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Sunday, March 22, 2020

"Rebel With a Cause": Danny Tarkanian Tells the Story of His Famous Father

In Rebel With a Cause: The True Story of Jerry Tarkanian, Danny Tarkanian writes with great passion and detail about his famous father. Jerry Tarkanian led UNLV to the 1990 NCAA Championship, and he owns one of the best winning percentages in Division I history. Jerry Tarkanian also dueled with the NCAA leadership for decades, and his son--who is an attorney who represented him in some of those proceedings--is uniquely equipped to describe those legal battles.

In the popular imagination, Coach Tarkanian and Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski might be considered opposites, but Coach Krzyzewski has great respect for Coach Tarkanian. In the book's Foreword, Krzyzewski declared, "Coach Tarkanian is arguably the best defensive coach in college basketball history and certainly one of its greatest coaches. His teams applied relentless pressure defense, causing havoc to opposing teams, many times leaving them helpless."

Jerry Tarkanian's mother Rose escaped from the genocide committed by the Turks against the Armenians, and she instilled in Jerry a deep-seated compassion mixed with a strong sense that all people should be treated equally. Jerry Tarkanian coached teams to four straight California junior college championships, winning three at Riverside, and one at Pasadena City College. He achieved unprecedented success at that level, but Danny Tarkanian describes his father's legacy from those years as extending well beyond basketball titles: Danny cites several examples of players from impoverished, troubled backgrounds who might not have attended--let alone graduated--college without Jerry's mentoring, and Danny notes that these players then led accomplished lives after their playing careers finished. Danny draws a direct line from Rose's experiences in Armenia, and what she learned from those experiences, to Jerry's mission to help people who other colleges considered to be bad risks.

Coach Tarkanian took over the basketball program at Long Beach State in 1968, and instantly transformed a losing team into a powerhouse that posted a 122-20 record during the next five seasons. Perennial national champion UCLA, located just 30 miles away, refused to schedule a regular season game with Long Beach State. However, the teams met three straight years in the NCAA Tournament (1970-72), including a showdown in the 1971 West Regional Final; Long Beach State built a 12 point lead before losing 57-55 to a squad that went on to capture its fifth straight NCAA title.

Coach Tarkanian moved from Long Beach State to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) in 1973, and that is when his conflict with the NCAA began in earnest. Danny Tarkanian explains (p. 105), "The NCAA today operates as a self-serving, lucrative bureaucracy with a vindictive, all-powerful enforcement arm. Yet, the university athletic regulatory body's history tells us that, at one time, it was chiefly concerned with player welfare and safety." The second sentence refers to why the NCAA was founded: to end the on-field violence in college football, violence that claimed the lives of several college football players in 1905 (the exact number is disputed, and not relevant to this book review). The NCAA succeeded in that original mission, but later--under the direction of Walter Byers--it evolved into an organization primarily focused on two tasks: revenue generation, and regulation of the conduct of its member universities. The NCAA proved to be spectacularly successful at revenue generation, and very controversial in terms of regulation; as Coach Tarkanian famously said, "Recently, the NCAA got so mad at Kentucky, they put Cleveland State on probation for another two years." The legal concepts of due process and equal protection are generally absent from the NCAA's regulatory procedures.

Danny Tarkanian explains that the NCAA's rules regarding permissible scholarships and benefits that universities can provide to their athletes were created in an era when most of those athletes did not come from impoverished households. He asserts that no current big-time collegiate sports program can survive without violating the NCAA's rules, quoting former American University Coach Ed Tapscott (p. 112): "The crime in the NCAA is not in breaking the rules. It's in getting caught. We have our own MAD--Mutually Assured Destruction. There's a threshold of dirty linen we can all build up, and know that all of us agree tacitly not to disclose it. Because none of us could succeed without breaking the rules."

Sam Gilbert, a so-called "booster," provided a host of improper/illegal benefits to UCLA's basketball players from the mid-1960s until the early 1980s, during which time Coach John Wooden led UCLA to an unprecedented run of 10 championships in a 12 year span, including seven in a row (1967-73). The NCAA did not take any action against UCLA during Wooden's run of championships, but in 1981--long after Wooden had retired, and after the Los Angeles Times conducted an in depth investigation--the NCAA determined that UCLA had committed over a decade's worth of violations. The NCAA did not vacate any of Wooden's championships, but only vacated UCLA's 1980 Final Four run, while also placing the basketball team on probation for two years. Coach Wooden denied having knowledge of Gilbert's activities, and it was never proven that Coach Wooden knew, but Coach Wooden also admitted that during that time he had "tunnel vision" and "trusted too much."

In the early 1970s, Coach Tarkanian wrote newspaper articles criticizing the NCAA's selective enforcement of its rules because the NCAA regularly went after small programs for minor violations while ignoring the consistent pattern of major violations committed by big schools such as UCLA and Kentucky. Danny writes that Coach Tarkanian later conceded that writing those articles proved to be a big mistake, as the NCAA then almost immediately turned its focus on him, and remained focused on him for the next three decades.

