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He's investigated Tark's picks, and there's just no fixing them

March 17, 2009|T.J. SIMERS

The NCAA tournament basketball brackets are out, so I wanted some help before going to Las Vegas.

I called Jerry Tarkanian, living and retired in Vegas, to see if he knew how I could get in contact with Richie the Fixer.

Tark laughed, and again when I mentioned the words "hot tub," although I wouldn't be surprised to learn later he was chewing on the phone as we spoke.

I just love Tark, both the rebel and the NCAA punching bag for so many years who still had the spunk to win 78% of his games at Long Beach State, UNLV and Fresno State, sue the NCAA for harassment and settle for $2.5 million.

The guy's a character, a survivor under oppressive circumstances and, despite every roadblock, a huge success.

Of the top 30 all-time winningest Division I basketball coaches, only three have a better winning percentage, and yet Tark has never gained entrance to the Hall of Fame. If the NCAA wants to talk about crimes, it needn't go any further.

The NCAA, the monster that it was during those times, never did uncover any major rules violations while Tark was at UNLV, although a lasting memory for some is a photo of three players sitting in a hot tub with a bookie convicted in a Boston College point-shaving scandal.

I'd just like to know what kind of coach recruits players who would rather be sitting in a hot tub with a reputed Mafia figure than with Las Vegas showgirls?

When it comes to picking 'em, one has to wonder about Tark, who is choosing Boston College over USC. I'd expect that from Richie.

"Toughest decision I ever made was turning down the Lakers job," Tark says as we move on, although he stewed over the UCLA-VCU matchup as if it were Magic taking on Bird. He took UCLA but says his friends like VCU.

And no, the Fixer is not one of his friends, and never has been. In fact, he says, he knew him as Sam, working in commodities -- Sam never mentioning his name was Richie and he was connected to the Mafia. For all I know maybe Dwyre isn't his real name.

Hard to believe now, but with the NCAA hanging over Tark's shoulder, he still had UNLV beating Duke by 30 to win the national title and going 34-0 the next season before losing the championship game.

He knows how to win games, all right, but he's no Rick Neuheisel when it comes to nailing the office pool.

We disagree on the outcomes of 16 games -- nine in the first round, and who do you think knows more about these things?

In the East, Tark goes with Pitt, Tennessee, Florida State, Xavier, UCLA, Villanova, Texas and Duke, while Page 2 disagrees and likes Oklahoma State, Portland State and Minnesota.

He has Pitt, FSU, Villanova and Duke advancing, Pitt and Duke moving on and Pitt sliding into the Final Four. It's as if he's copying Page 2's bracket.

In the South, we agree North Carolina, LSU, Gonzaga, Arizona State, Syracuse and Oklahoma will win in the first round. He has Illinois beating Western Kentucky, a mistake as Page 2 sees it, and Clemson besting Michigan, another Tark miscue.

"I told all my friends Arizona State would beat USC in the Pac-10 tourney," Tark says, and if he really did as many things wrong as the NCAA claims, does this sound like a guy who wouldn't just blurt it out?

There's agreement on Carolina, Gonzaga, Syracuse and Oklahoma, and Syracuse and Carolina advancing with Carolina becoming the South's Final Four entrant.

It's unanimous in the Midwest, Louisville, Siena (a shocker), Wake Forest, West Virginia, Kansas and Michigan State opening with wins. He says Arizona has no business being in the tourney but picks Arizona to beat Utah. I believe that's an NCAA infraction.

"I just love Long Beach State," Tark says, and I wasn't sure if I should tell him the 49ers aren't in the tournament. "We had no money back then -- $5.20 a day for three meals. We led the nation in Kentucky Fried Chicken pregame meals.

"We were the poorest school in the history of the NCAA to get to the regional finals four years in a row."

This was the problem I had when John Wooden filled out a bracket a few years back, his attention wandering and talking about the two babies he carried in his arms who grew up to be famous: Coach Mike Montgomery and Sally Rand.

Wooden meant to say astronaut Sally Ride, but instead used the name of the old stripper. It wasn't the only mistake he made in filling out his bracket.

Moving on, there's complete agreement on Louisville, Wake Forest and Michigan State advancing, but Tark has Kansas beating West Virginia. He also thought Long Beach was going to beat UCLA in the '71 regional final. He was only two points off.

Page 2 likes Tark's choice of Louisville moving on, but sticks with West Virginia, while Tark hangs tight with Michigan State. He even puts Michigan State in the Final Four, while Page 2 sticks with Louisville. I've got some people in Boston wondering why I'm not picking Manny.

"I was making $13,200 when I went to Long Beach," Tark says, and I don't remember asking what he was making.

Good thing, though, he didn't have the money to wager on the NCAA tournament -- if these picks are any indication.

In the West there's agreement on Connecticut, Texas A&M, Purdue, Missouri, Cal and Memphis, but Tark goes with Mississippi State over Washington, and Marquette over Utah State. I wonder if Wooden is working as his bracket advisor.

There's agreement on Connecticut, Purdue, Missouri and Memphis advancing, and Purdue and Memphis going a step further. Notice the love affair with Purdue.

Page 2 has Purdue advancing to the Final Four; Tark likes Memphis. He has Memphis and North Carolina playing for the title, and North Carolina with an injured guard winning it all.

Page 2 likes North Carolina playing Pitt for the title, and the guy who replaced Ben Howland winning it all.

Obviously if either party is right on the money, there will be an investigation.

--

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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