1991 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels – The NCAA’s Unwanted Champions Part I

The “Establishment” has a way of dealing with those that go out of their way to “Buck the system”. It countered the braggadoccio of heavyweight Jack Johnson with police harassment and Jim Crow Law that was at the root of his untimely death. It attempted to douse the spirit that burned in the souls of John Carlos and Tommie Smith with corporate racism, and closed opportunities that would’ve been afforded to other Olympic champions.

Jerry Tarkanian’s two decade battle with the NCAA came to a crescendo when his UNLV Runnin’ Rebels won the 1990 National Championship over a Duke Blue Devil program whose logo is one of the several coats of arms for “The Establishment”.  The Duke program emulated “everything that is right” about America while programs like UNLV were proof of the decadence of our society. It was the classic “Good vs. Evil” match up – in the end the only question that lingered was when were the bad guys gonna play ball?  UNLV trounced Duke 103-73 for the most lopsided victory in NCAA Basketball Championship history.

Chasing History

UNLV would return four of their five starters (Greg Anthony, Anderson Hunt, Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson) only center David Butler would move on. Enter George Ackles, a former soccer goalie turned flyswatter would be at the epicenter of the Rebels “amoeba” defense.  Ackles missed the championship season with a broken wrist but along with JUCO transfer Elmore Spencer was ready to go.  The Rebels were not satisfied with just looking to repeat as national champions – they were looking to be mentioned with some of the greatest basketball champions in collegiate athletics. From that, the Rebels needed to complete one major feat along the way.

Go undefeated.

Of the seven teams that have run the NCAA Men’s Basketball gauntlet only Frank McGuire’s UNC Tarheels (1957), John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins (1964, 1967,1972 & 1973), Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers (1976) are among those mentioned at length. Rarely mentioned are the San Francisco Dons who led by Bill Russel and KC Jones went 57-1 in 1955 and 1956 including the first wire to wire undefeated season in 1956 that was the second of consecutive National Championships for the Dons.

If Jerry Tarkanian didn’t belong in that grouping of coaches that was fine, but don’t try to sell the idea that this group of young men some of whom were JUCO transfers with questionable SAT scores from less than desirable backgrounds didn’t deserve to have their names mentioned with these immortals, for all Tark knew in some cases his team may have even been better.


One advantage that UNLV held was that they were playing in the ESPN age. Right up the alley for the team that was full of in-your-face highlights. They were the biggest show on the Vegas Strip. For all of the  brashness that oozed from their pores, the Rebels style of play was good, clean entertaining basketball. The potential for plastic surgery only came  for those who mistook Larry Johnson’s gold-toothed grin as a weakness (ask Todd Day).

The Sprint

The Rebels always played one of the tougher out of conference schedules – but didn’t win many points for their annual stroll through the Big West Conference, sure the  Rebels would slip up against New Mexico State or UC Santa Barbara during the season, but come Conference Tourney time those teams knew they were getting their lunches taken and eaten right in front of them.

Everyone – like Tark and the Rebels not only expected to win every game they expected to do so in spectacular fashion. The Rebels first 19 victories were by at least 12 points, including a 20-point victory over a ranked Michigan State team led by All American Steve Smith in Auburn Hills, MI.

One threat to UNLV’s perfect regular season remained.

The Arkansas Razorbacks were coached by Nolan Richardson, known for his “40 minutes of hell” defense and occasional pink attire. They’re was nothing sweet about the Razorbacks this season –  the back court of Lee Mayberry and Todd Day spelled “MayDay” for those that took the ‘Backs lightly.  The Rebels were on a 31-game winning streak dating back to the previous season. But the Razorbacks didn’t care about any of that. A young (and only 288 lbs.) Oliver Miller was a force in the paint at both ends picked his squad to win by “at least 10 points.”  Todd Day would add, “We got ’em in our house. It’s time for them to go down.”

The game was played at high noon (EST) in Fayetteville, and the crowd was ready – perfect day for a  #1 vs. #2 shootout.

Vegas would open their scoring with two dunks by Stacey Augmon (31 points) and the lead would see-saw back and forth until late in the first half when the MayDay combo along with Miller (22/14/6 blocks) was able to get on a roll and lead  the Razorbacks to 50-46 halftime lead.

The Rebels scored the first 10 points of the second half and never looked back. A flurry of breakout dunks three pointers and lock down defense now had the champions yapping and making the #2 team in the country look like a late night match up with Utah State. Stacey Augmon held Todd Day to one basket in the first 11 minutes of the half and threw in a double forearm to the throat to keep it interesting. The day before, Day stated that, “We not scared of them like everyone else.” I don’t know if he meant in terms of basketball or physicality, but for whatever reason he decided to test both.

Johnson and Day became entangled going after a rebound with about 2:30 remaining in the game, Day took an exception to Johnson snatching the ball away, at that point Day threw a punch that would make Richard Simmons blush. Johnson flinched back seemed to mouth out, “Boy, I’ll beat yo ass!” For some reason as I’m typing this I can hear my father’s voice in those words.

The Rebels would go on to finish off Arkansas 112-105, Tark & Co. left Fayetteville undefeated and Todd Day left with all off his facial features still intact.

Now it was time to close the deal.

Part II, this weekend

20 Responses to “1991 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels – The NCAA’s Unwanted Champions Part I”

  1. RBD says:

    After that Arkansas game, The National Sports Daily, for its brief time the best publication in the country, proclaimed, “Call off the NCAA Tournament; Vegas Can’t Be Beat.”

  2. Ron Glover says:

    I remember that. The National was the truth. I still have that copy. It was worth 75 cents.

