It took him 13 years, but Nevada-Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian finally won one from the NCAA. As a result, his Rebels are now eligible to defend the national title they so impressively won last April.
That news came in a report from the NCAA Committee on Infractions, which just last July -- acting on a case that stretched back to 1977 -- prohibited Vegas from postseason play in 1991. In yesterday's landmark reversal, it agreed to permit UNLV to play in next spring's tourney if the school accepted one of two alternative penalties.
The one that was quickly accepted by Vegas bans it from television appearances during the 1991-92 season and from tournaments after the season. The other alternative would have prohibited Tarkanian from coaching his Rebels in the 1991 tourney, and kept them from playing in it in the next season.
"The committee," said its report, "emphasizes that it is making these alternatives available to the university because it believes it is in the best interest of all concerned for this lengthy dispute to end."
This lengthy dispute began back in 1977, the year the NCAA slapped Vegas with a two-year probation and ordered the school to suspend its coach for the same period of time. It did, but Tarkanian decided to fight and got a pair of court injunctions that permitted him to keep coaching.
One of them, which prohibits Vegas from suspending him, is still in effect. But the other, which prohibited the NCAA from taking further action in the case, was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in December 1988.
More legal maneuvering followed, but by last March the NCAA was free to act and in July it did, banning Vegas from defending its title. The school soon announced it would appeal that ruling to the NCAA Council (which is made up of athletic directors, conference commissioners and faculty reps), but before that could take place, it petitioned for another hearing before the Committee on Infractions.
That committee, believing the university would provide new information relevant to the case, granted the request, and on Oct. 28 the two sides met in Chicago. There, behind closed doors, the school said it was concerned that either Tarkanian or his players would file suit if the postseason ban remained in effect, and that the NCAA itself could be named in the suits.
"Most significantly," said the committee's report, the university also guaranteed there would be no legal action if it accepted one of four alternative proposals. One of them was no postseason play in 1992. Another was Tarkanian's willingness to not coach in either the '91 or '92 postseason. And the others involved various restrictions on Tarkanian, recruiting TV appearances and scholarships.
"In my case, I have no idea what to expect. But I've come to expect nothing good," Tarkanian would say while awaiting the committee's decision.
But, said Vegas players at the same time, they might not want to play in that case. "Basically," said their star, Larry Johnson, "we said [in a team meeting] that we didn't want to participate without Coach. We appreciate his offer. We know he's doing best for us. But a team is a family, and this would be like if the NCAA said we could go if [guard] Greg Anthony didn't play and if I didn't play. We win as a family. We should go as a family."
But "Tark" has said he wants you to go even without him, he was told.
"He's expressed that to us," agreed Johnson. "But that's a road we'll have to cross if it comes down to that."
Ultimately -- and while asserting it still believed in the legality of its position -- the committee fashioned the alternatives it presented, and when Vegas accepted one of them, the players were saved from traveling down that road.