man-to-man defensive coaches in the history of the game, he was a part-time assistant at UNLV in 83-84. Coaches like Pete Newell, Bob Knight, Gene Keady in addition to Jerry were fond of him.

    When he returned from his visit I asked how it went. Jerry said, "Great, but I missed my flight." Come to find out the two were having such an intense basketball discussion Bud blew right by the exit to the San Jose airport and neither realized it for a good 20 - 30 minutes.

    In addition to a great passion for the game was his desire to win, he had an amazing ability to garner focus and demanded that from his staff and players. John Hall gave Jerry the nickname "Tark the Shark" back in the early 70s when Jerry was at Long Beach and John was with the LA Times. John came up with the analogy as Jerry gnawed through opponents with the focus of a great shark.

    Prior to games he wanted his players uptight, palms sweaty, muscles quivering focusing on their opponent with no distractions. One of his rules of course was silence prior to the game. Some players tried fighting it over the years but as Jerry would say, "If you get a phone call from someone telling you they're on their way to your house to beat you're a** in front of your family what are you going to do; turn on the stereo and start dancing around, or sit down and focus on how to defend yourself?"

    A couple examples related to everyone's focus on winning. During the 1980 NIT home win over Long Beach State, Jerry was pacing the sidelines intently and the entire bench was so focused on the game a fan snuck down from the crowd and sat in his seat for a few minutes before anyone noticed.

    Prior to road game in 11/76 at Nevada he wasn't feeling well, he didn't even address the team at halftime. During the second half he blacked out on the bench for a brief time. When he dosed off UNLV was up 25, they were only up 12 when he woke up. Upon awakening instead of worrying about his health he turned to assistant Ralph Readout who took over and asked what the hell happened to the lead. He was truly obsessed with winning.

    The two biggest attributes I think that made him a successful coach were his adaptability and his ability to get his teams to compete at such a consistently high level. As far as adaptability, to survive in the business as long as he did you have to be able to adapt.

    For perspective, when he began as a division one coach in 1968-69 there was no shot clock, no three point line, little television exposure and freshmen were ineligible. By the time he retired there was a 35 second shot clock, a three point shot, an amazing increase in television exposure and high school seniors were eligible to enter the NBA draft.

    In many respects his coaching philosophy was pretty simplistic. He would often describe his philosophy as, "You win big with defense, by playing hard and by keeping the offense simple. You also have to adjust to your personnel and learn to utilize their skills."

    I remember him critiquing some opposing coaches for over coaching, feeding their players too much than they could take on. This he felt would lead to them overthinking on the court. Hence his great line "the more a player thinks the slower their feet get."

    Throughout his time his teams were constantly changing their style of play to fit the personnel he had to work with and the times. From his high school years which were primarily based on ball control offense and collapsing man-to-man defense; the 1-2-2 zone press and interior offensive game during his junior college and Long Beach years; to the fullcourt/half court man-to-man pressure defense and transition game which defined his time at UNLV and Fresno State.

    So much of Jerry's success was predicated on his teams great defensive ability. I remember speaking to Bob Kloppenburg who was an assistant at UNLV during the 84-85 season and one of the most respected defensive minds in the history of the game. He was so impressed by the staff's ability to get players to buy into playing defense. Especially the type of defense the Rebels played.

    So much easier to get players, especially younger players, to play offense. Putting points on the board they believe is what gets you attention, your name in the media, the girls. Jerry's belief when it came to emphasizing defense was offense is too inconsistent. You get your team to play great defense game to game and you should almost always be in contention to win.

    As much as adaptability was vital to his success, most in the business always point first to his ability to get his teams to consistently play hard regardless of the competition level as his greatest attribute. Over his years in the business I was fortunate to be able to accompany him to some of the coaching clinics he spoke at.

    One of the first, it may very well have been his first, coaching clinics Jerry spoke at as UNLV coach was the New Mexico coaching clinic at the Hilton Inn in late July 1973. He told the group of coaches at the clinic, "It's easy to get to the hump, but it takes real effort to get over it, to win a championship." He would go on to tell them, "The most important part of coaching is getting kids to play hard for you, you must demand and expect only all-out effort."

