Tark and Lefty: The last dinosaurs don't get it

MIKE LITTWIN

December 06, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

HARRISONBURG, Va. -- Imagine the last two dinosaurs, wondering what the heck went wrong, and that may help capture the moment for you.

In this case, it was Tark and Lefty, in a last-chance meeting of your basic college basketball anachronisms. They don't make 'em like that anymore, and it's just as well, if it's ethics that turn you on. If it's colorful characters, then that's a different story.

If you hadn't heard, it's Tark's farewell tour -- he finally got the boot -- and the Runnin' Rebels (was there ever a team more aptly named?) took a detour to this smallish outpost in the scenic Shenandoah Valley, hardly the typical, big-time Vegas scene. But they came here to James Madison because this is where Lefty is serving out his exile, and maybe Tark wanted to see what exile was like.

You can guess what it was like: Lefty stomped. Tark sucked towel.

Lefty hitched his pants. Tark sucked towel.

Lefty kicked a chair. Tark, well you know.

Lefty ripped off his sports jacket and flung it to the floor. Tark won the game, 80-73, with a brand-new team with five new starters. He really kin coach.

It was great theater, played out in a 7,642-seat pit where they squeezed in 7,800 crazed fans who saw exciting basketball being played in the moments when their eyes weren't riveted to the coaching legends, who have run off 1,182 (602 for Tark, 580 for Lefty) wins between them.

But they might as well have played the game in Elba. They couldn't show it on TV, because UNLV isn't allowed on the air as part of its probation term. Maybe it was fitting they go out in a vacuum.

The game has passed Lefty and Tark by. Now the colleges that aren't interested in academics want slickie boys like Rick Pitino, with the good looks and the smooth talk. Tark and Lefty will embarrass a school. They do it regularly. And the thing you understood was that neither one understands.

Tark said Lefty was a great coach and a credit to his profession.

Lefty said Tark got a raw deal because people envied his money and success.

I swear to you.

"Tark'll survive, just like I survived," Lefty said. 'He's a good man, but if you coach long enough, it's going to catch up to you. . . .

"What happened is Tark makes more money that the governor, more money than the president. They're jealous of him."

And Tark on Lefty: "Lefty and I are great friends. What you see is what you get. He's real sincere and honest, and he's a great coach."

They like each other. They defend one another. They have to, I guess.

Lefty is remembered, of course, for a scandal that followed the death of Len Bias. Tark is remembered for a 13-year feud with the NCAA. At James Madison, Lefty has tried to take away scholarships from players, and he got in trouble for writing a letter to a University of North Carolina recruit telling him he was not a big-time player. Tark can top that, of course. The coup de grace for him was the famous picture of his players in a hot tub with convicted game-fixer Richard "The Fixer" Perry. Oh, also that Perry's season tickets were from Tark's allotment. Yes, the game will catch up with you.

The last time we saw the Runnin' Rebels, they were losing the game and their title and the morality play to Duke in the Final Four.

Well, it's not quite the last time we saw them.

Even though they're on probation and even though they can't be on TV, we managed a look at videotape, courtesy of UNLV's legal counsel. Seems he hid a camera in an air conditioning duct and taped the basketball team in an illegal preseason practice.

Tark went ballistic and school officials were falling all over themselves in apology. And Tark, although he was probably guilty, came out looking like the aggrieved party.

That is his genius.

It is not Lefty's. Lefty never looks like a genius. The Ah-Kin-Coach coach looks like the country boy come to town. Now he's back in the country.

Tark meantime complains that the NCAA bureaucrats routinely impinge on the rights of normal folks. He's right. He says they don't care about the players. He's right again. But that doesn't mean Tark runs a clean program, does it? They finally put the Father Flanagan act to rest.

What's next for Tark?

"I'm going to the Oklahoma-Texas football game," he said. "I'm getting there early so I can go to the parties. I'm going to the Michigan-Ohio State. I want to see a Notre Dame game. I want to see an ACC tournament. I'm going to the Kentucky Derby. After that, I don't know what I'm going to do.

"But it's going to be tough on you writers. You're not going to have anyone to rip anymore."

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