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How The Media Gets The Tarkanian Story Wrong In Its NCAA-Vegas Coverage

Written By Steve Friess on March 28, 2023
Tarkanian NCAA-Vegas media coverage basketball

OK, OK, we get it. Times have changed, boy oh boy. The NCAA, which used to have a big problem with Las Vegas, is now embracing the destination in holding Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games. Holy wow. Ain’t that somethin’?

Over the past week, the Associated Press, The New York Times, and ESPN.com have all posted lengthy gee-whiz pieces about how wild it is that college basketball, once a sworn enemy of all things Nevada and sports betting, is now in on the racket. And, in the process of recounting the checkered history between the league and the gambling industry, each of those publications has decided to drone on with tales of the 1980s and 1990s battles with UNLV Head Coach Jerry Tarkanian.

But why? Even the NCAA would say its problems back in the day with Tarkanian were primarily about recruiting techniques and alleged rules violations. And Tarkanian, who died in 2015, would say they were about the NCAA picking on and probing smaller college programs while ignoring the same or worse alleged misdeeds at the big, perennially successful schools.

Read more from the State of Play column:

Tarkanian’s UNLV legacy

All of that could easily have taken place in another city and the NCAA still would have had the heebie jeebies about Vegas until very recently – just like the NBA and the NFL, among others. So why is Tarkanian being dragged again by the national media as if his antics and history were the big impediment here?

Tarkanian’s 88-year-old widow, Lois Tarkanian, has a theory. The media, she says, was always “on their side” – meaning the NCAA – and made her husband seem guilty of cheating and other vices because elite journalists held an inherent bigotry against Las Vegas itself. “There really wasn’t anything there,” she tells me. “When it all got down to it, there wasn’t anything. But, you know, they came after him hard.”

She’s on to something there. Tarkanian’s gritty coaching style and rough-around-the-edges personality only fed a confirmation bias among out-of-town reporters that the accusations about him were true because, well, isn’t Vegas a place where those sleazy things happen? This was the 1980s, when the city was still seen as low-class and run by the mob, so when Tarkanian turned UNLV into a powerhouse basketball squad that would win the 1990 championship and appear in several Final Fours, it made perfect sense that something untoward must have been happening.

“It was the image of Vegas and connecting it with Jerry,” she says. “Let’s face it, Jerry didn’t look like a clean-cut businessman. He looked more like a ruffian. And we were from the school in the gambling capital of America. You put it all together, and it made it worse on Jerry.”

Lois, no ordinary coach’s wife, sounds off

If it weren’t for Lois, it’s entirely possible the family might have moved on from Vegas long ago. In 1988, she was elected to the Clark County School Board. Thus, in 1992 when her husband was looking for other work after being drummed out of town by UNLV’s brass, she was winning her first re-election. A pioneering advocate for services for students with special needs who has a doctorate in human behavior, she did three terms there, then 14 years on the Las Vegas City Council and, in 2020 at age 86, won a term on the state Board of Regents.

Her impressive political career kept her family tightly tethered to Nevada even as Jerry Tarkanian took coaching jobs in San Antonio and then Fresno. Her son, Danny, followed her into politics by running unsuccessfully several times for Senate and the U.S. House before winning a county commission seat in tiny Douglas County some 400 miles north of Vegas.

She may be the one reason why the Tarkanian name wasn’t permanently tarnished in Vegas before it could be rehabilitated. (In a sweet coda to his controversial career, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013, the same year a 2,000-pound bronze statue was placed outside UNLV’s Thomas & Mack arena.)

Even after Jerry Tarkanian departed the city, Lois remained to fight important battles that improved the local education system by getting the school district to provide better for students of all abilities and pushing Las Vegas to build a medical school.

Still, she seethes when she talks about the NCAA and what “they” did to her family. The repeated investigations, the accusations, the anti-Armenian racism, it’s all still quite painful. In 1998, the NCAA paid $2.5 million to Tarkanian to settle a lawsuit in which the coach alleged the league was trying to prevent him from getting future coaching jobs. The settlement allowed the NCAA not to accept any responsibility or guilt, but that’s a lot of money to fork out.

Now the NCAA is just fine with all things Vegas. The Final Four comes in 2028. Lois Tarkanian marvels:

“It’s really money. It’s money for the city and money for the NCAA. You watch the relationship change, and change came really fast. They just think about money. It’s money. It’s money. Money’s what it is.”

The NCAA’s big NIL changes as vindication

In 1990, when the Runnin’ Rebels won the NCAA Tournament in Denver, family of just one of the student-athletes was there. The rest couldn’t afford it, and the NCAA wouldn’t allow anyone else to pay for their travel. A Fortune 500 company offered to pay the expenses through a fund managed by the school rather than giving it directly to the students’ families, but that was nixed, too. Lois recalls:

“That means we only had one dad who drove, I believe, from California to Denver, but nobody else was there to see the kids. [UNLV star] Larry Johnson’s mother never got to see it. It was totally ridiculous when the NCAA was making millions and millions of dollars off of these kids.”

Today, of course, that wouldn’t happen. The federal courts forced the NCAA to allow student-athletes to be able to profit off their name, image and likeness, or NIL, and suddenly the kids are awash in money. That change and the NCAA decision to stop singling out Vegas in its anti-gambling zeal when legal sports betting is everywhere has transformed Jerry Tarkanian’s alleged sins, whatever they may have been, into modern virtues.

“It’s so strange, because while Jerry was coaching, they reduced the money that you got for being able to wash your uniform. They gave a stipend every month, something like $25 and it was reduced to $15. Isn’t that stupid, that they would do that to these kids who can’t work? They were setting up a bad situation.”

Indeed, rather than remind everyone of the alleged misdeeds of her husband, Tarkanian wishes the media would focus more on the unfair and difficult conditions perpetuated by the NCAA that drove some student-athletes to skirt rules. And, also, the fact that the NCAA typically turned a blind eye to the big legacy programs when they broke the same rules.

“I don’t do much with basketball or with the NCAA anymore, but the pain, the pain we went through, no one could imagine a pain,” she says. “Every holiday, we’d get some word that they were after us or somebody would call and say they were pressuring a kid to say something against Jerry. It was horrendous. It’s hard to understand that but Jerry never really got to feel the full gratification of winning or how good a coach he was because that was always haunting him.”

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

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