Talk about 'Fighting On'

Jerry Tarkanian's death this week reminds us what it means to fight an NCAA out to do harm because they've singled someone out as an "outsider." USC could learn a lesson here.

Gosh, the guy could coach basketball.

And are we ever going to miss him. But not just as someone covering college sports who got to meet Jerry Tarkanian while reporting on Kentucky and Louisville basketball in nymerous NCAA tournament travels and getting to know Tark a little bit that way.

But it's in the years since then, the years that saw Jerry move out of college basketball into retirement that we think of him and that full day we got to spend with him in Salt Lake City before a UK-UNLV NCAA Tournament game.

We can never remember a big-time college basketball coach doing that. Jim Valvano came closest. Tark was just one of the guys. He'd give you his cellphone number before you asked him for it. "Call me here," he'd say with a big smile.

We just wish Jerry's health had held up enough in recent years to talk to him about the USC case. No one knew, and stood up to, the NCAA better than Tark did. Not sure we realized what a path he'd set that we all should have taken when the NCAA comes a-calling with a hit man.

But first, the basketball legacy. Only twice in 31 years at three different Division I programs did Tark's teams win fewer than 20 games.

We could not agree more with Bill Walton's Wednesday evening ESPN analysis from the USC game about how great a coach Tark was. How, in Walton's words, "in his career at Riverside and Pasadena and Long Beach and UNLV and Fresno State, those programs had never been any good before Jerry got there and weren't after he left but when he was there, they were pretty much unbeatable . . . that's how you measure a great coach."

But our measure would be simply this: watching his teams play. They played basketball the way it should be played -- all out on offense and defense, with great athleticism, hustling, going as hard on defense as offense, challenging every pass and shot and unafraid to put the ball in play. It's a game. You play it. His kids always did.

I still remember being there in Atlanta for Tark's first Final Four team that defended and ran like their "Runnin' Rebels" nickname, scoring more than 100 points 23 times that year in a time before both the shot clock and the three-point shot.

And sure, some of his kids should not have been in college or teammates to his other kids. Was that a blind spot for Tark? Yep, he should have kept them out of hot tubs and off The Strip. But if your school is UNLV, how exactly do you do that?

Tark, born in 1930 just outside Cleveland in Euclid, Ohio, of Armenian immigrants, attended Pasadena City College and graduated from Fresno State before starting as a high school coach here in Southern California.

But here's what the USC community should take from Tark's life: "He fought and fought and fought," his son Danny Tarkanian told The Associated Press on his death.

Tark did more than fight "them," as he called the NCAA, Tark beat "them," winning $2.5 million in a lawsuit after the NCAA tried to run him out of college basketball. And he never forgot. "They've been my tormentors my whole life . . . It will never stop," he said on retiring in 2002.

Now USC has joined the NCAA's club . . . USC where the "Fight On" fight song always seemed to carry the day until the NCAA came along and treated USC like it did Tark.

This is not the way anyone has talked about the other great college basketball coach who died in the last week.

That would be Dean Smith, a man who accomplished so much in his long career at North Carolina. We were there that NCAA tournament day when Dean passed Kentucky's Adolph Rupp for the title of winningest college basketball coach.

And we lauded Dean then because, unlike Rupp, his program had a place for black basketball players in those turbulent '60s in the South when Rupp's Kentucky program did not. And he did much more than that for his players in Chapel Hill. And we can't say enough about all of that.


But also now we know that the 18 years of fake courses that benefited thousands of Tar Heel athletes and have been the subject of multiple legal and state investigations began when Smith was still finishing up his UNC run. And while no UNC coach has ever been connected to the fake courses, and UNC inexplicably has yet to be held to account for the massive scheme striking at the heart of the NCAA's academic integrity mission, imagine how this would have been treated by the NCAA had it happened at Tark's UNLV.

But it didn't. It happened at one of the NCAA's favorite programs. You know, like Penn State was before they found out about Jerry Sandusky.

While at Long Beach State, Tark wrote a column for the Long Beach Press-Telegram questioning why the NCAA was going after Western Kentucky: “The University of Kentucky basketball program breaks more rules in a day than Western Kentucky does in a year,” Tark wrote. “The NCAA just doesn’t want to take on the big boys . . . The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky, it's going to give Cleveland State two more years' probation."

But in the end, Tark had the last word and not just in winning that $2.5 million settlement. Here's what NCAA executive director Cedric Dempsey said then: “The NCAA regrets the 26-year ongoing dispute with Jerry Tarkanian and looks forward to putting this matter to rest.”

Tark earned that admission by the NCAA because he never stopped fighting them. "The one thing I've done is I've fought them the whole way, I've never backed down," Tark said, "and they never stopped."

Only they did . . . finally. Tark, on his way to a belated 2013 Hall of Fame induction and recognition as one of America's greatest college basketball coaches, stopped them.

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

Maybe some day, this man who started his career in Southern California will, by his example, coach up the folks at the University of Southern California who still have some decisions to make about fighting an unwarranted NCAA campaign against their institution, its history, its coaches, its accomplishments and its reputation.

When "Fight On" is your mantra, it's hard to do better than have Jerry Tarkanian as your man.

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