In Part Two with Danny Tarkanian, son of hall of fame coach Jerry Tarkanian, we turn back the clock to discuss some of the elder Tarkanian’s triumphs and controversies over the years at UNLV. Our wide ranging interview will touch on the loyalty of Tarkanian’s players right to the end, to the recruitment battle for Larry Johnson and Tark’s contentious ouster at UNLV, after building a basketball dynasty at the school.
(STS) How did your father motivate the players he had to be successful and play as a team?
Tarkanian: “My father would take an impoverished inner city African American kid that got into trouble off the court onto his squad. They were labelled as bad students and no other school in the country would take them. He was able to motivate these players and get them to play harder than any other team in the country, as a cohesive unit. Over a period of time, my father actually had the greatest program in NCAA basketball for a few years.
When reflecting back, some people say how did he do it? My father and his family were able to escape the Armenian genocide. They got to America and were dirt poor. During this time, there was a lot of discrimination against Armenians in the central valley of California. My dad was a horrible student in college and the running joke was it took him eight years to complete college and if he hadn’t met my mother, it would have been ten years. He took all of those experiences from when he was growing up and utilized them to both motivate and relate to the players he had.
Plus, my father had an incredible sense of humour. Many of the coaches during that era would motivate players by both yelling and screaming, and of course berating them. My father used sarcasm and wit to handle both players and people.
(STS) Could you discuss the special bond your father had with his players and the 1989-90 basketball team in particular?
Tarkanian: With respect to the players, my father had a couple people that came into his own life, that would help straighten his own life out. My mother was one of them and the president at Riverside City College (a junior college.) during his tenure coaching at the school.
My father believed that if he could work with some of the players, that had some of the same problems that he had growing up. He could build a family relationship, where he was there for them, along with my mother through their tough times. This would range from supporting the players and being loyal to them when they got into trouble, in turn they would play very hard for his program. Also, they would have the opportunity to turn into positive individuals in life.
He created this atmosphere where we would have players over at our house all of the time. My mother would tutor the players and also feed them. We broke all kinds of NCAA rules like that and they were stupid rules that said you can’t have players over to the house and give them any food.
My dad would have players in his office all of the time bantering with them. The majority of coaches were not like this during this era of college basketball. The rule was you were the general and the players were your soldiers. It was thought that you couldn’t have a close relationship with them or they wouldn’t play hard for you. My dad felt otherwise and always had a close relationship with his players.
I wrote about this in the book, when he was on his deathbed, the different players that came by and all of the nice things that they said about him. They spoke about the impact my father had on their lives. It was all very touching.
The 1989-90 team which went on to win the National Championship had one thing going for it, as the players bonded together with each other and the coaching staff to create an unbeatable force. The NCAA was doing everything possible to dismantle the team and stop them from winning the National Championship. During the course of the year they suspended ten different players for ridiculous violations. For example, if a player made a long distance call from the hotel they would get suspended for a game, or if one player took some snacks from the hotel refrigerator and they would end up suspended for a game.
In the end, they just dominated in the NCAA tournament. This group won three games by over 30 points or more, and no one has ever done that before. They won the National Championship by 30 points and no other team has accomplished that before. They partly did it, due to how the NCAA had treated the team.
(STS) How long did the loss to Duke back in 1991, both hurt and haunt your father?
Tarkanian: The loss to Duke in 1991 crushed him. The 1990-91 team were so close to many remarkable immortal achievements. But more than that, it ended the basketball dynasty at UNLV. The NCAA was putting a lot of pressure on UNLV to get rid of my father and he kept battling back.
The Rebels won the National Championship in 1989-90 and it prevented the president of the school (Robert Maxson) and some of the boosters that wanted my father out at UNLV from doing anything. When they lost in 1991, the athletic director (Dennis Finfrock) had started an ugly rumor that a couple of the players had thrown the game.
At this time, (during the spring and summer of 1991) everyone was stunned that we lost. They just couldn’t understand how good Duke was, and over looked that they did have three lottery picks on their team.
Then came the picture that was printed in one of the Las Vegas newspapers of some of the UNLV players in a hot tub with an individual (Richard “the fixer” Perry) that was convicted of sports betting 20 plus years earlier.
Right there, that was it, because of the picture they were able to get the community to back off their support of my father and this would allow the school officials to fire him.
(STS) Reflecting back to the ‘hot tub’ picture, could you talk about how much damage it ultimately did to your father at the time?
