Jerry Tarkanian, a Hall of Fame college basketball coach who won a national championship and shaped one of the country’s most successful teams at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, but who was trailed by scandal and legal wrangles with the NCAA throughout his career, died Feb. 11 at a hospital in Las Vegas. He was 84.
His son, Danny Tarkanian, a former point guard for his father’s UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, confirmed the death to the Associated Press. Mr. Tarkanian had heart ailments and other health problems in recent years and was hospitalized with an infection.
One of the most colorful and outspoken coaches in the college ranks, Mr. Tarkanian cultivated an image as a blue-collar outlaw, and his teams often reflected his scrappy, renegade personality.
With dark circles under his eyes, “Tark the Shark” had a hangdog appearance, and he often chewed on a water-soaked towel while guiding his players from the bench.
He arrived at UNLV in 1973, when the university was only 16 years old and built his team into a national force in men’s basketball. The school’s nickname of Rebels was even changed by a publicist to “Runnin’ Rebels,” to reflect the uptempo, high-scoring style of play that Mr. Tarkanian taught.
During his 19 years at UNLV, Mr. Tarkanian compiled a record of 509-105 and was named national coach of the year four times. His teams made four appearances in the NCAA’s Final Four, and in 1990 the Runnin’ Rebels won the national title, defeating Duke, 103-73, in the most lopsided championship game in history. UNLV is the only team to score more than 100 points in a title game.
Heavily favored to win the title again in 1991, the Runnin’ Rebels had a perfect 34-0 when they lost, 79-77, to eventual champion Duke in the Final Four.
But for more than 30 years, Mr. Tarkanian fell under the constant scrutiny of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body of college sports.
It began in 1972, when Mr. Tarkanian — then the head coach at Long Beach State in California — wrote a newspaper column in which he suggested that some well-known schools broke the NCAA’s rules without suffering any consequences.
The NCAA soon charged Long Beach State with a variety of rules violations and put the school on probation for three years.
By then, Mr. Tarkanian had moved on to UNLV, where he was later accused by the NCAA of irregularities in recruiting and academic standards. The NCAA recommended that he be suspended from coaching for two years.
Mr. Tarkanian responded by filing suit against the NCAA — not for the last time — and was able to retain his job when the Nevada Supreme Court ruled in his favor.
Meanwhile, the Runnin’ Rebels kept on winning and became one of the prime attractions in Las Vegas. Celebrities sat in front-row seats dubbed Gucci Row.
“UNLV was Outlaw U.,” Washington Post sportswriter John Feinstein wrote in 1987. “The Runnin’ Rebels won lots of games, graduated almost nobody and had cheerleaders who looked and dressed as if they had just stepped off the stage of a Las Vegas show. Often, they had.”
Mr. Tarkanian’s late-1970s lawsuit against the NCAA, charging that he had been denied due process, ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988. The court ruled against him, 5-to-4.
Not long after UNLV’s 1990 national championship, new allegations against Mr. Tarkanian’s basketball program surfaced, including charges of academic fraud and illegal payments from boosters. Some of his players were photographed in a hot tub with a gambler who had been convicted of fixing games.
Even after an NCAA investigator was quoted in court documents calling Mr. Tarkanian “rug merchant,” in a derogatory reference to his Armenian heritage, the NCAA maintained that the idea of a vendetta against the coach was “an absolute myth.”
As part of an agreement with the NCAA, Mr. Tarkanian left UNLV in 1992. He briefly coached the San Antonio Spurs in the National Basketball Association but was fired after 20 games.
In 1995, he returned to college coaching at his alma mater of Fresno State University in California, but his battles with the NCAA continued, and he filed suit for continued harassment.
The lawsuit was settled in 1998, when the NCAA agreed to pay Mr. Tarkanian $2.5 million, but it did not admit any liability.
“They can never, ever, make up for all the pain and agony they caused me,” Mr. Tarkanian said at the time.
Jerry Tarkanian was born Aug. 8, 1930, in Euclid, Ohio. Both of his parents were Armenian natives who had fled persecution in Turkey.
His father, a store owner, died when Mr. Tarkanian was 11. The family then moved to Pasadena, Calif., and lived in poverty.
After attending junior college, Mr. Tarkanian went to Fresno State, where he played football and basketball before graduating in 1955. He received a master’s degree in educational administration in 1956 from the University of Redlands in California.
Mr. Tarkanian coached at three high schools before beginning his college coaching career in 1961 at Riverside Junior College in California. He turned a losing team into a champion in one year, then did the same at Pasadena City College, beginning in 1966. He moved on to Long Beach State in 1968.
Throughout his career, Mr. Tarkanian’s teams were high-scoring, but opposing coaches agreed that the secret to his success was his emphasis on outstanding defensive play. He often recruited players from junior colleges, from tough backgrounds and often with questionable academic qualifications.
He developed close bonds with his players, and many said they thought of Mr. Tarkanian as a father figure. More than 40 of his players went on to the National Basketball Association, including Reggie Theus, Armon Gilliam, Greg Anthony and Larry Johnson.
During Mr. Tarkanian’s final coaching stop at Fresno State, he turned the team into a winner, but he was dogged by a familiar pattern of problems. He retired for good in 2002.
“Fresno State’s record under Tarkanian resembled a police blotter,” a 2003 Washington Post story noted, with several players arrested for grand theft, sexual assault and assault with a deadly weapon, among other crimes.
When a Post reporter asked Mr. Tarkanian about accusations that players weren’t writing papers for class, he exploded: “What a stupid . . . question that is. How would I know if some idiot that we don’t even know writes a paper for some guy. We’re supposed to know all about that?”
Mr. Tarkanian’s official coaching record was 729-201, but more than 50 wins were wiped out as punishment by the NCAA. Counting his earlier career as a junior college coach, he had as many as 988 victories and one of the highest winning percentages in history.
He was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.
Survivors include his wife of 59 years, Lois Huter Tarkanian, a Las Vegas councilwoman; four children; a sister; a brother; and 11 grandchildren.
For all his troubles with the NCAA and all the controversy he stirred with his provocative style, one thing about Mr. Tarkanian that no one questioned was his ability to inspire and lead a basketball team.
“If I didn’t coach basketball, I don’t know what I would do,” he told The Post in 1987. “I live for the game, and these kids are what I put my heart and soul into. Ask them.”