Remembering Jerry Tarkanian (1930-2015)

Jerry Tarkanian was all class in his lowest moment, pictured here at the postgame presser after losing to Duke in the '91 semifinals.

Jerry Tarkanian was all class in his lowest moment, pictured here at the postgame presser after losing to Duke in the ’91 semifinals.

Published on Wednesday, 2/11/15, at 12:45 p.m. Eastern.

Three days after losing Dean Smith, the Father of the Four Corners, we lost Jerry Tarkanian, the Father of Second Chances. He died this morning in Las Vegas at the age of 84.

What do we remember about ‘Tark the Shark?’

So many things — the towel, the endless battles with the NCAA, the assbeating Duke took that night in Denver, the heartbreaker UNLV suffered at the Blue Devils’ hands to end the 45-game winning streak a year later.

That sick 1990 team, the one that handed out four pimpslaps en route to winning the national title with perhaps the finest finals performance in Tournament history. Quick trivia: What team, coached by whom, gave UNLV its toughest game during that Tourney run? Answers below…

That team had Greg Anthony, Anderson Hunt, Stacey ‘The Plastic Man” Augmon and that beast from Odessa Junior College, Larry Johnson.┬áMy favorite NCAA Tournament team (not named the Gators) ever, the Loyola-Marymount squad that lost its leader Hank Gathers at the WCC Tournament just a month before facing the Runnin’ Rebels in the 1990 Elite Eight, was no match for Tark’s team. Bo Kimble’s last lefty free throw, followed by another right-handed, cut UNLV’s lead to four late in the first half.

But that was as close as LMU would get. UNLV would roll to a 131-101 win. Paul Westhead’s squad had captured the heart of America with its tragic and unforgettable story and when UNLV just smashed it, the Rebels’ renegade reputation was given another layer.

Tark's 1990 Rebels dominated one of the best NCAA Tournaments in college basketball history.

Tark’s 1990 Rebels dominated one of the best NCAA Tournaments in college basketball history.

In the semifinals at McNichols Arena in the Mile High City, it appeared UNLV might have met its match against Bobby Cremins and Lethal Weapon III — Brian Oliver, Dennis Scott and Kenny Anderson. The Yellow Jackets made it to Denver in a most improbable fashion. They beat LSU in Knoxville in perhaps the greatest second-round game ever played.

Dale Brown had Chris Jackson, Shaquille O’Neal and Stanley Roberts, but Cremins had Scott, who put on a 3-point shooting display at Thompson-Boling Arena. Then in the Sweet 16 at the Superdome in New Orleans, trailing Michigan St. by two, Anderson hit a buzzer beater (3:44 mark). Should it have counted? Was it a three? It counted but was ruled a two-pointer. Ga. Tech would need overtime to end Steve Smith’s career for the Spartans.

Ga. Tech led UNLV by seven at intermission in the Final Four. In the second half, though, it was all Rebels. And it was all Rebels again on Monday night.

With the exception of starting center David Butler, everybody for UNLV came back in 1991. Anthony, Hunt, Johnson, Augmon and back-up post player Moses Scurry, who celebrated every rebound with a scream that could be heard from the cheap seats. Scurry made it cool to celebrate rebounds like they were touchdowns. George Ackles replaced Butler and the ’91 Rebels looked invincible through 34 easy wins.

They were supposed to get their biggest challenge from Arkansas at the old Barnhill Arena on Feb. 11. The Hogs had Nolan Richardson, Lee Mayberry, Todd Day and had been to the previous Final Four before falling to Duke. Nobody beat Nolan at Barnhill back then and Arkansas led by four at intermission 24 years ago to this day. Nearly a quarter-century ago and I remember exactly where I was for this game (at my grandfather’s, watching the Rebels wear red in Nolan’s house).

But UNLV scored on its first nine possessions of the second half and built a 23-point lead. Johnson would silence the crowd, flex his muscles and tell the camera, “I’m a hoss.” The Hogs would make a fruitless rally to make the final score (112-105) look respectable, but they had been punked under their roof and a repeat in March appeared to be a foregone conclusion.

Looking back, maybe a better performance from Arkansas on that day would’ve helped UNLV the next month against Duke? The Rebs didn’t get much practice at executing at crunch time that year.

In the semifinals against a determined team led by Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner, the Blue Devils wouldn’t go away. UNLV was on the cusp of pulling away several times, but Duke always had an answer.

Down by five with less than two minutes remaining, Duke had the ball and Anthony was on the bench after fouling out. As the ball swung his way, Hurley caught and elevated for a jumper from the left side. It might be the most unrecognized — yet most important — 3-point shot in the annals of NCAA Tournament history. It hit nothing but bottom and suddenly, we had a one-possession game at crunch time.

Moments later after getting a stop, Brian Davis’s baseline drive resulted in a bucket and a three-point play the hard way. On the game’s final possession, Johnson couldn’t make anything happen after he was forced to catch much further from the basket than he wanted. Johnson threw back out to Hunt, who had to take a difficult trey for the win. The low-percentage shot hit the backboard first, bounced away, and Duke had one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history.

Tark never got over that loss. He still went to four Final Fours and won the ’90 title, but the loss to the Blue Devils haunted him because it was a shot at immortality. To this day, Indiana’s 1976 team is the last to go unbeaten, although Kentucky is threatening to do so now.

Tark had a brief stint with the San Antonio Spurs, then finished his career with seven seasons at Fresno St. He continued to give kids second chances, including Chris Herren.

Tark and Smith were different in most ways, yet similar in the way they did so much for African-American kids at a time when it wasn’t the most popular thing to do so. They were also the same in that their players adored them and looked at them as father-figures.

The renegade rep faded through the years. Tark became the sweet old man, constantly present at UNLV games at Thomas & Mack and at the various holiday and postseason tournaments in Vegas.

The Rebels have never been the same since Tark was forced out. No more Final Fours, no more national titles. Lon Kruger took UNLV to a Sweet 16. Dave Rice, his former player, has had success recruiting. There have been moments, small ones, but nothing even in the ballpark of the greatness Tark brought to Sin City.

RIP: Jerry Tarkanian (1930-2015).

Trivia Answers: Ball St. in the Sweet 16, coached by the late, great Rick Majerus, who once said, “Some guys smoke. Some guys drink. Some guys chase women. I’m a big barbecue-sauce guy.”

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