Jerry Tarkanian strolls through the front door of Fresno Distributing six minutes before going on-air with his self-named radio show.
He strains to lift his sore legs up a tall step, climbs a stool and positions his face near a microphone propped up on two phone books. Headphones replace a Penn State cap on his bald head.
It’s Wednesday night, 72 hours before two basketball teams with pasts inexorably tied to Tarkanian, Fresno State and UNLV, meet at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
A co-worker says he’d love to join the Shark on the Strip, and suddenly Tark comes to life.
“You better tape your ankles,” Tarkanian says, earning several laughs.
He still sets standards, even now. More than five years after he coached his final college basketball game, few moments occur at Fresno State or UNLV without comparisons to his tenure. Factor in a $2.5 million settlement against the NCAA, and he is the ultimate example of anti-establishment.
“Regardless of how you feel about Jerry Tarkanian, he is one of the most well-known names in the business,” Fresno State coach Steve Cleveland says.
Tarkanian demanded defense, insisted on effort. In 1990, his national-championship team at UNLV solidified his place as one of the best minds in the game.
“He’s at the heart of everything associated with the program,” says UNLV coach Lon Kruger, whose Sweet 16 team last season was the first to advance past the first round of the NCAA Tournament since Tarkanian’s 1991 squad reached the Final Four.
Tarkanian arrived at Fresno State in 1995, earning his alma mater immediate national notoriety. He left after seven seasons, tired and frustrated. Soon after, the Bulldogs became his third program to fall under NCAA violations. Sanctions left Fresno State in a weak position at the time the Mountain West Conference expanded.
Perhaps this is why his legacy, especially in the central San Joaquin Valley, is so cloudy. Even after 778 career Division I wins.
“It’s a plus-and-minus thing,” says Jack Fertig, his former assistant coach at Fresno State and co-host of “The Jerry Tarkanian Show.”
Fertig then gives his opinion: “He came out way in the plus.”
Tarkanian’s legacy still finds a place in Fresno. Locker rooms at Save Mart Center are named after him.
The arena and adjacent recreation complex, which cost $103 million, was constructed in part because of support he gathered in the community because of his Armenian heritage, Fresno State ties and promise of big-time results.
In Las Vegas, UNLV plays its home game on the Jerry Tarkanian Court at Thomas & Mack Center.
“People never go a week without someone coming up and saying, ‘I’ve had season tickets since the Tark era,’ ” says Steve Henson, an assistant coach at UNLV.
Tarkanian attends games at both schools, enjoys spending time in both cities. He meets fans who tell him they wish he was still coaching.
“I hear that a lot,” Tarkanian says. “But you don’t know what anybody means. People say what they think you wanna hear.”
He says he received tickets to tonight’s game at the Orleans Arena from UNLV, so he plans to sit on the Runnin’ Rebels side.
The forgiveness factor
Loyalty was at the top of Tarkanian’s list when he recruited players. Kids, he called them, deserved second, even third chances.
“I don’t believe in running kids off. When you run them off, where do they go? What are they going to do?
“If I have a loyal person and he had a bad past, I’d walk that extra mile for him because a loyal guy, you can change. You can bring him along. But the worst thing somebody can be is disloyal. And that’s players, that’s coaches, that’s people.”
Often times, his strategy worked. But there were enough cases where his program suffered because of his decisions.
“If he had a great weakness in life, he’s always trusted his kids,” says Jim Winton, a longtime friend and Fresno State supporter. “In the past, dishonest kids have made him pay.”
Former UNLV recruit Lloyd Daniels damaged his career more than any other player. In 1987, he was caught on videotape buying cocaine from an undercover police officer in Las Vegas, and his recruitment was often viewed as an example of the extremes Tarkanian would go to to get a player.
Today, Tarkanian says, Daniels has his life in order. “He has two kids, has a house on the shore. He coaches AAU teams in New Jersey and his teams are called The Runnin’ Rebels.”
At Fresno State, suspension after suspension deflated the Bulldogs, which is why memories of seven postseason tournament berths — including two trips to the NCAA Tournament — often are overshadowed.
“I just hope people realize that we came in there and tried to do the best job we could,” he says.
Tarkanian admits his late nights are mostly in the past. At age 77, he now settles for a good meal at AJ’s Armenian Cuisine at Shaw and Maroa, a cocktail at the Elbow Room in Fig Garden Village.
He and his wife, Lois, have a condominium on San Diego’s Pacific Beach. A television crew there is filming a documentary on his career.
He spends his summers in San Diego, his winters between Fresno — he arrives on Mondays and leaves after his radio show on Wednesday, no later than Thursday night — and Las Vegas, where he has lunch with friends several times a week. He also spends time with his family there, which includes 10 grandkids.
Loved for his endearing and approachable personality and colorful behavior yet reviled for the NCAA violations that damaged Long Beach State, UNLV and Fresno State after he left, Tarkanian spends his days close to the game which made him famous. He travels the country for speaking engagements and to watch college sports, from Notre Dame and Florida to Louisiana State and Texas. Coaches seek out his player evaluations.
And his radio show is going national next year on Sirius Satellite Radio, thanks in part to the success of his local show on the AM station KCBL-1340.
He says he doesn’t miss coaching, especially after he left Fresno State in 2002, what he said was the most difficult time of his five-decade career.
He is still sharp, remembering names and faces and games and story lines from years ago.
During the hourlong radio show, Tarkanian and Fertig discuss college basketball (“It would not surprise me if USC makes it to the Final Four. I don’t know if anyone else has said that but me.”); the Triangle-and-2 defense, a strategy used against teams with two scorers and three average players (“I don’t like gimmick defenses.”); and Memphis guard Derrick Rose (“He could be the first pick of the draft. ... I’ve never seen anybody guard him without hand-checking him, and you can’t do that in the NBA.”).
Now in the overtime of his life, as he calls it, he prefers talking about the news than making it.