Jerry Tarkanian – A Coaching Legend
By Frank Burlison (Basketball Writers Hall of Fame)
I can think of no better way to pay homage to Jerry Tarkanian than to put his name on a high school basketball tournament in the city whose name he made as synonymous as with great basketball as it already was for The Strip, black jack, slot machines and all-you-can-gorge-yourself-with buffets.
And, as you read this story, perhaps, while seated in the Bishop Gorman High gymnasium and watching some of the best high school teams, and players, in the country during the Inaugural Jerry Tarkanian Classic, you’ll begin to grasp the impact that the man had on a school, city, state and the entirety of college basketball during his 19 years as UNLV’s coach.
In the spring of 1973, he took over a program that was not so much an “afternoon” on the regional and national college basketball scenes, as a “never thought of”.
So what did his 19 teams accomplish?
Try this on for size:
- A cumulative 509-105 record – that’s an average 26-plus wins per season. His last 10 teams averaged 30 wins a pop;
- Twelve trips to the NCAA Tournament, four of those resulting in spots in the Final Four;
- The most lopsided national championship victory in history – 103-73 over Duke in Denver in 1990;
- A 45-game winning streak that was snapped, 79-77, by eventual champion Duke in a 1991 Final Four semifinal in Indianapolis;
- They produced numerous All-Americans and 10 first-round selections in NBA Drafts, three of those, Larry Johnson (the No. 1 overall selection), Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony, in 1991.
And, of course, does anyone think that the Thomas & Mack Center would have been constructed on campus without the magnificent players recruited by Tarkanian and his staff and the teams he coached that packed it to capacity?
Actually, his accomplishments in Las Vegas shouldn’t have been all that startling.
After all, he had already established a blue print during the previous five years before he, his wife Lois and children moved to town.
In five seasons at Long Beach State, his teams were a combined 122-20, while participating in the NCAA Tournament over the last four of those.
Three of those tournament bids ended with losses to the late John R. Wooden’s UCLA clubs – two of those in West Regional championships, the most noteworthy of those coming in Salt Lake City in 1971. That gut-wrenching 57-55 decision wasn’t history until the Bruins – who were en route to their fifth consecutive national title – had overcome an 11-point deficit.
Before a bold athletic director (Dr. Fred Miller) hired Tarkanian from the ranks of California Community Colleges (where he had won four state titles during stints at Southern California’s Riverside and Pasadena city colleges) at Long Beach in the spring of 1968, the 49ers were drawing “crowds” of 100s in their campus gym, located just down the hallway from the physical education building that was home to Tarkanian’s office.
In the 49ers’ final home game under Tarkanian, nearly 13,000 jammed the downtown Long Beach Arena – located, literally, just steps from the Pacific Ocean – to watch as two-time, first-time All-American (and 1972 Olympian) Ed Ratleff led the way to a nationally televised victory over the late Al McGuire’s Marquette team.
Tarkanian’s coaching exploits didn’t end in Las Vegas.
He couldn’t resist the temptation to return to the town he grew up in and coach the school (Fresno State) where he graduated.
In seven seasons there (1995 to 2002), the Bulldogs averages 22 wins and played in five National Invitation Tournaments and two NCAA tourneys.
He hasn’t “coached” for more than 10 years but his impact continues to be felt on basketball, be it the NBA, college (one of his former players, Dave Rice, is UNLV’s current coach) and high school – where numerous coaches either grew up watching (or playing against) his teams.
There doesn’t need to be anymore “history” to prove that he was one of the great basketball coaches of his, or any other, generation.