To sue or not to sue ….

Now that Rick Neuheisel's head has rolled at the hands of the University of Washington, will the Husky Coach take any legal action against the school or the NCAA once his termination is final? One thing is for certain, when you get a horde of lawyers involved, everything quickly becomes as clear as mud.

For those of you that have had a fleeting thought over the past week about Neuheisel taking on the NCAA and fighting their nebulous and archaic rules, for rhetorical purposes only, let's take a quick look at a head coach who decided to wage that battle.

Jerry "Tark the Shark" Tarkanian was the Head Coach for the UNLV Running Rebels Basketball program from 1973 to 1992, and built that team into a national powerhouse. He also became a tenured professor at the school in 1977. However, his entire career at UNLV was consumed with NCAA allegations, investigations, and seemingly never-ending lawsuits.

Many UNLV fans believe the NCAA was out to get Tarkanian from day one. The NCAA announced it would investigate UNLV's men's basketball program, a full four months before Tark became the head coach there in March of 1973.

An official letter of inquiry was submitted to UNLV, listing allegations of NCAA rules violations, in February of 1976. After the NCAA's investigation was completed, they found 38 violations, including 10 by Tarkanian.

In September 1977, UNLV informed Tarkanian that it was going to suspend him. His suspension was not motivated by any UNLV dissatisfaction with Tark, but rather a report by the NCAA detailing the rules violations by UNLV personnel.

The NCAA had placed the university's basketball team on probation for two years and ordered UNLV to "show cause" why the NCAA should not impose further penalties unless the school severed all ties between its athletic program and Tarkanian during the probation.

And that is where the power lies. The NCAA has the ability to impose additional penalties if, in their opinion, the school does not take appropriate disciplinary or corrective action against the person involved.

Promptly after receiving the NCAA report, the UNLV vice president had to determine whether the NCAA's recommended sanctions should be applied. Even though he doubted there was sufficient evidence to support the NCAA's findings (based on UNLV's own investigation of the events), the vice president advised the president that he had three options:

"1. Reject the sanction requiring us to disassociate Coach Tarkanian from the athletic program and take the risk of still heavier sanctions, e. g., possible extra years of probation.

2. Recognize the University's delegation to the NCAA of the power to act as ultimate arbiter of these matters, thus reassigning Mr. Tarkanian from his present position -- though tenured and without adequate notice -- even while believing that the NCAA was wrong.

3. Pull out of the NCAA completely on the grounds that you will not execute what you hold to be their unjust judgments."

Upon the vice president's recommendation, the president accepted the second option and notified Tarkanian that he was to "be completely severed of any and all relations, formal or informal, with the University's athletic program during the period of the University's NCAA probation."

The day before his suspension was to become effective, Tarkanian sued UNLV and later the NCAA, claiming he was facing a demotion and a drastic cut in pay without due process.

Without going into a lot of legalese, the Nevada courts found that Tarkanian had been deprived of both property and liberty protected by the Constitution, and that the NCAA's decision was arbitrary and capricious. The Courts also barred UNLV from disciplining Tarkanian, and the NCAA was ordered not to conduct any further proceedings against the University. Tarkanian was also awarded $196,000 in attorneys' fees, 90% of which was to be paid by the NCAA.

It seemed that Tarkanian couldn't lose, both on the hardwood and in the Nevada courts. But the NCAA appealed both of these decisions that were rendered against them. The legal wrangling would go on for years. Because of these lawsuits, which spanned over a decade and included a trip to the U.S. Supreme Court, penalties were not agreed to until August 1990 -- 13 years after the NCAA first attempted to impose them.

The men's basketball team was banned from television appearances and post-season play during the 1991-92 season, which allowed the Rebels the chance to defend their 1990 national championship in the 1991 post season.

But Coach Tarkanian was never suspended.

Under more intense heat from the NCAA, Tarkanian announced his resignation as coach at UNLV on June 7, 1991, effective at the end of the 1991-92 basketball season. He finished his stint as the Rebels Head Coach with a record of 509-105.

He coached his last game in the Thomas & Mack center on March 3, 1992. The fans showed up wearing black T-shirts with the word "TARK" written on the front. I'm sure it was a day filled with very mixed emotions for the Rebel faithful.

Eight months after his resignation, Tarkanian filed another lawsuit against the NCAA claiming multiple allegations, not the least of which included intentional infliction of emotional distress. This lawsuit also went to the U.S. Supreme Court (over the argument of whether the trial would be allowed to take place in Las Vegas), and the case was finally settled six years later. While admitting no liability, the NCAA paid Tarkanian $2.5 million.

If you are trying to draw comparisons to the Neuheisel situation, it is important to keep in mind that Jerry Tarkanian had the support of his University. UNLV conducted a thorough investigation of the charges and their response denied all of the allegations. The school specifically concluded that Tarkanian was completely innocent of any wrongdoing, although the NCAA believed Tarkanian got people to "change their story" and fabricated evidence.

The University of Washington has acted on their own regard in terminating Neuheisel's contract. When asked if they were influenced by the NCAA's potential penalties, Barbara Hedges adamantly replied, "Absolutely not."

In Tarkanian's case, he argued that, "the power of the NCAA is so great that UNLV had no practical alternative but to comply with the Association's demands."

In Neuheisel's case, since the NCAA has yet to rule on whether his gambling violated NCAA rules, we will never know what sort of tacit influence the NCAA may have had on Hedges' decision.

Tarkanian, after feeling like he had been beaten up by the NCAA for 25 years, said, "They can never, ever, make up for all the pain and agony they caused me." Tark probably took little solace in the fact that they could never wrestle that famous towel away from him.
Quotes taken from NCAA v. Tarkanian, 488 U.S. 179 (1988) Top Stories