Tarkanian: The most important thing is when they talk about the photo, the picture only had relevance due to the lie that the athletic director was spreading that the players threw the game. What the reporters at the time didn’t report, along with the perception that was out there, was that two of those players in the picture weren’t even on the Rebels basketball team that year.
Both Moses Scurry and David Butler had already graduated. They were a part of the team a year earlier that beat Duke by 30 points. The only other player that was in that picture was Anderson Hunt. He finished with 29 points in the game and was clearly the best player on the court.
So I mean, who was throwing the game? Was it the two players that weren’t in the game? Or the one (Anderson Hunt) that was the best player in the game? It didn’t make any sense, but there was such a frenzy at the time and there was a perception that something really bad had happened. From there the administration was able to move on from my father.
(STS) Did your dad set the bar so high at UNLV, that it has been difficult for other coaches to have success?
Tarkanian: “He had great success at UNLV. When he left, my father had the highest winning percentage of all-time. He had been to three Final Fours in five years. UNLV is the only team from a non-power conference to win a national championship since Texas El-Paso did it in 1966. With these accomplishments the bar has been set high.
The biggest problem UNLV has had over a period of time is how the school had handled my father’s departure. It has been documented previously, that the NCAA was putting so much pressure on UNLV that they forced my father out. They fired him when he was 60 years-old at the peak of his coaching profession. But that wasn’t the worst of it, they wanted to disown everything my father and the basketball program had accomplished and start fresh.
In fact, I talked about it in the book, how the UNLV president at the time (Robert Maxson,) the athletic director (Dennis Finfrock) and the legal counsel were sitting around the day after they fired my dad, and were bragging about how they found a new coach.
He (Rollie Massimino) had won a National Championship, graduated 100 percent of his players, never had an NCAA problem and they were not going to miss a beat. This is when they hired Rollie Massimino as coach. For years, the school didn’t do anything to bring back the memory of those great UNLV teams and they tried to make everyone forget them.
When you do that, it is very difficult to build your program back up. It is hard to build it up, but it is easy to tear it down. It wasn’t until Coach Lon Krueger came in (coached at UNLV from 2004-11) he reached out to my father and the former players and wanted to bring them back into the program. The record shows that he had the most amount of success since my father left and I think it shows, because of what he tried to do. Former UNLV player and head coach, Dave Rice did it some, but there really hasn’t been anyone else.
(STS) Who was the most talented player your father coached during his career?
Tarkanian: He didn’t hide that one. (Danny laughs) Larry Johnson was his favorite player and person. I am probably a far second, as far as former players. (More laughter) All joking aside, one other player that he thought was incredible and doesn’t get full credit is Ed Ratliff, one of his players at Long Beach St. He was just a notch below Larry, as far as my dad’s favorites. He was the first great player my dad got to play for him. He was a two time All-American during his collegiate career.
(STS) Do you have a recruiting story on how your dad was able to get Larry Johnson to attend UNLV?
Tarkanian: Larry Johnson was originally supposed to go to SMU, but did not get the 700 required on his SAT to be able to play during his freshman year. He took the test again. Johnson passed the magic number. The SMU administration, spinning from football recruiting scandals, worried about the new score. Johnson would be forced to take the test again, on principle he opted to play for Odessa (Texas) Junior College.
My father got in touch with one of the SMU Mustangs football coaches that he knew and inquired about who is the closest person to Larry Johnson. My father was able to find out that this individual owned a golf course and was employing Larry Johnson’s brother as an employee at the time.
After the 1988-89 season was completed, my father told his assistant coaches, ‘you are going to recruit the rest of the country and I’m going to Dallas, to handle the recruitment of Larry Johnson.’ My dad spent the entire summer in Dallas, getting a close relationship with Larry, his mother and the golf course owner.
When it was time for Johnson to make a decision, it really came down to UNLV and Kansas. My dad was worried we were going to lose him near the end of Johnson’s recruitment to Kansas. At the time, Larry Brown was coaching at Kansas and decided to take an NBA coaching job with the San Antonio Spurs. Once Brown left for the NBA we were fortunate, as Larry Johnson came to UNLV by default.
(STS) In closing, when sports fans reflect on your father’s hall of fame coaching career, how would you like him to be remembered?
Tarkanian: That he truly cared for the players that he was coaching. He took the downtrodden kids that got in trouble and that the other schools didn’t want and gave those kids an opportunity to be successful. Some of the players and individuals got into trouble and my dad paid a huge price for it, but the vast majority of them were successful. He was able to make a huge impact on those people’s lives and in the book, I go into more detail about some of these specific situations and the players involved.