Like him or loathe him, you must say this for Jerry Tarkanian: He has done it his way. Right or wrong, he has marched to his own drummer.
Beat the NCAA system? Like a dog. Evade his punishment? For 13 artful years. Put together a championship basketball team? As well as anyone has for a long, long time.
Tarkanian's calling card will be on display at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis this weekend. It is the best basketball team in the country, Nevada-Las Vegas' unbeaten Rebels, who are about to run right past Duke and North Carolina or Kansas into the history books.
This is a team that measures up handsomely with the best ever to play the college game. If successful in the Final Four, it will be the first team to win back-to-back NCAA titles since UCLA in 1973. If successful, it will be the first team to go undefeated since Indiana went 32-0 in 1976.
How good are the Rebels?
A year ago they went 35-5 and pulverized Duke 103-73 in the national championship game. This year, with virtually the same all-star cast, they have gone 34-0 and led, wire-to-wire, in the national polls.
This month, they came through what was arguably the toughest of the four NCAA regionals to win the West. They beat Montana by 34, Georgetown by eight, Utah by 17 and Seton Hall by 12.
It is a marvelous cast, led by 6-foot-7 forward Larry Johnson, who most likely is this season's Player of the Year. Johnson, defensive ace Stacey Augmon and underrated center George Ackles comprise the best frontcourt in the land. The backcourt is no less competent with point guard Greg Anthony and shooting guard Anderson Hunt.
The Rebels are nine-point favorites for tomorrow night's national semifinals, a rematch of the Duke blowout. Even Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski concedes there is an historic air hovering over these games, given UNLV's bid for immortality.
"I don't think there's any question about that," Krzyzewski said. "What Jerry's done the last two years, Jerry's put his program in position to do what hasn't been done very frequently.
"The fact that they made it to the Final Four, that he put them in that position . . . I don't know if enough credit has been given them for that accomplishment. I respect what they've done. They know how to play, and they play very hard."
But there is also another kind of history hanging over this Final Four. It is the stale air of bitter confrontation. It is the long-running feud, Tark vs. the NCAA, that serves as a biting backdrop to the tournament.
Tarkanian, whose program has been the subject of numerous investigations, has fought off the NCAA police for as long as humanly possible. Even when he finally lost his case of due process in court last summer, the NCAA granted his team a reprieve. In a highly controversial decision last December, the NCAA allowed the UNLV seniors to pursue their place in history. Sanctions for previous Tarkanian violations will come next season, perhaps along with new allegations.
Whether Tarkanian will be around to take the brunt of those sanctions is debatable. There is strong sentiment he will collect his second national championship, then amble off into an NBA sunset.
This week Tarkanian said the never-ending battle has taken its toll, and while saying he had no plans to leave UNLV, he didn't shut off any of the escape routes.
"Certainly, [UNLV's success] has been overshadowed by it, but I've learned to live with it," he said of the NCAA battle. "My intentions are to come back to UNLV. But you can't say anything is for sure."
With a winning streak that spans 45 games and two seasons, the Rebels are as close to a sure thing as you get in the NCAA. Krzyzewski, mindful of the 30-point loss a year ago, willingly played the role of martyr before checking into the Hoosier Dome.
The week of preparation, he said, would allow for a "little more sound game plan than we did last year. The bad thing is we're watching more game film of them, and I get more scared of them.
"I think we're better than we were last year, but I don't know if that means we cut it down to 20 points this year or what."
Despite being everybody's overwhelming favorite all season, Tarkanian has managed to keep his team remarkably focused. "We don't talk about the winning streak," he said.
But he may have inadvertently identified the Rebels' staunchest competition in their season for the ages. That would be the ultimate matchup, UNLV against the great teams in history, teams like Indiana and UCLA and San Francisco in the Bill Russell era. Those comparisons are what give Tarkanian pause.
"That's probably a lot harder on us than anything else," he said.