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Fresno State fans are bemoaning the day Tarkanian was hired

March 10, 2003|Mark Arax | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — They call it the House That Tark Built, a $100-million palace that rises out of an old alfalfa field at the edge of Fresno State University.

That the patrons of this farming capital have dug deep in their pockets to erect not a concert hall or museum but a Taj Mahal for college basketball says something about the state of culture and entertainment here.

Fresno has a reputation in philanthropic circles as one of the nation's skinflints, but when it comes to the Battlin' Bulldogs of Fresno State, the town turns giddy with giving, each year raising $6 million to $7 million in a single month for the school's athletic programs.

When it opens in November, the Save Mart Center, named after a San Joaquin Valley grocery chain, will be the finest college basketball arena in the West, locals boast. But it carries a price tag far beyond the $74 million in bonds floated on the bold hope that a steady stream of cash, and championships, will come.

The shadow of Jerry Tarkanian, the legendary coach whose fame helped land the arena, hovers ominously over the 18,000-seat edifice in the city's heart.

A year after "Tark the Shark" retired from Fresno State, his men's basketball program has saddled the school with a far-reaching NCAA investigation. It has already resulted in the school banning the team from postseason play.

Over the last several months, even as a new coach has led the team to a 20-7 record and Western Athletic Conference regular-season championship, the Fresno Bee has detailed a long run of abuses under Tarkanian's watch, including star players committing academic fraud and accepting thousands of dollars from wannabe agents.

The school's administration, critics say, turned a blind eye to Tarkanian, a 1955 graduate of Fresno State who became one of the most successful, and most investigated, coaches in college history in a career that carried him from Long Beach State to Nevada Las Vegas and, finally, to Fresno State.

Last week, a grim-faced John Welty, the university president who had already pulled three scholarships from the program over the next two seasons, said the school's investigation had confirmed the newspaper's findings. He said he felt he had no choice but to impose the ban on postseason play.

The investigation and ban on postseason play have been enough to throw the nation's most fruitful farm county, already depressed over 17% jobless rates and a bust in the price of raisins, into collective despair.

Other than the Fresno Grizzlies, the triple-A farm team for the San Francisco Giants, this city of 410,000 boasts no professional sports franchise.

The legion of red-garbed fans known as the "Red Wave" live and die Bulldog basketball and football.

Some now fret that Coach Ray Lopes, a hard-working disciplinarian whose team has won in dramatic, last-second fashion several times this season, won't stick around for what they hope will be a ride to glory in the new arena.

Fresno has been dreaming about just such a season for at least a half century.

The faithful fear that the Save Mart Center, gleaming though it may be, won't be enough to keep Lopes in town or entice blue-chip players, not after the NCAA finishes an inquiry that probably will lead to more sanctions. They envision a half-filled, debt-ridden arena looking down on a mediocre team led by a coach not nearly as good as the 40-year-old Lopes.

"It's a shame that it had to come to this," Bulldog fan Mike McCrory said after a recent home victory. "They wanted a winning program and a new arena so badly that they were willing to see no evil and hear no evil when it came to Tark.

"The administration shut its eyes. Ray Lopes has proven that you don't have to be sleazy to win. It's too bad that his team is paying the price for what went wrong before him."

In announcing the postseason ban, Welty told a news conference that the ultimate responsibility rested with him.

But longtime professors and university staff say Welty, a hard-working administrator and skillful fund-raiser, had little time or inclination to bird-dog the basketball program.

The university president focused long hours on overseeing the school's transformation from a largely white student body to one of the most ethnically-diverse in the state university system.

Like all university presidents, he entrusted oversight of the basketball program to his athletic department, specifically then-athletic director Al Bohl and his assistant, Scott Johnson. Staffers in the athletic department said Bohl seemed intimidated by Tarkanian and his son, Danny, an assistant coach.

There were plenty of signs that the basketball program was a wayward ship, the sources said, but Bohl never bothered to intervene.

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