Jerry Tarkanian, the towel-chomping college-basketball coach who made the University of Nevada-Las Vegas a juggernaut and the NCAA a courtroom foe, died on Wednesday. He was 84.
The school announced Tarkanian’s death Wednesday afternoon. The cause of death wasn’t announced.
Tarkanian last coached at his alma mater Fresno State, retiring in 2002, but he was most famous for his time at UNLV from 1973 to 1992. He led the Runnin’ Rebels to the Final Four four times, winning the championship in 1990 in a 30-point rout of Duke. The following season, Tarkanian’s Rebels went undefeated until an upset loss to Duke in the national semifinals—still the closest that a Division I men’s team has come to perfection since Indiana went all the way in 1976.
Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels teams embodied their nickname with their electric pace on offense. In 1977, UNLV set a Division I record with 12 consecutive games of at least 100 points after averaging 110.5 points a game the season before. His teams produced several stars, including Armon Gilliam and Larry Johnson. Tarkanian’s son, Danny, set records for the team in the 1980s.
UNLV’s streak of 10 seasons with at least 25 wins from 1983 to 1992 is matched only by UCLA, mostly under the tenure of legendary coach John Wooden. Tarkanian’s death comes shortly after that of contemporary Dean Smith, the former longtime North Carolina coach who died Saturday at age 83.
“Coach Tarkanian’s contribution to UNLV and Southern Nevada stretches far beyond the game of basketball,” UNLV president Len Jessup said in a statement. “Many in Southern Nevada and around the nation were introduced to UNLV through Coach Tarkanian and the Runnin’ Rebels. He made Runnin’ Rebel basketball a brand name during his 19 years on campus, inspiring our community and creating a legacy that endures to this day.”
Nicknamed “Tark the Shark” and often seen chewing a towel during games, Tarkanian also became known for his battles with the NCAA.
UNLV was banned from postseason play in 1992 in a settlement with the NCAA in a case that dated to 1977. The NCAA had demanded that UNLV suspend Tarkanian over a series of violations or potentially face additional punishment. He sued, arguing that his due-process rights had been violated. The case reached the Supreme Court, which in 1988 ruled 5-4 in favor of the NCAA. Tarkanian resigned from UNLV in 1992.
Tarkanian maintained that the NCAA unfairly and unevenly investigated its member institutions while “making billions off unpaid kids.”
“In major college basketball, nine out of 10 teams break the rules,” Tarkanian wrote in his 2005 autobiography. “The problem is, the NCAA determines what an ‘extra benefit’ really is, and it depends on how they view your school. At UCLA, you could probably buy a kid a car and it wouldn’t be considered an ‘extra benefit.’ At someplace else, you couldn’t buy a kid a gallon of gas.”
Tarkanian had a total of 55 wins vacated spanning six seasons as a collegiate coach, according to the NCAA record books, though none of those occurred at UNLV. He had six NCAA tournament wins vacated from his tenure at Long Beach State, where he coached before UNLV, and 49 more wins stripped from his tenure at Fresno State.
After leaving UNLV, Tarkanian briefly went to the NBA as coach of the San Antonio Spurs. He was fired after just 20 games, in which he went 9-11.
Tarkanian was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013. In a video shown at his 2013 induction, he said, “I have loved the game of basketball since my earliest memories.”