  3. Mizzo says:

    Ron I shot you a text.

  4. TheLastPoet says:

    Nothing much to say besides 1. very well done. 2. bringing back memories, and 3. can’t wait for part 2.

    Only problem is, yall bruhs been promising “part 2’s” of lots of things latey, and we’re still waiting… (ahem, Mike T…)


  5. Mizzo says:

    I gotchu poet. I was waiting for the storm to calm so we really could have a decent conversation of it all…

  6. CAvard says:

    *** at that point Day threw a punch that would make Richard Simmons blush ***


    Great job.

  7. Temple3 says:

    Ditto on what LP said.

    BTW — I know this is from 1990, but the Wikipedia entry sums up some of my strongest memories of that era:

    “This tournament is also remembered for an emotional run by Loyola Marymount in the West Regional. In the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tournament, Lions star forward Hank Gathers collapsed and died due to a heart condition. The WCC tournament was immediately suspended, with the regular-season champion Lions given the conference’s automatic bid. The team defeated New Mexico State, then laid a 34-point thrashing on defending national champion Michigan, and defeated Alabama in the Sweet Sixteen (the only game in which Loyola Marymount did not score 100 or more points in the tournament) before running into eventual champion UNLV in the regional final. Gathers’ childhood friend Bo Kimble, the team’s undisputed floor leader in the wake of the tragedy, paid tribute to his friend by attempting his first free throw in each game left-handed despite being right-handed. (Gathers was right-handed, but struggled so much with free throws that he tried shooting them left-handed for a time.) Kimble made all of his left-handed attempts in the tournament.”

    UNLV had the best team in 1990 and 1991. Definitely one for the ages. I’m looking forward to Part II. Thank you.

  8. Ron Glover says:

    Thanks fellas, workin on Part II now.

  9. GrandNubian says:

    I echo the sentiments of LP & T3.

    All I can add is ‘Hurry up with part 2!’. (That goes for you, too mizz 🙂 )

  10. eric daniels says:

    I loved the UNLV teams of the late 80’s early 90’s and usually called them ‘Georgetown West’ because of the way they played basketball. UNLV was usually more explosive on the offensive end while Georgetown because of Mutumbo and Mourning played great defense but didn’t have the scorers to match up against the Dukes when it came time for NCAA play. If Georgetown had a scorer the likes of Todd Day,Bo Kimble or Mitch Richmond I would have loved to have seen an 1990 NCAA final with Georgetown v. UNLV that would have a stark contrast and a closer game then them blowing Duke’s doors off.

    1. UNLV ‘s starting five vs. Georgetown’s defensive prowess

  11. Temple3 says:

    Mr. Georgetown West:

    Anthony Jones (AJ)…G’town’s first transfer to UNLV…rode the pine behind Bill Martin and David Wingate. When Reggie Williams rocked Dunbar back in the day, the writing was on the wall. AJ bounced to Vegas.


  12. TC says:

    Really enjoyed this piece….was in Ireland at this time but I always loved Tark and the fact that he seemed to relish his rebellious image. Seemed like a good hearted guy. Only through the ESPN special recently and Wikipedia that I learned about the extent of his conflict with the NCAA.

  13. Prince says:

    I love the articles I find here and would love to contribute.

  14. Lucky Dub says:

    No need for part II. We all know what happens. If there’s one thing I wish I could change in my life…it would be for the Rebels to have “run the table” throttled Duke (again) and went on to win back-to-back titles. I was a senior in HS when this all went down. I’m still pissed to this day. To the haters, “you will never understand.” To the true believers, “It was and always will be, REAL!” 1991 Rebels. True to tha game.

  15. kevin reed says:

    awesome article dude! brings back fond memories of the best team and the best coach of all time. thanks a million!

  16. ch555x says:

    Runnin’ Rebels!

  17. dale peterson says:

    I was at the 91 unlv duke game and it was one of the worst officiated games in sports history…1st off there was no way they were going to let unlv go undefeated and beat duke(a bobby knight understudy) in indiana(home of the last undefeated team)…unless they blew duke out like the year before..hurley tackled hunt a break away yet there was no intentional foul called but when augmon just fought thru a pick it was an intentional foul? that turned the whole game around…the ncaa is one of the most crooked organizations in the country..they drove tark out of unlv for taking kids to dinner,yet at ucla they were driving around in benzs….im glad unlv’s program vanished from an elite team after what they did to tark…unlv should have been undefeated and back to back champions…i hate duke and coach k crybaby!

  18. Jerry says:

    Your Rebels met an iconic Duke team who did go on to win back to back championships!
    Remember the trouncing Duke received in the title game the year before? Which made the Duke rematch victory even more improbable and impressive. Duke best your Rebels fair and square at their own game, period! Duke was tougher mentally and physically that night so give them the credit they deserve!
    You whine worse than Bobby Hurley who was in fact part of one of the best and most iconic teams in college basketball history!
    Yeah that’s correct, remember Kentucky the following year? Blue Devils earned and deserved both those championships, your Rebels fracked. Deal with it!

  19. Jerry says:

    Now I cracked! Comment should have read “your Rebels got fracked!”
    That Duke team thrived in pressure environments, they applied it to UNLV and they cracked. As did Kentucky and the Fab Five the following tournament.
    91-92 Duke was truly an iconic team, one of the best we’ve ever seen! A group I’ll readily admit your Rebels belong in as well!

  20. Ron Glover says:

    The 1990 UNLV championship team will be remembered longer than ANY Duke championship team. Won opening game of the tournament, Regional Final and National Championship all by 30 points.