An Exclusive Q&A with the former UNLV Head Coach
Athlon Sports: HBO Sports did a documentary on the peak of your career called “Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV” that recently debuted and is airing all month. I know you saw an advanced screening of the hour-long program at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas back in February. What did you think?
Jerry Tarkanian: The parts on me were really good. I just thought they went too easy on the NCAA. But that’s because I’m so bitter about them.
You are, clearly. I’ve talked to friends of yours about that. They’ve told you, at this point, to try to let it all go, haven’t they?
Yes, they have.
But letting it go is hard?
It’s very hard. You can’t believe what I went through with them.
You’re 80 years old and a college basketball icon. Your record as a head coach at the collegiate level was 729–201. You have a national championship. And yet that’s not what most people think about first when they think about you. The first thing that comes to mind for most people when the name Jerry Tarkanian is mentioned — if we’re playing word-association here — is your battles with the NCAA. So what you went through with them at least somewhat defines you and undeniably still hangs over you, which means what you went through with them is something you still deal with today.
Absolutely. I was investigated by the NCAA three different times — more times than anybody in the history of sports, probably. And every time, the NCAA itself said there were no major violations. No major violations. And yet I was hammered by the NCAA and by the media. Hammered. So it’s very hard to let it all go. Very hard. But I don’t want to talk about that anymore.
Then let’s talk about the Basketball Hall of Fame. By any measuring stick, your numbers suggest you should be in. Yes, you had NCAA issues. But, like you said, none of your programs — not Long Beach State, not UNLV, not Fresno State — was ever found to have committed major violations. People can debate what that means, and they do. But when you say you were never found to have committed major violations, that is a true statement. And yet you’re not in the Hall of Fame while Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun — a man whose program has committed major violations, a man whose program is currently on probation — is in the Basketball Hall of Fame. When I tell you that, does it bother you?
I’ve learned to move on from that.
College basketball today. How much of it do you still watch?
I watch it all the time. All the time. Almost every night.
When you see coaches playing at a slow pace, does it drive you nuts? Not many teams score the way your teams used to score.
I pretty much played a slowed-down game my first 11 or 12 years as a head coach. But then I went to a running game, and I loved it. It was fun because our guys played so hard and worked so hard, and we played an exciting brand of basketball. You know, there have been some really good teams that have come through — like the Michigan teams with Chris Webber and Jalen Rose. But I think we were better than most of those teams. We were so good defensively, and we just fit together so good. Our guys played so unselfishly. We led the nation in field goal percentage, and we were not a good shooting team. If you look at our players, Stacey Augmon was not a great shooter. Greg Anthony was not a great shooter. The only one who was a really good shooter was Anderson Hunt. But we still led the nation in field goal percentage.
You mentioned Greg Anthony, who is the most visible product from your great UNLV teams all these years later as a basketball analyst for CBS. Are you surprised he’s turned into what he’s turned into?
I knew Greg could do whatever he wanted to do. He was always very intelligent and very articulate. He was self-driven.
I must know, in your opinion, should Greg really have been fouled out of that classic game against Duke — the loss in the 1991 national semifinals that prevented you from being back-to-back national champions?
We went through the tape of that game, and three of his five fouls were phantom calls. He should’ve had two fouls in that game. I’ve never made excuses. But there’s no doubt that’s what happened.
What about Larry Johnson? He was the star of those great UNLV teams — the No. 1 pick of the 1991 NBA Draft. Do you still keep in touch with Larry?
I see Larry all the time. He’s here in (Las Vegas). He drove me to the UNLV game (against Wyoming at the end of February). I see Larry a lot.
Back on the subject of the NCAA. I know you despise the organization as it was and as it is. But let me ask you this: Is the NCAA fixable? Could the right person fix it?
Yeah, I think they probably could, and I do think they’ve made great progress since my battles. When I had my battles, they didn’t have any evidence of any kind, and they didn’t need any. They would just have notes that they took from an interview, but nobody even knew if the notes were accurate. They weren’t signed or anything. The investigator would just say, “I talked to this person, and this is what he told me.” Nobody ever signed a statement under oath. But the infractions committee would just say they were telling the truth. But I don’t even want to talk about them anymore. It just upsets me.
If you had to hire a coach to run your college basketball program, whom would you hire?
My favorite guy is Bobby Huggins. I love Mike Krzyzewski, too. And I’ve for years said Roy Williams is a great, great coach. And I love Bill Self right now. I love Bill.
I’ve seen you interact with most of those guys at the Final Four and other places, and I know they all think highly of you. They love being around you, listening to you tell stories. What’s it like to be so revered by current coaches? You are a legend to many of them.
It’s really nice. I have a radio show one night a week during basketball season, and I have every one of the top coaches on my show. I’ve had Self. I’ve had Krzyzewski. I’ve had Jay Wright. Every one of them, they come on.
John comes on my show all the time, too. John and I are very good friends. I think he’s without a doubt the top recruiter, maybe ever. I’ve never seen a coach get as many great players as John gets every year. I like John.
As you know, he’s the guy most fans compare to you because he’s had his share of battles with the NCAA, too. Have you ever talked with John about that?
We’ve talked about that some. You know, he feels like the NCAA picked on him, too. But not to the extent they picked on me.