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Throwing in the Towel : For Decades, Jerry Tarkanian Has Passionately Fought Twin Battles: For Victory on the Basketball Court and Against the Powers of College Sport. Now the Clock is Running Out for the Coach of the Runnin' Rebels.

February 16, 1992|MICHAEL J. GOODMAN | Michael J. Goodman is a contributing editor of this magazine. His last story was "Caged Animals, Wild Hunters."

Jerry Tarkanian looks rattled.

Warily he enters his nightly hangout, Piero's restaurant, a celebrity favorite in Las Vegas. The foyer is empty and hidden from the dining room. He lingers for a moment, hugging his gray cellular phone like a teddy bear. At 61, after 35 years of unequaled success on the court and contention off it, and on the eve of his 19th and final season coaching the Runnin' Rebels, the man who embodies the worst and best in college basketball is under attack--again.

This time, Tark the Shark has been sucker-punched.

Tarkanian spots Piero's owner, Fred Glusman, short, muscled, dapper, fifty-ish and nicely tanned from an afternoon sun lamp. Glusman is Tarkanian's most vociferous defender, a cocky, tenacious, brass-knuckles brawler with a personality to match. Glusman's proud of it. "Let 'em call me 'schmuck,' " he says. "I know what I am. You drop me 30 stories and I'll land on my feet."

But on this November night, Glusman's ego is in free fall; his mood redefines down-in-the-mouth. Las Vegas television news has just broadcast a videotape of Tarkanian's coaching staff at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, conducting what looks like an illegal preseason team practice to get the jump on the competition. Taken alone, it might be considered a bush-league fudging of the rules by the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. But UNLV is already banned from the 1991-92 playoffs and awaits an NCAA decision on other possible violations, and Tarkanian himself was forced to resign last June, the culmination of unrelenting bad publicity. And now this. Las Vegas wants an explanation from its squat, paunchy, slope-shouldered coach with the droopy eyes, palooka nose and U-shaped smile.

Ninety minutes have passed since the videotape was first broadcast. Tarkanian continues to duck reporters. His administrative aide, Denny Hovanec, has checked Piero's for hostile press. Hovanec signals the all-clear via cellular. Tarkanian huddles with Glusman and Hovanec at the bar. Tarkanian is told that public reaction to the videotape is unanimous: It clearly shows an illegal team practice. "What's your opinion, coach?" I ask. His entourage squirms uneasily. Tarkanian has a perfect record of conceding little, admitting less, confessing nothing and denying what seems undeniable.

"The tape doesn't show anything," Tarkanian rasps, his gravelly voice whining with indignation. "I don't know why they released it." The bartender rolls his eyes. Glusman and Hovanec act as if they didn't hear. Tarkanian presses on. "All the tape shows is a conditioning class. They're doin' (conditioning) slides." Tarkanian looks at me. "Come here," he says. "Face me. Bend your knees like I am. Put your hands up. Now do what I do." With our hands up, we herky-jerky from side to side. Tarkanian turns to the hushed bar crowd. "This is all they're doing (on the videotape). They're doin' slides." The bar crowd fidgets and melts away. Tarkanian smiles and heads for his table.

TOUGH IT OUT. DIG IN. ATTACK. THIS IS TARKANIAN'S WAY. HE knows no other. As a coach he's relentless, obsessive, consumed--a brilliant recruiter and motivator. His dazzling results from recruiting uneducated inner-city toughs are assailed as exploitation by some, lauded as saving souls by others. He asks his players only for their best effort and unshakable loyalty. He places loyalty above all and repays it any way he can--jobs, a grubstake--long after they leave his care. They revere him. "We'd go through a brick wall for him," says Greg Anthony, a star forward from the 1990-91 team who was picked 12th in the National Basketball Assn. draft and now plays for the New York Knicks. "He's just so sincere and honest with his players. No mirrors, no jive. What you see is what you get."

But their testimonials--and Tarkanian's irrefutable record as the winningest coach in the history of college basketball--cannot overcome the perception that he wins by hook or crook, emphasis on the latter. Tarkanian gives his enemies too much to work with. His coaching wizardry is matched by his personal foolhardiness--tilting at windmills armed with his trusty mouth, defending loyal pals of tarnished repute. It is his brashness, his rashness that made him take on the NCAA nearly 20 years ago. He's been fighting the ruling body of college sports ever since--in court, in the media, before Congress, in Piero's.

He requires only an audience of one, preferably a rich booster he can out-fumble for the check. When it comes to money, Tarkanian--a millionaire three times over--hates parting with it, or missing a chance to get more. His name, his nickname, his face, presence, influence and the towel he sucks on are for sale to the highest bidder. His easy-money adventures have dismayed his family and endangered his reputation. But not a speck of evidence so far suggests that Tarkanian would fix a game, or is connected with anybody who would.

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