Aftermath of Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV – A Cautionary Tale for Memphis

Jerry Tarkanian doing his thing - chewing on a towel. (Photo Courtesy of USA Today).
Jerry Tarkanian doing his thing – chewing on a towel. (Photo Courtesy of USA Today).

Jerry Tarkanian, architect of UNLV’s great basketball teams of the 1980’s and 1990’s, passed away Wednesday. Fans of college basketball old enough to remember will spend the next 24 hours watching clips of Larry Johnson, towel chewing, fast breaks – and hearing about NCAA investigations, lawsuits, turmoil and scandal.

Such is the legacy of Jerry Tarkanian and the 80’s / 90’s UNLV program he led to such notoriety.

Memphis fans should pay close attention.

If there’s a single program in the country that serves as any kind of parallel to Memphis’ basketball program, historically speaking, it’s UNLV.

Some Memphis fans like to think of their program in comparison to traditional blue bloods such as Kansas, North Carolina, UCLA, UConn, etc… but that is a ridiculous fantasy. There is no comparison to be made between the history of those programs and Memphis.

More realistic Memphis fans might compare their program to its most traditional, historic rival Louisville – but the Cardinals have been to 10 Final Fours and won 3 NCAA Championships. They’ve also transcended “Non-Power” conference status by virtue of their recent entrance to the ACC, so most of the parallels between these 2 programs no longer really exist.

On the other hand, look at the comparisons between UNLV and Memphis:

“Power” Conference Status: Memphis – NO, UNLV – NO

Located in a Major Metropolitan Area: Memphis – YES, UNLV – YES

NCAA Tournament Appearances: Memphis – 26, UNLV – 20

NCAA Final 4 Appearances: Memphis – 3, UNLV – 4

NCAA Championships: Memphis – 0, UNLV 1

History of NCAA Violations and Renegade Reputation Nationally: Memphis – YES, UNLV – YES

And it’s the last point – the legacy of NCAA trouble – that really ties the 2 programs together.

Tarkanian’s history with the NCAA is well chronicled (courtesy Wikipedia):

Just months before the 1976–77 season, the NCAA placed UNLV on two years’ probation for “questionable practices.” Although the alleged violations dated back to 1971—before Tarkanian became coach—the NCAA pressured UNLV into suspending Tarkanian as coach for two years. Tarkanian sued, claiming the suspension violated his right to due process. In September 1977, a Nevada judge issued an injunction which reinstated Tarkanian as coach. The case eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, which ruled in 1988 that the NCAA had the right to discipline its member schools, reversing the 1977 injunction.

Tarkanian remained in a very public dispute with the NCAA into the 1990’s – and when he finally retired from Fresno State (after briefly coaching the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs) in 2002 – that program was placed on NCAA probation as well.

So what can Memphis fans learn or understand about their program by accepting the fact that UNLV may be their closest parallel on a national level?

For one thing, they should realize that when your most prolific success is built by someone who was running afoul of NCAA enforcement – it stands to reason that duplicating that success in a compliant manner might not be as easy.

Consider some of the stories about how Tarkanian recruited and you’ll understand that the tactics which produced his success at UNLV were, shall we say, less traditional.

Don’t take this as a simplistic argument that Josh Pastner is less “dirty” than John Calipari – though he probably is. It is simply an acknowledgement that the college landscape has changed drastically since the 1980’s, or even the 2000’s. With every passing year college basketball – like every large business – becomes more sanitized, corporate, regulated, and sterile.

Can you imagine a major college coach going to war with the NCAA and surviving – and thriving – for 2 decades – as Tarkanian did?

Bottom line – Tarkanian had a reputation as a dirty, corner cutting, scoundrel with a defiant attitude towards the governing body of his sport – and he used it to his advantage.

Here’s a scary fact for Memphis fans: Since Tarkanian left UNLV in 1992, the program has been to ONE (1) NCAA Sweet 16 – in 2007. During that time they suffered a 7 year stretch (2000 – 2007) without a tournament appearance.

Memphis – like UNLV – has found some success with coaches who win the “right way.”

“Clean” Gene Bartow led the program to its greatest moment – the 1973 NCAA title game, but quickly parlayed the magical season into a gig at Illinois and eventually replaced legendary coach John Wooden at UCLA.

Larry Finch led the Memphis program to 6 NCAA appearances in 9 years – but was ultimately forced out because he didn’t win enough.

Which brings us to Josh Pastner and his 4 NCAA tournament in 5 years, which will almost assuredly be 4 in 6 by next month.

Tiger fans should be very careful about denigrating an accomplishment – keeping Memphis in the national conversation and competing for NCAA bids while not running afoul whatsoever of the NCAA – that may not be as easy to duplicate as supporters of the program imagine.

Current UNLV coach Dave Rice appears headed to his 2nd straight non-NCAA postseason. The Rebel program clearly has not come close to reaching the heights it did under Tarkanian – some would say it’s not even possible in today’s environment.

Memphis fans should use the occasion to reflect on their place in the overall college basketball hierarchy.