Jerry Tarkanian – Tark the Shark

Maybe we can blame Steven Spielberg for creating “Jaws.” Maybe it’s our fear and lack of understanding. We just don’t get a warm and fuzzy feeling about sharks. Most people don’t feel badly at all if a shark dies. Today is different, for me anyway. Jerry Tarkanian, “Tark the Shark,” has passed away at the age of 84.

Here’s my take on Tark.

He was like the “Rodney Dangerfield” of basketball coaches. He never really got the respect he was due, until near the end when he was elected into the Hall of Fame. Imagine winning 729 of the 930 college basketball games you coached, but being known and remembered for your ritual of chewing on a wet towel, and battling the NCAA.

Tark wasn’t an angel in the City of Sin. He never claimed to be. But he was a winner every bit as much as the house usually is in the Las Vegas Casinos. He won at Long Beach State. He won at UNLV. He won at his alma mater, Fresno State. In the end, he won vs. the NCAA.

Jerry Tarkanian was also a true rebel. The way he ran the basketball program at UNLV put the Runnin’ Rebels and the university on the map. He created a dynasty going 509-105 in 19 seasons. I’ll never forget the amazement in the arena as his team put a dominating beat down on Coach K’s Duke Blue Devils to win the National Championship in 1990.

Tark’s success built the Thomas and Mack Center. He earned the statue which is there. In the land of glitz and glamour, he produced one of the most popular shows and toughest tickets in town. For years, a courtside stroll down “Gucci Row” showed you the real stars and the real players in Vegas.

When I began one of my favorite TV positions as the Staff Reporter for a nationally syndicated show, “Billy Packer’s College Basketball,” one of the first stories I elected to do was a piece with Jerry Tarkanian. I already knew there was more to the coach, the man, than met the eye. Here’s some examples:

  • Tark’s teams were known for how great they were on offense. But Tark himself loved to talk about defense.
  • Year after year he’d bet on kids the more established college basketball programs didn’t want or considered losers. Many of them were JUCOs, junior college transfers. Some of them were from projects. Some of them were real projects. Tark turned them into teams of winners.
  • He and his lovely wife, Lois, often made their family seem like family to these kids who were far away from their own homes, and in the new foreign worlds of college and Las Vegas. Let the impact of that sink in.
  • Ironically, the Tarkanian family resided on Justice Lane in Las Vegas. Eventually, Jerry got his justice, $2.5 million dollars worth from the NCAA. But the damage from his battles over the years had already run down the ultimate Runnin’ Rebel.

I saw on Twitter today, his son Danny called him the greatest man he’s ever known. Speaking of greats…maybe now that he’s gone, Jerry Tarkanian will finally be remembered by the public where his record in college basketball says he belongs…as one of the all-time greats.

The fight is over. RIP #CoachTark

by Thomas Baldrick