A grown man chewing on a towel. This will remain the lasting public snapshot of Jerry Tarkanian, the longtime UNLV basketball coach who died on Wednesday at age 84; it was, perhaps, the strangest visual in the history of coaching, that fabric doubled-up and tucked between Tarkanian’s incisors on the sideline, this owlish bald dude with hooded eyes chomping indiscriminately into a terrycloth sandwich.
There was an innocence to Tark’s weirdly Freudian habit, but then, Tark retroactively comes across as a guileless truth-teller in a world of sleaze and double-talk. He spoke in a high-pitched voice, often about the blatant hypocrisies of the National College Athletic Association, and often about the sheer madness of a sport that didn’t seem to adhere to any comprehensible rules. “Nine out of ten schools are cheating,” he once said. “The other one is in last place.”
For a long time, Tark was an easy man to hate, for those very reasons; because he viewed the system as anarchic, he went and became the king of the anarchists. For decades, while at Long Beach State (where he wrote several newspaper columns criticizing the NCAA) and then at UNLV, he was “Exhibit A” of everything that seemed off-kilter about college sports’ lofty idealism, a man who doled out second and third chances to troubled and often poor African-American recruits, at least a few of whom fumbled those chances. His UNLV program became tied up with a gambler named Richard Perry – which included the publication of a now-famous photo of Perry chilling in a hot tub with three Runnin’ Rebels – soon after his failed attempt to recruit a troubled New York guard named Lloyd Daniels. At the end of the 1991-92 season, after producing some of the most entertaining and relentless and overwhelmingly talented teams in college basketball history at UNLV (including an iconic national championship team, freighted with future NBA players, that blasted Duke by 30 points in the 1990 final), he was forced to resign.
Tarkanian, who grew up poor himself, an Armenian-American subject to many of the same prejudices his players faced, later landed at his alma mater, Fresno State. He lasted eight seasons, and consistently won 20 games. When he retired for good in 2002, the Bulldogs were put on probation for violations that occurred on Tark’s watch. It was no surprise, given the NCAA’s almost hawkish distaste for Tark’s methods; the only thing surprising is that, in the two decades since Tark was forced out at UNLV, he’s become a heroic figure, of sorts, inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013, now viewed as one of the iconoclasts responsible for our overarching and ongoing reconsideration of the purpose of college sports.
You look back at that moment in college sports, and you can see the outlines of a revolution. In football, you had a Miami program that consistently flaunted traditionalism; in basketball, you had the Runnin’ Rebels thrashing a Duke program that stood as their privileged polar opposite. It was the beginning of what we’ve exploded into now, opening us up to larger questions about compensation and unionization and the notion that perhaps Tark’s central points – about black athletes, especially poor black athletes, being exploited by a system that brings in millions of dollars each year, and about an NCAA enforcement mechanism that remains clumsy and arbitrary – carried some real weight.
“He wasn’t wrong,” wrote Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel, who also co-authored Tark’s autobiography. “He just wasn’t exactly the greatest messenger for the cause.”
Twice, Tark sued the NCAA, the first time taking it all the way to the Supreme Court before losing; the second time, in a civil suit, the NCAA paid him $2.5 million and was forced to apologize. This, he told Wetzel, was the greatest victory of his career, and it’s hard to see it any other way these days. Maybe he wasn’t the greatest messenger, a grown man who masticated fabric and openly flaunted the very rules he wished to change, but this is how we’ll remember him: As a coach who advocated for straight truth over staid propriety.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb