Son: Former UNLV coach Tarkanian dies in Las Vegas

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Remembering Jerry Tarkanian, Dead at 84


LAS VEGAS (AP) -- He couldn't stop fighting the NCAA any more than he could give up chewing towels courtside. Jerry Tarkanian built a basketball dynasty in the desert, but it was his decades-long battle with the NCAA that defined him far more than the wins and losses.

The coach who won a national title at UNLV and made the school synonymous with basketball died Wednesday after several years of health issues. He was 84.

Son Danny Tarkanian said his father battled an infection since he was hospitalized Monday in Las Vegas with breathing difficulty.

"He fought and fought and fought," Danny Tarkanian told The Associated Press.


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Son: Former UNLV coach Tarkanian dies in Las Vegas
LAS VEGAS, NV - FEBRUARY 10: The scoreboard at the Thomas & Mack Center displays a message in support of former UNLV head basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian before a game between the Fresno State Bulldogs and the UNLV Rebels on February 10, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Tarkanian was hospitalized in Las Vegas on Monday. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - FEBRUARY 10: UNLV Rebels mascot Hey Reb poses with a sign in support of former UNLV head basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian before a game between the Fresno State Bulldogs and the UNLV Rebels at the Thomas & Mack Center on February 10, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Tarkanian was hospitalized in Las Vegas on Monday. UNLV won 73-61. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - FEBRUARY 10: (L-R) UNLV students Matthew Peskin, Kelsey Gunther and Zack Peters show support for former UNLV head basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian before a game between the Fresno State Bulldogs and the UNLV Rebels at the Thomas & Mack Center on February 10, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Tarkanian was hospitalized in Las Vegas on Monday. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 20: A statue of former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian outside the Thomas & Mack Center at UNLV before a basketball game between the Sacred Heart Pioneers and the UNLV Rebels on December 20, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 20: A statue of former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian outside the Thomas & Mack Center at UNLV before a basketball game between the Sacred Heart Pioneers and the UNLV Rebels on December 20, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
SPRINGFIELD, MA - SEPTEMBER 8: Inductee Jerry Tarkanian during the 2013 Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony on September 8, 2013 at the Mass Mutual Center in Springfield, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - FEBRUARY 10: UNLV student Matthew Peskin holds a sign in support of former UNLV head basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian before a game between the Fresno State Bulldogs and the UNLV Rebels at the Thomas & Mack Center on February 10, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Tarkanian was hospitalized in Las Vegas on Monday. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 28: Former UNLV head basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian attends a game between the UNLV Rebels and the California State Fullerton Titans at the Thomas & Mack Center on December 28, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. UNLV won 83-64. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
SPRINGFIELD, MA - SEPTEMBER 7: Inductee Jerry Tarkanian poses for a photo during the Class of 2013 Press Event as part of the 2013 Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony on September 7, 2013 at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 08: (L-R) Basketball Hall of Fame President & CEO John Doleva, Jerry Colangelo, Russ Granik, Richard Guerin, Jim Nantz (holding a Jersey representing Guy Lewis), Sylvia Hatchell, Dawn Staley, Bernard King, Gary Payton and Jerry Tarkanian stand on the court as the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame 2013 Class On Court Announcement is made during the 2013 NCAA Men's Final Four Championship between the Michigan Wolverines and the Louisville Cardinals at the Georgia Dome on April 8, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images for Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame)
ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 08: Class of 2013 Basketball Hall of Fame inductees (L-R) Gary Payton and Jerry Tarkanian stand on the court as the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame 2013 Class Announcement is made during the 2013 NCAA Men's Final Four Championship between the Michigan Wolverines and the Louisville Cardinals at the Georgia Dome on April 8, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame)
LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 26: Former UNLV Rebels head basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian attends the championship game of the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational between the North Carolina Tar Heels and the UNLV Rebels at the Orleans Arena November 26, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. UNLV won 90-80. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 06: Former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian attends a semifinal game of the Zappos.com West Coast Conference Basketball tournament between the Gonzaga Bulldogs and the San Francisco Dons at the Orleans Arena March 6, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Gonzaga won 71-67. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - FEBRUARY 18: (L-R) Former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, his wife, Las Vegas City Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian, and former UNLV basketball player Larry Anderson attend the world premiere screening of the HBO Sports documentary 'Runnin' Rebels of UNLV' at the Palms Casino Resort February 18, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/WireImage)