    Are some coaches better than others in certain aspects of the business sure, but an overwhelming number of coaches know their X's and O's, understand the recruiting game. Where so many struggle is being able to connect with their players; to get them to consistently do what they instruct them to do and do it with maximum effort.

    About a week and a half ago I attended Long Beach State's appreciation for Jerry and a couple of us were discussing this topic with Ed Ratleff. Ed along with Bob Rule and Larry Johnson were the three best players Jerry coached. Ed said, "Coach Tark made us work hard, but he had the unique ability to make us want to work hard."

    I believe the three primary reasons Jerry was able to connect so well with his players were his authenticity, communication ability and intense loyalty. In terms of authenticity, especially when it came to inner city players, he was able to connect as not only could he talk the talk, but he walked the walk.

    He knew what it was like to grow up poor, he was raised by a single mother for a little while, he struggled as a student and of course went the junior college route. He never cared for phonies and wasn't going to be one, kids in many of the areas he recruited could spot a phony from a mile away.

    To help illustrate his honesty at that New Mexico coaching clinic he spoke about how coaches should deal with star players. At the time coaches were taught to treat every player the same. Jerry concurred to an extent and gave examples such as your door always being open for everyone and at team meals you should interact with all your players.

    However, he said you can't treat everyone the same, the players will see you as a con man if you try. He told the group, "You know who your star players are, the rest of the team knows who the stars are. If the 12th man is running late for the team bus, you leave them behind. The star player, you wait for them to arrive. Then when you get home the star player will run five laps for every minute he is late."

    Jerry's communication skills were outstanding. He gave so many great speeches over the years. There was his halftime speech at the 1977 Elite Eight where after laying into them pretty good he told the team he was going to Atlanta (for the Coaches Convention) regardless, but it would be really nice if they came with him.

    Another good one was on the first day of practice for the 87-88 season. Everyone was excited to begin the season, Jerry gathers the team around him and tells them, "You have a chance to be good…or the worse team I've ever coached." Dead silence from the players followed. The guys took the challenge personally and ended up being one of the most overachieving teams he had.

    His people skills just weren't limited to basketball. I remember the Friday night prior to the road game at West Virginia in 82-83 we went to this bar off this bridge that spanned the Monongahela River. Place was packed full of WVU students. By the end of the night Jerry practically owned the place, on the dance floor dancing with some of the young women. Greg Jones who was one of WVU's top players showed up. He was cracking up over all of Jerry's attempts to buy him drinks.

    Sadly today loyalty is such a lost concept. Jerry would say he'd rather recruit/hire a thief than someone who was disloyal. He felt if you expressed true loyalty the players would trust you. If you can accomplish that, a kid will play hard for you.

    One of the biggest complaints from Jerry, myself and others were that he used inner city kids. As one of the people who took those calls, his efforts to help his players took place not only during their playing days but beyond as well. Even latter in life when his health began fading he would always attempt to attend fallen player funerals and pay his respect. Loyalty not in the moment, but to the very end.

    One of the more unique demonstrations was with Ricky Collier. Ricky arrived at UNLV from Riverside CC, over time he became frustrated with playing time and left UNLV. He chose to seek revenge for the perceived short sighting by cooperating with the NCAA in their investigation of Lloyd Daniels who he befriended. He would later repent the information he provided, however the NCAA could have cared less, they had what they wanted. Even with all this Jerry had Mark Warkentien get Ricky a basketball gig overseas, in the Netherlands as I recall.

    His assistance didn't end with players. Jerry picked up so many coaches who were down and out for various reasons. From Dennis Hodges, to Rex Hughes, Tates Locke, Dave Buss, "Bud" Presley, Bob Kloppenburg, Ron Adams and Tom Thibodeau to name a few. Tim Grgurich was in line to become the head coach at Highlands High School in Natrona Heights PA when Jerry called. His mindset in addition to helping people when they were down, was these guys would work very hard for him given his outreach under the circumstance.

    The neat thing about Jerry was his help was not tied simply to people related to basketball. There are stories like this one someone sent me of helping people he didn't even know. He did several of these oftentimes with little to no publicity, this for someone who at times honestly could have used it.

