CHICAGO -- The trip for which he was packing, the one to Fresno State for a game with the Bulldogs today, long had been advertised as the last he would take as the coach of Nevada-Las Vegas. But now the circumstances were altered considerably, and Jerry Tarkanian once more was engaged in battle.
This one seeks to keep him on the job for another season, to rescind the agreement he signed last June that obliges him to step down at this season's end.
This battle arose after reports alleged the FBI was looking into possible point shaving by some of last year's Rebels; already his attorney had delivered a letter to UNLV President Robert Maxson declaring Tarkanian's intentions. He considers his resignation null and void, that letter declared, and, if necessary, he will go to court in an attempt to preserve his position.
"People have been on me for the last two months to do this, and I didn't want to do it at all," Tarkanian said just before his departure yesterday for Fresno. "But the point-shaving stuff devastated me. For three days, I was a basket case. It's the worst thing that ever happened to me in my career. It's the slimiest thing ever, such a lie.
"All the sports books in town say it's absolutely ludicrous. That [point-shaving] couldn't have happened. It [the published allegations] made me want to get the truth out. If I didn't do this, I would have been gone yesterday [after the Rebels' season ended on Tuesday night] and it all would have been swept under the carpet. This way, the truth will come out."
There is little more Tarkanian will say, little more he can say with a lawsuit looming and a nasty end game with his administration developing daily. But history is a priceless guide here, an unerring source for both the undercurrents stirring this struggle and the true objectives this struggle seeks to achieve.
It is not, history tells us, really aimed at earning Tarkanian another season on the Rebels' bench. He has feuded with Maxson and others in his school's hierarchy, and whenever he was asked if this truly was going to be his last season at Vegas, he generally answered: "Under the present administration."
So, no, this struggle is not about keeping a job. It is, more accurately, an outgrowth of Tarkanian's belief Maxson and others in his administration released many of the allegations that have made the last 21 months in Las Vegas so tumultuous.
It is, more accurately, an attempt by Tarkanian to get out that fact and to clear both his name and the names of those Rebel players from a year ago whom he professed to have loved dearly ["Great kids," is how he often described them.].
The release of a photo showing guard Anderson Hunt and other former Rebels in a hot tub with Richard "The Fixer" Perry, the secret filming of a class that this year's Rebels allegedly were using for illegal practices, students allegedly following Rebel coaches and players in hopes of finding them in violation of some NCAA rule -- the source for all of this and more, Tarkanian now believes, was his own administration.
"Since I resigned," he declared last November, "I've found out that practically every problem we've had in the last year started within the university."
"He feels they've let out stuff in an effort to dirty him," a friend of his said this week.
So do you really want your job back? Tarkanian was asked yesterday morning.
"That's my position," he said.
What if Maxson leaves, do you keep it then?
"I can't answer anything like that."
Maxson has denied all of these charges, but they were reiterated in a new book ("Shark Attack") that hit Las Vegas bookstores earlier this week. There also have been petitions circulated calling for Tarkanian's retention (about 30,000 people have signed them), and fans at Rebel home games this year have worn T-shirts that read "Fire Maxson" and chanted the refrain "Keep Tark."
This reaction to Tarkanian's departure is why Maxson has stayed on the offensive even though he already had his coach's resignation. That, at least, is the theory of Tarkanian's supporters and another of those allegations Maxson has had to deny.
All of this turmoil -- and especially the specter of a point-shaving scandal -- has harmed Tarkanian's chances of moving on to San Diego State, which was thinking strongly of hiring him at this season's end. It also has overshadowed the surprising success of this year's Rebels, who were expected to do little with an entirely new starting lineup but are 24-2 and ranked No. 7.
"It's been an incredible season," Tarkanian said yesterday, his tones brightening audibly.
But has it been a fun season? he was asked.
"The winning is fun," Jerry Tarkanian finally said. "The kids pulling together, shocking everyone, is fun. We talk as a group, say the best thing we can do is keep winning, that's the best way for us to stick it to them [the administration].
"What isn't fun is all that's been going on. I haven't enjoyed going to practice where I always loved going to practice. It's taken its toll to where I think I don't even want to coach anymore. I don't have my heart and soul in it anymore.
"Friends tell me, 'Once you get away from this situation, you'll feel differently.' But right now, I don't know."