LAS VEGAS, NV - FEBRUARY 18: Former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian (C) poses with members of the UNLV dance team (L-R) Erin Bush, Ashley White, Lindsay Cotterman, Taylor Tomashowski, Dilyana Pamoukova and Maire Chew as he arrives at the world premiere screening of the HBO Sports documentary 'Runnin' Rebels of UNLV' at the Palms Casino Resort February 18, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/WireImage)
23 Nov 2001: Guard Travis DeManby #22 of the Fresno State Bulldogs talks with his Head Coach Jerry Tarkanian against the Michigan State Spartans during the NCAA game at Madison Square Garden in New York, New York. Fresno State defeated Michigan State 63-58.Mandatory Credit: Al Bello/Getty Images
Jerry and Lois Tarkanian during Lili Claire Annual Fundraiser Las Vegas 2006 at Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Denise Truscello/WireImage)
SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 9: Former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian (L) chats with Sacramento Kings assistant coach Pete Carril before the Kings take on the Houston Rockets on April 9, 2006 at ARCO Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2006 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS - FEBRUARY 06: Former UNLV head coach Jerry Tarkanian (L) and former NBA player Larry Johnson, one of Tarkanian's former Rebel players, appear before a game between the UNLV Rebels and the Brigham Young University Cougars at the Thomas & Mack Center February 6, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada. UNLV won 88-74. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
26 Nov 1998: Head coach Jerry Tarkanian of Fresno State Bulldogs looks on during the Carrs Great Alaska Shootout Game against Alaska Anchorage at the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage, Alaska. Mandatory Credit: Todd Warshaw /Allsport
LAS VEGAS - MARCH 13: Former UNLV Rebels head coach Jerry Tarkanian (R) and former NBA player Larry Johnson, one of Tarkanian's former Rebel players, appear during the championship game of the Conoco Mountain West Conference Basketball tournament between UNLV and the San Diego State Aztecs at the Thomas & Mack Center March 13, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada. San Diego State won 55-45. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
26 Nov 1996: Fresno State Bulldogs head coach Jerry Tarkanian takes a refreshing drink during a game against the Santa Clara Broncos at Selland Arena in Fresno, California. Fresno State won the game, 85-77. Mandatory Credit: Todd Warshaw /Allsport
6 Feb 1997: Freson State Bulldogs head coach Jerry Tarkanian confers with his players during a game against the San Jose State Spartans at the Event Center in San Jose, California. Fresno Staste won the game, 66-61. Mandatory Credit: Otto Greule /Allsp
26 Nov 1996: Fresno State Bulldogs head coach Jerry Tarkanian looks on during a game against the Santa Clara Broncos at Selland Arena in Fresno, California. Fresno State won the game, 85-77. Mandatory Credit: Todd Warshaw /Allsport
Coll. Basketball: UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian (R) w. UNLV Pres. Robert Maxson during press conf. (Photo by Greg Cava/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
8 Nov 1995: Fresno State Bulldogs head coach Jerry Tarkanian talks to his team during a game against Brewster at Selland Arena in Fresno, California. Fresno State won the game, 97-88.
Coll. Basketball: Closeup of UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian. (Photo by Greg Cava/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
Coll. Basketball: UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian (R) w. UNLV Pres. Dr. Maxson at press conf. (Photo by Greg Cava/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
1989: Jerry Tarkanian of the University of Nevada Las Vegas poses for a portrat during the 1989 season. (Photo by: Bernstein Associates/Getty Images)
Pres. Bush (C) & VP Dan Quayle (4L) flanked by invitees incl. Jerry Tarkantan (bald, 3L) during NAACP champs reception in WH Rose Garden. (Photo by Dirck Halstead/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
UNDATED: Jerry Tarkanian head coach of UNLV Rebels walks off the court after winning a game against Western Kentucky Hilltoppers during the 1980s. (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS- CIRCA 1973: Head coach Jerry Tarkanian of the of the UNLV Running Rebels talks to one of his players at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by UNLV/Collegiate Images)
MAR 16 1985, FEB 24 1990; SPECIAL FOR DENVER POST -- UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian during final moments of Saturday's NCAA West Regional game with Kentucky. Kentucky defeated UNLV 64-61. 1985; (Photo By Damian Strohmeyer/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS- CIRCA 1973-92: Jerry Tarkanian head coach of the of the UNLV Rebels in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by UNLV/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)
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Tarkanian put the run in the Runnin' Rebels, taking them to four Final Fours and winning a national championship in 1990 with one of the most dominant college teams ever. His teams were as flamboyant as the city, with light shows and fireworks for pregame introductions and celebrities jockeying for position on the so-called Gucci Row courtside.

