Tarkanian, Jerry

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Jerry Tarkanian


American college basketball coach

Followed by controversy throughout much of his coaching career, Jerry Tarkanian put together one of the most enviable records in college basketball. Known by admirers and detractors alike as Tark the Shark, Tarkanian led his teams to four appearances in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's (NCAA) Final Four and one national championship during a collegiate coaching career that spanned nearly four decades. Before he stepped down as head coach at California State University, Fresno (commonly known as Fresno State) in March 2002, Tarkanian compiled an all-career win percentage of 80.3 percent, the fourth best in college basketball history.

More than 40 of the college players coached by Tarkanian went on to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA). He is perhaps best known for the 19 years (1973-1992) he spent as coach of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), a team that finished in the top 10 nine times under Tarkanian's guidance. His running battle with the NCAA stretched over more than two decades. Shortly after stepping down as head coach at UNLV, Tarkanian sued the NCAA, charging the athletic association had systematically tried to force him out of college basketball. Although the NCAA admitted no liability, the association settled the suit in 1998, agreeing to pay Tarkanian $2.5 million.

Tarkanian was born in Euclid, Ohio, on October 8, 1930. His mother, born Haigouhie Tarkhanian in Armenia, and her brother, Levon, had fled Turkish genocide in their native country. Later in Lebanon, she married a man with a last name similar to hers and moved with him to the United States, where she was known as Rosie. Tarkanian's father owned and operated a small grocery store in Euclid, and as a boy Jerry accompanied his father as he drove around town to make purchases. When Tarkanian was 11 years old, his father died, and his mother moved the family to Pasadena, California, where they lived with relatives. His only relief from the poverty of his youth was playing basketball and football.

After high school Tarkanian enrolled at Pasadena City College but transferred to Fresno State University after winning an athletic scholarship. To supplement the meager stipend from his scholarship, he worked as an aide to Fresno State football coach Clark van Galder, who was to have a profound effect on Tarkanian's life. In his 1988 autobiography, Tark: College Basketball's Winningest Coach, written with Terry Pluto, Tarkanian wrote of van Galder: "He was an extraordinarily intense individual, and he demanded equal intensity from his players. How he got it was by becoming close with them, by forming an emotional bond. He would take me and my roommate Fred Bistrick, Fresno's quarterback, to the high school games with him. We spent a lot of time with his family." When he became a coach himself, Tarkanian adopted much of the unorthodox coaching style of van Galder, forming a personal bond with his players rather than holding himself aloof as was more characteristic of coaches in that era.

Helps Coach High School Team

An unremarkable scholar, Tarkanian ran out of eligibility before he earned his degree from Fresno State. Years later he told the Akron Beacon-Journal : "It took me six years to get through college. I knew where the gym was and how to find every party. People would have said that it was a million-to-one shot that I'd ever graduate. They said I didn't belong in college." When his eligibility ran out, Tarkanian helped coach at Fresno's San Joaquin Memorial High School. After graduating from Fresno State, he joined the high school's staff as head basketball coach. Tarkanian coached at four California high schools before he was hired in 1961 by Riverside Junior College to lead its basketball team, which hadn't had a winning season in 11 years. Under Tarkanian's direction, Riverside's basketball team became the first in California to win three consecutive state junior college championships. It was during this period that he married Lois Huter, whom he'd met while both were students at Fresno State. The Tarkanians have four children: Pamela, Jodie, Danny, and George.

In 1966 Tarkanian took over as head basketball coach at Pasadena City College and worked the same sort of magic he'd produced at Riverside. In his very first year as coach, he led the Pasadena team to a state championship. The next stop in Tarkanian's coaching career was Long Beach State College, the first four-year college at which he'd coach. Beginning at Long Beach in 1968, he quickly acquired a reputation for his unorthodox recruiting and coaching style. He came under fire for what some saw as his heavy reliance on younger players as well as others who were less than stellar students. Tarkanian also attracted attention for flouting the unwritten rule that three of a team's five starting players should be white. This dramatic departure from racial convention established Tarkanian in the black community as a coach who not only talked about equal opportunity but actually practiced it, according to Richard O. Davies, author of The Maverick Spirit, a book about controversial Nevadans. This reputation would pay great recruiting dividends later in his career.

Success at Long Beach State

In his five seasons at Long Beach State, Tarkanian compiled an impressive record of 122-20. The Long Beach State team never lost a home game while under his direction. In 1970 Tarkanian coached the Long Beach State squad into the NCAA Tournament, boasting that his entire first string was made up of former junior college players, a class of players that had long been considered second-rate material by coaches at other four-year colleges. It was at Long Beach that Tarkanian first developed the now-popular 1-2-2 zone defense. Of his defensive coaching skills, Wayne Embry, general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, explained to the Akron Beacon-Journal : "Tark is a hell of a coach. People think that all he does is roll out the balls and let them run. Forget it. He is one of the best defensive coaches in the country."


