Dating back to his days at Long Beach State, Jerry Tarkanian has been in the cross hairs of the NCAA for alleged violations. But it wasn’t until he arrived at UNLV where Tark really became the NCAA’s Most Wanted. Even in the glow of his first national championship, the NCAA sought to keep the Rebels from defending their title because of the violations dating back to 1977. In the summer of 1990, a deal was made to have the Rebels defend their title as they agreed to forgo the 1992 tournament. An attempt at sabotage by UNLV President Robert Maxson, put Tarkanian’s job and the basketball program that he took to mystical heights in dire straits.
With history at stake – neither Tarkanian or the Rebels could trust anyone outside of their own locker room.
The Home Stretch
The 1991 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels continued to tear through their regular season schedule and conference tournament. The debate had begun on what we were witnessing, as the season progressing the discussions had become more and more intense and now with the Rebels six wins away from history the tone had reached a deafening pitch. The tournament began as a sprint for UNLV as the beat Montana by 34 points to set up a second-round match up with Georgetown and their twin towers Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. If there was a threat to the champs repeating, this was it. The Hoyas had two of the nation’s best shot blockers and guards that could get up the floor with Anthony and Hunt. In the end of a physical test from the Hoyas, UNLV would move on ousting the John Thompson’s troops 62-54. Victories against Utah and Seton Hall would give the Rebels the West Region and a trip to their second consecutive Final Four. In the national semifinals the Rebels would face the Duke Blue Devils, their first meeting since the 1990 Championship Game.
These weren’t the same ‘ol Blue Devils.
In the days and hours leading up to the Duke game, there was an uneasiness that gripped Tarkanian. He was convinced that his team had become overconfident and looked at Duke as the same team that they had soundly defeated the previous year. According to Rebels broadcaster Ross Porter, Tarkanian stated to his team that “They were going to lose this game.” Because they were not “focused enough.” And while Duke was beatable, they had a freshman in Grant Hill that would be the x-factor.
From the outset, Duke looked more like a team that was going to go blow for blow with the Rebels rather than one that was looking to avoid being blown out. Bobby Hurley didn’t look like the timid freshman that he was in Denver and Christian Laettner had an outlet in Hill that could relieve some of the scoring and defensive burden.
The Rebels on the other hand looked surprised by the determination of Duke and was never really able to pull away from Coach K’s crew. Despite resistance from a game opponent the Rebels would go into the half up 43-41.
The second half saw the Duke chip away at the Rebels still narrow lead – with less than four minutes remaining and UNLV up five, it all changed for good. And none of it had to do with the ten players on the court.
When was the last time you saw a POINT GUARD foul out of a game?
Greg Anthony was called for his fifth foul on a very questionable call with three and some change remaining in regulation, Anthony scored on the basket but the official claimed that Thomas Davis had gained position before Anthony. With the game tied at 77 with 12.7 seconds remaining Christian Laettner was awarded two free throws on a loose ball foul against Vegas – again a questionable call. Laettner would go on to convert both free throws to give Duke a 79-77 lead.
UNLV called it’s final timeout.
In the huddle the play was supposed to be for Anderson Hunt to take the inbounds pass, get across half court and “improvise”. Instead Johnson would receive the inbounds pass go across half court to the right, he pump faked on a three-point shot, passed to Hunt who rushed a twenty two footer over Hurley that hit off the back of the rim into Hurley’s hands as time ran out.
And just like that it was over, the undefeated national championship season, their claim as the greatest championship team in NCAA history, Tark’s vindication all of it – gone.
The vultures begin to circle
Had UNLV beaten Duke the team had plan to unveil black uniforms in the National Championship game against Kansas – an act of defiance aimed at the NCAA, stating that win or loose Tarkanian and his team had done it their way. Like the black gloves worn by John Carlos and Tommie Smith those uniforms stood for unquestioned power and an unbreakable solidarity – they would all walk out of the Hoosier Dome with history and the bounty in tow. But instead the NCAA, along with Maxson along with Steve Wynn moved in to finish off Jerry Tarkanian.
In the May of 1991 a hot tube photo with Anderson Hunt, David Butler, Moses Scurry and known points shaver Richard Perry who was convicted in 1984 in the Boston College points shaving scandal. Despite statements from the players denying the obvious, it wasn’t a good look for a program about to have the boom lowered on them by the NCAA as well as coming off what many considered a questionable loss in the national semifinals. This was all the NCAA and Maxson, who failed to indict Tarkanian on premature practices needed to seal the program’s fate. Banned from the NCAA tournament in 1992 as well as television appearances
The Legacy of The Shark
Jerry Tarkanian would coach his final season at UNLV in 1991-92, but not before seeing three of his greatest players off into the NBA. Larry Johnson would go #1 overall to the Charlotte Hornets, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony would go #9 and #12 to the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks, making UNLV the first school to produce three lottery picks in the same draft. George Ackles would go #29 to the Miami Heat.
In 1998, the NCAA would settle a $2.5 million suit with Tarkanian. Who would coach again at Fresno State and for 20 games with the San Antonio Spurs.
On a personal note, this 1989-91 edition of the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels is one of the most dominant programs that we’ve seen in the post-Wooden era. They were guys that we all could relate to, kids from our ‘hoods with tremendous talent but either caught a bad break or didn’t have the grades to go to the next level. I appreciate coaches like Tark, John Chaney, Bob Huggins and of course John Thompson for their desire to look past what society my perceive as a problem and hope to be part of the solution. As for those teams they took me on a great ride. I don’t think we’ll see anything like them again.