Jerry Tarkanian, who died Tuesday at age 84, and his UNLV Runnin’ Rebels basketball team carried the banner for basketball in the West after John Wooden and UCLA. Tarkanian’s teams in late 1990 and 1991 were as seemingly unbeatable in those years as the Kentucky Wildcats are today.
Tark built a monster. The Rebels crushed Duke for the 1990 NCAA championship, and led by returning starters Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Anderson Hunt and Greg Anthony, they went 34-0 with a 45-game winning streak heading into the 1991 national semifinal against the same Blue Devils team.
Those UNLV-Duke games were the first I can recall where a good vs. evil theme was so strongly portrayed.
The Runnin’ Rebels image started with Tarkanian, a shady character who seemed to stay one step ahead of the NCAA gumshoes. His team was seen as a bunch of thugs.
Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski was Mr. Clean, and a mostly sympathetic figure for having teams reach four of the previous five Final Fours without winning a championship.
The coaches and players dismissed the images at their Final Four appearances, but television didn’t just have a championship game. Now it had a morality play, a prequel to Nancy vs. Tonya.
Duke, blown out in the title game, pulled off the remarkable upset in 1991, and the Blue Devils downed Kansas for Coach K’s first title.
A few months later, photos of UNLV players in a hot tub with a known gambler were published by the Las Vegas Review Journal, and Tarkanian lasted one more year in the program. He coached the San Antonio Spurs for 20 games and took Fresno State to two NCAAs in seven seasons before retiring in 2002.
The national perspective on Tarkanian softened in his retirement. There seemed to be a greater appreciation for him serving as a father figure to his players, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, than for his skirmishes with the NCAA.
In 2013, Tarkanian was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., and officials said time has a way to heal old wounds. A life-sized bronze statue of him, in his customary towel-chomping seated position, was unveiled at UNLV two years ago.
Tarkanian was a complicated coach. He spent much of his career operating in the gray areas of recruiting, defying authority and championing his causes, unpopular as some where. He won, lost others but he loved all the battles.
Kansas vs. Tark
In 1989, Kansas had upset Shaquille O’Neal and LSU in the second round of the preseason NIT and faced UNLV, which would go on to win the national championship, at Madison Square Garden. The Jayhawks were picked to finish last in the Big Eight by one preseason magazine. But they led the Rebels by 20 in the second half and settled for a 14-point victory on their way to the tourney title.
Kansas went from unranked to No. 4 after the NIT.
“They were running their offense like it was February,” Tarkanian said.
At the 1991 Final Four, Kansas defeated North Carolina in the first semifinal, and Jayhawks’ fans were pulling for Duke to beat Vegas in the second game. That infuriated KU coach Roy Williams.
“I thought we had a better chance of beating Vegas,” Williams later said.
He was right. Kansas never led Duke in a 72-65 loss.