Brandon Bakke graduated from Fresno State in 1996. He coached the Clovis High boys varsity team from 1996-97 through 1999-2000, compiling a 61-43 record. He is currently an assistant principal at Sumner High School in Puyallup, Washington.
Coach Tarkanian came to Fresno State my senior year. I was lucky to be on the team prior to his arrival, because there is no way I would have been good enough to even sniff his recruiting radar... so it was by circumstance that I get to call him my coach.
Despite not being one of "his guys," I discovered quickly that it didn't matter ... because I was on the team. You see people were divided into four categories with Coach -- his family, his players, his coaches and everyone else -- and it didn't matter if you were named Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Anderson Hunt, Chris Herren, Rafer Alston, John Welch or Brandon Bakke... I was one of his guys.
Well actually now that I think about it, there probably a fifth category... the NCAA.
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Coach Tarkanian had a persona like no coach before him or since: the towel, Honeymoon in Vegas, the NCAA, the Runnin' Rebels, the Shark. He was an easy guy to make judgments about or to develop perceptions about. Heck, I had my own notions about what it was going to be like playing for Coach when he was introduced to our team in 1995. I mean, seriously, how many coaches have their own mascot on the sideline of games? Did you know the decibel meter measuring crowd noise at Fresno state was called "The Tark Meter"?
You will read a lot about coach Tarkanian over the next few days and weeks. I wanted to share with you a quick thought on Coach from the perspective of an average, come-off-the-bench role player who was anything but a star.
In my first private conversation with Coach he told me his formula for a great team: "You need eight really great players who play, and three or four guys who hardly play, but work hard and have 3.5 GPAs." I walked out of the meeting clearly communicated with as to my role on the team. In all seriousness, Coach was a really good communicator with his players. Amazingly, I actually walked out of this meeting feeling good ... not sure how that happened, to be honest.
My second private meeting with Coach was to request that I not be mandated to go to study table. Coach had made a pretty strict rule that all players attend a daily study table. I had asked an assistant coach if I could get out of this and I was told no. I made the scary decision to go to the big guy to ask him directly.
The meeting lasted about one minute.
I asked Coach if I could be exempt from study table. He said, "Tell me one reason why I should make an exception for you?" I took a deep breath and said, "Coach, I already graduated." He looked at me and simply said, "Why in the hell are you going to study table? (as if he was mad that I hadn't rebelled sooner), you don't have to go. Anything else?" Meeting over.
Indeed, Coach was not black and white and could be talked to.
True to Coach's word, I was not seeing much playing time. I had been a starter and the sixth man for much of the previous two seasons, so this took some getting used to on my part. About halfway into the season I decided to have my third meeting with coach. This time I was terrified. I was going to do something I had never done before: make a case to a coach that I get more playing time.
I rehearsed the conversation over and over, thinking I could anticipate what Coach would say. I started with explaining how much I loved the team no matter my role, and that I was NOT complaining. Then I made my case. He just stared at me as I spoke and I could feel sweat running down my head as I pontificated. When I finished there was this dramatic pause, and then he simply said, "You're right, you will play more. Is there anything else?" Meeting over. Coach was not predictable.
The next game we played Wyoming. I sat on the bench waiting for my chance, not really knowing what "you will play more" meant. I sat and sat and, before I knew it, there were only a few seconds to go and I had not played. We were up two with the ball with only a few seconds left when Coach called timeout. He looked at me and told me to check in. During the timeout Coach set up the inbounds play to get me the ball knowing the Cowboys were going to foul, forcing us to make free throws.
I had sat for almost 40 minutes, so I can honestly say I was hoping his play would not work and someone else would get the ball. I couldn't believe what he was doing. Sure enough, I got the ball and I got fouled. Somehow I made both free throws and we won the game. In the locker room as the team was celebrating, Coach yelled, "Brandon, you got the biggest ... guts (or something like that) of anyone I've ever coached!" I remember thinking about Larry Johnson and the litany of stars he'd coached, and feeling pretty good about myself.
Coach then said, "I told you that you would play more." I played about 10 seconds, but Coach stuck to his word. It took a few more moments like that in the next few games, but low and behold, somehow I found myself in the rotation before year's end. I have a picture from that timeout hanging in my office today, reminding me to GIVE PEOPLE A CHANCE AND ALWAYS STICK TO MY WORD.
I also remember the day before Senior Night telling Coach I didn't want him to give me a charity start. It was a big game against BYU and we were on the bubble of an NCAA tourney bid and I didn't want to cause us to lose by being in a role I was not usually in. He actually swore at me and told me that in the 1970s he had started six seniors and got a technical foul. He would rather start the game with a technical foul, he explained, than dishonor a senior.
Coach was extremely loyal. In fact, it wasn't but two weeks later that he walked to the side of the court during a practice to take a call. As I ran by I heard him talking about me. I found out later he was talking with Clovis High School athletic director Dave Bens about why they needed to hire me to be their next basketball coach. He took time out of practice (which was sacred to him) -- an NIT get-ready-for-Michigan-State practice -- to help me get a job.
As I said before, if you were a player of his, he would go to the end of the Earth to help you.
After that practice coach Tarkanian asked me if I was really sure about a future in coaching. He actually tried to talk me out of it. "You're too smart to coach," he said. His one piece of advice: "Remember, nobody cares more about the team than the head coach." At the time he words puzzled me, but as I look back on it after decades of coaching, that statement was profound.
Sadly, the last time I spoke to Coach was at my wedding two years after I graduated. He honored me by attending. He gave me a hug, told me he was proud of me ... me -- an average, off-the-bench role player who was anything but a star.
So this week, when you see and hear coach Tarkanian's players mourn, I hope you have a better understanding as to why. We loved him because we knew he loved us. He was my coach for just one year, but he is my coach for life.