1930Born in Euclid, Ohio, on October 8
1955Graduates from Fresno State
1956Earns master's degree in educational administration from University of Redlands
1956-57Coaches basketball at San Joaquin Memorial High School in Fresno
1958Coaches at Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster, California
1959-60Coaches at Redlands High School
1961-66Coaches at Riverside Junior College
1966-68Coaches at Pasadena City College
1968-73Coaches at Long Beach State College
1973-92Coaches at University of Nevada, Las Vegas
1992Coaches San Antonio Spurs
1995-2002Coaches at Fresno State
2002Named senior development consultant for Save Mart Center at Fresno State

Awards and Accomplishments

1964-67Coaches Riverside Junior College to California Junior College Championship
1966-67Coaches Pasadena City College to California Junior College Championship
1976-77Coaches UNLV to NCAA Final Four
1979-80Coaches UNLV to fourth place in National Invitational Tournament (NIT)
1983Named Coach of the Year by United Press International
1986-87Coaches UNLV to NCAA Final Four
1989-90Coaches UNLV to NCAA Championship
1990-91Coaches UNLV to NCAA Final Four
1995-96Coaches Fresno State to NIT quarterfinals
1997-98Coaches Fresno State to NIT semifinals

Tarkanian's troubles with the NCAA first surfaced during his tenure at Long Beach State. In 1972, shortly after the coach had written a column critical of the NCAA in a local newspaper, the giant athletic association launched an investigation into the college's basketball and football recruiting practices. In March 1973 Tarkanian took over as head basketball coach at UNLV. A month later, the NCAA submitted to Long Beach State an official inquiry listing alleged violations of NCAA rules. Supplemental allegations were submitted in August, September, and November 1973, and in January 1974 Long Beach State was placed on three years probation and penalized because of alleged rules violations. Tarkanian, now coaching at UNLV, denied the violations as they applied to Long Beach State's basketball program and protested that the findings were made without his participation in the hearing process.

Stage Set for Further Conflict

The stage was set for further conflict with the NCAA even before Tarkanian accepted the coaching job at UNLV. The NCAA in November 1972 had announced an investigation into UNLV football and basketball. In February 1976 the athletic association submitted an official inquiry to UNLV officials, listing alleged violations of NCAA rules prior to and during Tarkanian's tenure. Most of the violations, according to the NCAA, were in the area of recruiting practices. Late that year UNLV officials, including Tarkanian, responded to the NCAA inquiry, denying that the alleged violations had occurred.

In his first season at UNLV, Tarkanian coached the basketball team to a winning record of 20-6. To better suit his second-season team, which had a number of players who were short by normal basketball standards but fast, he introduced a new playing style. As he recalled in his autobiography, "I figured that if we got the bigger teams running, it would take away their size advantage. Rather than work the ball around the perimeter, I wanted us to get the ball up the court as fast as possible and then take a quick jumper before the defense could set up. Speed would be the determining factor in the game. The team that got the rebounds would be the team that hustled for the ball more and reached it first." Tarkanian's new strategy required a man-to-man defense rather than the zone defense he had popularized at Long Beach State.

New Strategy Begins to Click

Using the new strategy, Tarkanian's second season got off to a slow start, with the UNLV team losing its first three games. Once things began to click, however, the team, which came to be known as the Runnin Rebels, sailed to a 24-5 record for the season and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament. The new playing style proved extremely popular with UNLV basketball fans, who said the new strategy created the energy of a high school game played with a lot more skill. Things got even better during the 1975-1976 season when the team ended the season, 29-2, and again advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Tarkanian's Runnin Rebels made it into the NCAA Tournament's Final Four on the strength of a 1976-1977 record of 29-3. In September 1977 the NCAA placed UNLV on two years probation, the penalties for which included a ban on postseason play for two years. At the same time the NCAA called for a two-year suspension of Tarkanian as coach, a sanction that was eventually blocked by the courts. The ban on postseason play remained in effect, however, so despite impressive records in both 1977-1978 (20-8) and 1978-1979 (21-8), the UNLV team saw no postseason action during this period.

More Conflict

In August 1979 UNLV was restored to the full rights and privileges of NCAA membership after satisfying the penalties imposed by the association's Committee on Infractions. With a record of 23-9 for the 1979-1980 season, UNLV's basketball team advanced to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT), where it finished in fourth place. The following season was the weakest of Tarkanian's career at UNLV with a record of 16-12, but the Rebels bounced back in 1981-1982, ending the regular season with a record of 20-10 and advancing to the second round of the NIT. The Rebels record improved to 28-3 in 1982-1983, on the strength of which the team advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

In 1984 UNLV recruited Dr. Robert Maxson from the University of Houston to serve as its new president and hopefully create for the school a reputation for academic excellence that would rival its glowing reputation as an athletic powerhouse. Although both Maxson and Tarkanian at first made an effort to get along, eventually the two clashed, particularly after Maxson forced Brad Rothermel to resign as athletic director and replaced him with Dennis Finfrock, no fan of Tarkanian.