He ended up beating the NCAA, too, collecting a $2.5 million settlement after suing the organization for trying to run him out of college basketball. But he was bitter to the end about the way the NCAA treated him while coaching, and carried the grudge the rest of his life.

`'They've been my tormentors my whole life," Tarkanian said at his retirement news conference in 2002. `'It will never stop."

The night before he died, fans attending UNLV's game against Fresno State draped towels over the statue of Tarkanian outside the campus arena. Tarkanian is depicted in the statue chewing on a towel while sitting in a courtside chair urging his team on.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a longtime family friend, said Tarkanian's legacy was far more widespread than just in Las Vegas, where he made UNLV a national power and was a bigger star than anyone playing on the Las Vegas Strip.

"Jerry's mark on American athletics is significant not only because of his coaching ability, but also his fearlessness in taking on the brutal NCAA," Reid said. "They controlled, bullied and tried to embarrass him, but he never stopped fighting until they cried uncle."

Tarkanian was an innovator who preached defense yet loved to watch his teams run. And run they did, beginning with his first Final Four team in 1976-77, which scored more than 100 points in 23 games in an era before both the shot clock and the 3-point shot.

He was a winner in a city built on losers, putting a small commuter school on the national sporting map and making UNLV sweatshirts a hot item around the country. His teams helped revolutionize the way the college game was played, with relentless defense forcing turnovers that were quickly converted into baskets at the other end.

He recruited players other coaches often wouldn't touch, building teams with junior college transfers and kids from checkered backgrounds. His teams at UNLV were national powerhouses almost every year, yet Tarkanian never seemed to get his due when the discussion turned to the all-time coaching greats.

That changed in 2013 when Tarkanian was elected to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, an honor his fellow coaches argued for years was long overdue. Though hospitalized in the summer for heart problems and weakened by a variety of ills, he went on stage with a walker at the induction ceremony.

"I knew right from day one I wanted to be a coach," Tarkanian said. "Coaching has been my entire life."

Tarkanian's career spanned 31 years with three Division I schools, beginning at Long Beach State and ending at Fresno State, where Tarkanian himself played in 1954 and 1955. Only twice did his teams fail to win at least 20 games in a season.

But it was at UNLV where his reputation was made, both as a coach of teams that often scored in the triple digits and as an outlaw not afraid to stand up to the powerful NCAA. He went 509-105 in 19 seasons with the Runnin' Rebels before finally being forced out by the university after a picture was published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal showing some of his players in a hot tub with a convicted game fixer.

UNLV was already on probation at the time, just two years after winning the national title and a year after the Runnin' Rebels went undefeated into the Final Four before being upset in the semifinals by the same Duke team they beat by 30 points for the championship the year before. Even after losing four of his starters off that team and being on probation, Tarkanian went 26-2 in his final year at UNLV.

Tarkanian's style evolved as he was able to recruit better players, and the Rebels were all about running and shooting. But the core of his high flying offenses was great defense, and Tarkanian drilled them constantly in practice to commit to nonstop pressure and create turnovers.

"Everything had to be full speed intense," he once said. "A lot of coaches want guys to be loose for games. I never wanted them to be loose. I wanted their hands sweating, their knees shaking, their eyes bulging. I wanted them to act like we were going to war."

That was also the way Tarkanian approached his dealings with the NCAA. His program at Long Beach State was put on probation after he left for UNLV and it wasn't long before UNLV was also on probation and the NCAA was demanding Tarkanian be suspended for two years. But he sued to overturn the penalty and remained as head coach, though NCAA investigators became a common sight in Las Vegas over the years.

Tarkanian liked to tell the story about the time one of his assistants saw an NCAA investigator renting a car at the airport and followed him to a local strip club. Tarkanian got some brochures for the club and mailed them to the investigator, telling him there was a special going on.

`'The one thing I've done is I've fought them the whole way, I've never backed down," he said. "And they never stopped."

The sad-eyed Tarkanian was born to Armenian immigrants Aug. 8, 1930, in Euclid, Ohio, and attended Pasadena City College before transferring to Fresno State, where he graduated in 1955. He coached high school basketball in Southern California before being hired at Riverside City College, where he spent five years before moving on to Pasadena City College.

He was hired at Long Beach State in 1968 and went 23-3 in his first year, then led the school to four straight NCAA tournament appearances, including the 1971 West Regional final, where Long Beach led UCLA by 12 points at halftime only to lose by two. While at Long Beach he got into his first dispute with the NCAA, writing a newspaper column that questioned why the organization investigated Western Kentucky and not a powerful university like Kentucky.

Never shy about challenging the NCAA, Tarkanian once famously said: "The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky, it's going to give Cleveland State two more years' probation."

By the time he moved to Las Vegas in 1973, Tarkanian was considered one of the rising coaching stars in the country. He quickly built a name for what was then a small school and by his fourth season at UNLV he had the Runnin' Rebels in the Final Four, where they lost 84-83 to North Carolina. It would be another decade before UNLV made the Final Four again, and the Runnin' Rebels were in three in five years, including the national championship season of 1990.

In the final that year, UNLV used its pressure defense to blow out Duke 103-73 in one of the most dominant performances in championship game history.

It all happened with Tarkanian on his chair courtside, chewing on a moist towel that was always left carefully folded underneath his seat. The towel chewing, Tarkanian would later say, was something he started doing during long practices when he could not stop to go to a drinking fountain.

After being forced out at UNLV, Tarkanian briefly coached in the NBA, going 9-11 with the San Antonio Spurs before being fired in a dispute with ownership. He would later return to Fresno State, where he had six straight 20-win seasons before finally retiring in 2002.

Tarkanian was a fixture at UNLV games in his later years, watching from a sideline seat next to the court that was named after him.

Tarkanian is survived by his wife, Lois, a Las Vegas city councilwoman, and four children, including Danny Tarkanian, who played point guard for his father for three years in the early 1980s.

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