Jerry Tarkanian, 61 years old and ready for another challenge, left 32 years of college basketball behind for the NBA yesterday, when he became coach of the San Antonio Spurs.
Tarkanian, best known for a 19-year stint at Nevada-Las Vegas that resulted in the best winning percentage in college basketball and numerous brushes with the NCAA, will take over at the end of the season. That means Bob Bass, the Spurs' vice president of basketball operations, will continue as interim coach through the playoffs, though Tarkanian is expected to help out.
"We hope to come in here and get the running game going and maybe make the Spurs the Runnin' Spurs," Tarkanian said at a news conference in San Antonio. "We're going to be a running team.
"There's tremendous potential here, and I hope we can put everything together. I know these players [from college], and I like these players."
Tarkanian had grown increasingly fond of the NBA in recent weeks since becoming a television commentator for Los Angeles Clippers broadcasts. He talked glowingly of charter flights and first-class treatment, so his decision to join the pros was not that big of a surprise. That he landed in San Antonio, however, is.
Texas coach Tom Penders, a favorite of Spurs owner Red McCombs, had been mentioned often as a candidate to replace Larry Brown -- who said he was fired, though the team said he quit -- in San Antonio. In recent weeks, reports said Chuck Daly would leave the Detroit Pistons at season's end to run the basketball operations for McCombs, on the sidelines and in the front office.
The decision to go with someone without NBA experience brings questions about the transition to a game with 24-second clocks, 20-second timeouts and a schedule that, including playoffs, is as much as three times longer than college.
And that doesn't even get into the difference in players' attitudes. When Duke's Mike Krzyzewski was linked to the Boston Celtics a few years ago, Daly said that the Pistons trainer, Mike Abdenour, might have a better handle on NBA strategy than someone coming right from the NCAA.
If this was a concern for McCombs, it didn't show.
"This is a significant step for our franchise," he said. "Jerry Tarkanian's coaching record is unequaled. But to me, equally important, is the fact that Coach Tark really wanted to coach this team. He knows something about the spirit we have here in San Antonio, as it is similar to the kind of involvement he and his family had in Las Vegas. I can't tell you how elated I am that we have Tark."
Said Tarkanian, whose contract terms were not disclosed: "The rules are different, but not that much different."
Spurs players, about to get their third coach in less than a year, were predictably upbeat in their appraisal of Tarkanian. Foremost was Sidney Green, one of several former Rebels in the NBA.
"It's a good feeling. I'm happy for Tark," Green told the Associated Press. "He's a legend and he deserves everything he gets. I think he's going to have a major impact on the NBA."
All-Star David Robinson, on the injured list after surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb, heard the news from a reporter while taping a public-service message.
"I'm surprised," he said. "I hadn't heard his name mentioned very often. All I know is all his players have a lot of respect for him and really enjoy playing for him . . . He's been successful, so he obviously knows how to win basketball games."
In Las Vegas, word of Tarkanian's hiring was met quietly and with hopes that, in light of UNLV's hiring of Rollie Massimino, the acrimony would end.
"I wasn't shocked because I assumed that Coach would be coaching somewhere," school president Robert Maxson said. "I had been hearing for a week or two that he would get a coaching job. I'm just delighted he got a job he wants.
"Really, it should have no effect on us. We have been moving forward all along. We have got a very good coach. But that's not the reason I'm delighted. I'm delighted because he [Tarkanian] is doing what he wants to do."
Tarkanian announced last June he would resign after a final season at UNLV after photos showing former Rebels players in a hot tub with convicted sports fixer Richard Perry were published in a Las Vegas newspaper.
Tarkanian later rescinded the resignation, contending Maxson and others plotted to get him out. But when UNLV hired Massimino away from Villanova, Tarkanian, who won the 1990 NCAA title and reached the Final Four three other times, said he bTC was not surprised and had already considered that portion of his life closed.