Although his conflict with the NCAA continued throughout Tarkanian's tenure at UNLV, it seemed to have little effect on his effectiveness as a coach. The Rebels finished the 1983-84 season with a record of 29-6 and advanced to the third round of NCAA tournament. The following season, UNLV made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament with a record of 28-4. In 1985-1986, the team finished the season with a 33-5 record and advanced to the third round of the NCAA tourney. Tarkanian's team returned to the NCAA Final Four at the end of the 1986-1987 season, during which it compiled a record of 37-2.

UNLV Rebels Clinch NCAA Championship

The UNLV Rebels continued to shine over the 1987-1988 and 1988-1989 seasons, advancing to the third and fourth rounds of the NCAA tournament, respectively. But greater glory lay ahead for Tarkanian's team which clinched the NCAA Championship in 1989-1990 after finishing the season with a record of 35-5. Despite NCAA attempts to bar the team from postseason play in 1990-1991, an agreement was struck to shift the postseason ban to the following year. This paved the way for another trip to the NCAA's Final Four. Despite a brilliant 26-2 record in 1991-1992, UNLV, abiding by its agreement with the NCAA, saw no postseason action. Part of the agreement struck with the NCAA called for Tarkanian to resign at the end of the 1991-1992 season. He stepped down in March 1992.

Tarkanian next gave NBA ball a try, signing on as head coach of the San Antonio Spurs. But his stint in pro basketball was short-lived, ending when Tarkanian was fired shortly after clashing with the team's owner. In 1995 he returned to his alma mater to coach the Fresno State Bulldogs. During his seven seasons as Bulldogs coach, the team compiled a winning record of 153-80. On March 15, 2002, Tarkanian stepped down as coach and accepted a position as senior development consultant with the university's Save Mart Center. In June 2002, Tarkanian revealed that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer but expressed optimism that he would be cured.

Despite his long-running battles with the NCAA, Tarkanian will long be remembered as one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history. After Tarkanian left college basketball in March 2002, fellow coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke told the Associated Press: "He's had an amazing career. Jerry had consistent high levels of success because his teams played hard defensively. He's one of the truly remarkable defensive coaches."


Winning Basketball Systems. Allyn & Bacon, 1981.

Winning Basketball. WCB/McGraw-Hill, 1983.

(With Terry Pluto) Tark: College Basketball's Winningest Coach. McGraw-Hill, 1988.

Related Biography: UNLV President Dr. Robert Maxson

According to Michael Green, history professor at Community College of Southern Nevada, you can't assess Tarkanian without assessing Bob Maxson. To their mutual chagrin, they are historically inseparable. They became embroiled in this terrible fight where neither man controlled his logic or emotion. In a sense, they destroyed each other. Robert C. Maxson, formerly senior vice president of academic affairs at the University of Houston, was brought to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), as its new president in 1984. His immediate mission was to upgrade the university's academic reputation, a goal that eventually brought him into conflict with Tarkanian

Rumors had long persisted that Tarkanian recruited students who were good basketball players but lacked the necessary skills to succeed academically. Although Maxson at first tried to make an ally of Tarkanian, any relationship the two might have developed was blown away by Maxson's decision in 1990 to replace Tarkanian supporter Brad Rothermiel with Dennis Finfrock as athletic director. Within two years, Tarkanian had stepped down as basketball coach, but Maxson was not far behind him, resigning in 1994.

Maxson in 1958 earned his bachelor's degree in education and psychology from the University of Arkansas at Monticello. He received a master's degree in education administration from Florida Atlantic University in 1967 and a doctorate in educational leadership from Mississippi State University in 1970. After leaving UNLV in 1994, he was hired to serve as president of California State University, Long Beach. Maxson is married to Dr. Sylvia Parrish Maxson, and the couple has two children, Todd and Kimberly.

(With Don Yaeger) Shark Attack: Jerry Tarkanian and His Battle with the NCAA and UNLV. Harper Collins, 1992.



"Jerry Tarkanian." Complete Marquis Who's Who. Marquis Who's Who, 2001.

"Jerry Tarkanian." Newsmakers 1990, Issue 4. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990.

"Jerry Tarkanian." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 5 vols. St. James Press, 2000.

"Robert C. Maxson." Complete Marquis Who's Who. Marquis Who's Who, 2001.


"Jerry Tarkanian (1930-): Tark the Shark." Las Vegas Review-Journal. http://www.1st100.com/part3/tarkanian.html (January 7, 2003).

"Jerry Tarkanian and the NCAA." Big John's UNLV Runnin Rebels Home Page. http://home.att.net/~rebels02/page21b_tarkncaa.html (January 6, 2003).

"Jerry Tarkanian: The Man Who Built UNLV." Big John's UNLV Runnin Rebels Home Page. http://home.att.net/~rebels02/pg21_tark.html (January 6, 2003).

"Jerry Tarkanian: Profile." Fresno State Online. http://gobulldogs.ocsn.com/sports/m-baskbl/mtt/tarkanian_jerry00.html (January 6, 2003).

"Robert C. Maxson." California State University. http://www.calstate.edu/PA/bios/prezbio/Maxson.shtml (January 7, 2003).

Sketch by Don Amerman