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.
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.
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 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