LAS VEGAS -- What's the deal?
University of Nevada-Las Vegas Coach Jerry Tarkanian is seated behind his expansive desk, not far from his built-in, pull-open blackboard and to the side of the huge window with a pleated gray curtain that's pulled back to reveal yet another sunny day in Las Vegas.
The sunshine is lost on Tark. He shuffles through some phone messages, arrayed in front of him like playing cards for solitaire or blackjack.
"ANNETTE" he rasps in the world's worst voice to Annette Fazio, his executive secretary. Tarkanian's voice sounds like it's emanating from somewhere deep in his sinuses. It's as scratchy as a coarse wool sweater and as sad as his deep-set eyes.
"How should I make this out?" the Runnin' Rebels coach asks about a $180 check for some fruit baskets he just purchased from the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Should he write it out or just use the abbreviation? Geez, how did he even get on their hit-up list, he wonders. What's the deal?
Hey, Annette, how do you spell foreign, anyway, the coach of the defending NCAA champions asks. And what about this picture session he has scheduled? Isn't he supposed to be having lunch somewhere else on that day?
They call Jerry Tarkanian, the guy the NCAA has been chumming for since 1973, the Shark. He looks more like a turtle without a shell. In tight games the balding coach with those sad Armenian eyes will chew on a towel like it's a piece of lettuce.
In person, however, Tark looks about 10 years younger, more like the former athlete he is than an always-embattled coach. His gray and white-striped sweater is sharp even by Vegas standards. Tark, however, says he hasn't been feeling too good of late.
"This off-season has been so different, a real drain," he says. "So much of my attention has been on this NCAA thing. It has bothered me a lot. Usually, my head is always into basketball, but up until the first day of practice I couldn't get back into it.
"I get sick of talking about it. We win the national championship, we've got four starters back and that's all anyone wants to talk about. Our win was great for the whole state and we earned it. We worked harder than anybody, we played harder than anybody, and in one swipe they can just sit in a room and wipe that out."
On July 20, Tarkanian learned that his hugely talented team anchored by sure NBA first-rounders Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon would be barred from defending its national championship. The penalty was unusual if not downright bizarre because it stemmed not from anything that UNLV's NCAA champions did, but from something that happened when most of the current group of players were in elementary school.
In 1977 the NCAA had concluded an investigation of UNLV basketball and found the school guilty of 38 infractions, 10 of which mentioned Tarkanian and ranged from recruiting violations to charges of grade-fixing. Part of the NCAA penalty was that Tarkanian was to be suspended for two years.
Tarkanian, who still denies doing anything wrong, then broke the biggest unofficial NCAA rule, he refused to accept his punishment.
He challenged the ruling, and his own school's right to dismiss him, in court.
"The NCAA has constantly argued that Tark had a home-court advantage because he was in Las Vegas," said Don Yaeger, the Tallahassee-based author of "Undue Process: The NCAA's Injustice for All." "But it was that home-court advantage universities felt when they try to beat the NCAA's enforcement division.
"I don't know that he didn't do anything, ever. But I looked at specific allegations where it was clear that the evidence was on Tarkanian's side. He may have been guilty, but the bottom line was that he was treated unfairly.
"He stayed in college basketball to fight these guys. It stained his reputation, it has hurt him a lot, but it impresses me. You would not believe the number of coaches who are rooting him on."
Tarkanian is still trying to cut some kind of deal with the organization he has clashed with for most of his collegiate coaching career. Recently the NCAA Infractions Committee received four alternative proposals from UNLV officials that would allow the current UNLV team to defend its title in this year's NCAA tournament. They were:
UNLV would not compete in the 1992 tournament.
Tarkanian wouldn't coach in this tournament, would abstain from recruiting for one year and would forfeit as much as $100,000 in playoff revenues.
Tarkanian wouldn't coach in the 1991 and 1992 tournaments.
UNLV would not appear on network TV for the 1991-92 season, would reduce official recruiting visits and scholarships in 1991-92 and would not permit anyone on its basketball staff to recruit off-campus for a year.
There are those who say a large part of Tarkanian's NCAA problems are location, location and location. In the spotlight of Sin City, any basketball program is bound to attract attention. It's a wonder that any parent sends a daughter or son to school in Las Vegas, which is the least likely college town in America.