    Arguably the best example of his heart was his reaction to the mentally disturbed youngman who was arrested on UNLV's campus with a sharpened spoon saying he was intending on killing Jerry. Going against some family members intent Jerry refused to press charges against him. Not only did he do this, but he worked with the youngman to get him the help he needed. It went back to what President Noble told him after his star at Riverside Bob Rule got into a fight with an opposing player, "don't ever put someone so far in a hole they can't crawl out."

    Its easy to remember all the good times, but people often forget about the journey to get there. For all the conference championships, high poll rankings and Final Fours its easy to forget the lousy no call from Art White in the loss to Georgetown, or the time in Wyoming where he drew up a great play to get Spiderman Burns open for a game winner but Billy Cunningham threw it to another player.

    People either don't know or have forgotten how the losses and missed recruits in the early to mid 80's affected Jerry. Still remember how down Jerry was following the 85 tournament loss to Kentucky. Some of us had seen his health and emotional well being declining for a little while. It got so bad by that point he had to spend a few weeks following the 84-85 season in a "longevity program" at the La Costa Resort and Spa to teach him to take better care of himself.

    Knowing how much he struggled to get there is why as happy as I was for the players on April 2, 1990 I was even happier for Jerry. So many good stories from Denver.

    Following the game after a little bit of time in his hotel room he came down at the team hotel at the Sheraton Tech Center to have some celebratory drinks with some of us. It had to be at least around midnight, 12:30am.

    I remember he looked at his watch and said, "Geez I've got to be up at 5:30am" (he and Anderson were scheduled to appear on the "Today Show"). He didn't even flinch, had a sip of his drink and carried on with the conversation. At that point time/sleep didn't matter when you are on the high he was. Never will forget the gigantic smile on his face that night.

    One of my favorites came directly after the game. I'll preface it by saying Jerry never passed up a free meal or an opportunity to make money. Almost as soon as we get off the court he says, "****, I'm suppose to be in Tulsa tomorrow morning." For some reason despite having one of the best teams in the country, a few weeks before the NCAA tournament he agreed to tape the instructional videos that would become "Shark on Offense" and "Shark on Defense" the day after the championship game.

    So here he is on one of the biggest nights of his life running around McNichols Arena trying to find a telephone to reach the production company. After missing the 77 parade to stay back east to recruit, and the 87 rally at the Thomas & Mack Center to attend the Wooden Award ceremony in LA with Armon Gilliam, there was no way he was going to miss this celebration. He finally was able to reach them the next morning and they were more than willing to accommodate (in typical Jerry fashion he was in Tulsa Wednesday morning). We poked him for years about this.

    You often hear of people who change with fame and celebrity status. A great attribute of Jerry's was despite all of it he didn't change who he was. He would often say that Vegas was as much about the cab drivers, the doormen, the guys and gals in the pit as it was the high rollers. He remained a blue-collar guy in what he felt was a blue-collar town.

    He was one of the last connections to the old Las Vegas of the Rat Pack, Elvis, Howard Hughes, the Sands and the Dunes, yet made such a lasting impact that younger people will remember him as well. He will be sorely missed and as they played at the funeral recessional, make no mistake he did it his way.
  2. tarkaniancourt...nm

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    Nov 21, 2014
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  3. Kruger's brother Fred

    Kruger's brother Fred All American
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    Feb 27, 2010
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    Thanks for weighing in, sir.
  4. rebelluver

    rebelluver Lottery Pick
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    Jan 4, 2008
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    Good stuff. Never be shy about sharing your Tark stories, they will not get old.
    Posted from Rivals Mobile
  5. Rebel Swagger

    Rebel Swagger Starter
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    Nov 21, 2010
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    Ernie- Since you took that word for word from a newspaper article, don't you think you should note that rather than taking credit for it as though it was your own?
  6. Soul Cane

    Soul Cane All American
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    Aug 12, 2005
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    Great write up as usual.

    The UNLV Tark years were a magical time.

    I'll just never get over how horrific Maxon & UNLV treated Tark at the end of his tenure.

    And it still infuriates me that Maxon had as many supporters as he did.
  7. the Florian Trout

    the Florian Trout Lottery Pick
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    Jan 27, 2004
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    Carlsbad, CA
    perhaps it is his own?

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