Coach Tarkanian enjoyed immediate success at UNLV, quickly elevating the program to perennial contender status. At the same time, the NCAA looked for any reason/excuse to slap penalties against Coach Tarkanian. Danny describes in detail the NCAA's attempts to intimidate witnesses/coerce testimony unfavorable to Coach Tarkanian, and the NCAA's determination to "get" Coach Tarkanian at any cost, including completely disregarding even the pretense of conducting a fair investigation. Danny notes that other coaches, including Lou Henson and Hugh Durham, advised Coach Tarkanian to befriend the NCAA investigators, accept whatever punishment is delivered, and hope that the NCAA decided to leave him alone after that; they felt that fighting the NCAA was fraught with peril.

Coach Tarkanian ignored their advice--and the NCAA "got" him: in 1977, without presenting any credible evidence of major rules violations, the NCAA Committee on Infractions voted to suspend Coach Tarkanian from coaching an NCAA team for two years. The NCAA Council upheld that decision, leaving Coach Tarkanian only one avenue to pursue: a lawsuit.

Coach Tarkanian filed suit against UNLV in Clark County District Court, alleging that his 14th Amendment due process rights had been violated. In other words, the manner by which the NCAA sought to terminate Coach Tarkanian's employment violated his rights under the U.S. Constitution. There are two due process rights: substantive and procedural. As Danny explains very clearly and concisely in the book, procedural due process relates to how the action was undertaken: the procedures that must be followed before a school suspends a child from school for a few days are not as stringent as the procedures that must be followed to convict a person of a capital offense--and, of course, there are a range of due process procedures in between those two examples. Substantive due process relates to proving that the defendant committed the charged offense based on credible evidence, as opposed to making a judgment that is arbitrary and capricious.

Coach Tarkanian's suit alleged that both his substantive and procedural due process rights had been violated. District Court Judge James Brennan agreed with Coach Tarkanian, declaring, "There is no legal, credible evidence to support the findings and the action of the NCAA...The Committee on Infractions, and its staff, conducted a star chamber proceeding, and a trial by ambush against the plaintiff...When one sifts through the evidence presented to this Court, the action demanded by the NCAA against the plaintiff can be reduced to one word: 'Incredible.'" A "star chamber proceeding" is a proceeding held in secret that produced an arbitrary result not supported by credible evidence. In layman's terms, the NCAA and UNLV sought to deprive Coach Tarkanian of his job without following proper procedures, and without presenting credible evidence that he had committed an offense.

Danny states that the NCAA had declined the opportunity to participate in the original case, but after the verdict was appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court the NCAA asked to be included. A review of the record indicates that it would be more precise to say that, even though the parties agreed that the NCAA was not a "necessary party" to the case, that agreement did not comport with the requirements of Nevada's civil procedure laws, and therefore the NCAA should have been served a summons, and listed as a defendant in Coach Tarkanian's initial lawsuit. Thus, the Nevada Supreme Court held that the NCAA is a "necessary party" to the case, and remanded the case to the Clark County District Court for a new trial.

After the remand, the Clark County District Court again ruled in favor of Coach Tarkanian: "The NCAA did not, and has not, 'heeded the bounds of reason, common sense and fairness,' and the decision by the NCAA was arbitrary and capricious. This case presents a classic example of how misperception becomes suspicion, which in turn becomes hostility, which leads, inevitably, to a deprivation of one's rights...what started out as an association whose members met, and exceeded, certain lofty goals, ended up as the NCAA-bureaucracy, which looks upon its friends with feigned pleasure, and its enemies with barely-concealed malevolence...The NCAA is an association which exists for the purpose of seeing that there is fair play; it also has the obligation to play fairly."

The Nevada Supreme Court upheld that decision. Coach Tarkanian had beaten the NCAA in court, and he kept his job! Moreover, as a result of Coach Tarkanian's lawsuit, the U.S. Congress investigated the NCAA's procedures, found them to be inadequate if not unlawful, and made 46 recommendations that the NCAA should institute. As you might suspect, none of this made the NCAA feel positively about Coach Tarkanian, who had challenged their power, and publicly exposed their questionable tactics.

Coach Tarkanian enjoyed great success at UNLV after leaving Long Beach State, even with the shadow of constant NCAA investigations looming in the background. Danny played point guard for his father at UNLV in the early 1980s. After graduating from UNLV, Danny went to law school, and he became a practicing attorney in Nevada for several years. One of Danny's favorite memories of playing for his father is the focus that Coach Tarkanian demanded from his players, insisting that they must be "mentally, physically, and emotionally ready to play." The physical aspect is developed during the off season and honed during practice, but mental and emotional preparation happened on game day. Coach Tarkanian said that every player should think about the mindset he would have if someone were about to come to his house and attack him; you would not play music, or be laughing and joking in that situation, so why would you play music, or laugh and joke before a game? Coach Tarkanian's teams spent their pre-game moments on the bus, and in the locker room, in focused silence.

Coach Tarkanian produced remarkable and sustained success throughout his NCAA coaching career, qualifying for the NCAA Tournament 18 times, advancing to the Final Four on four occasions, and winning the 1990 National Championship. Danny also notes that Coach Tarkanian emphasized the importance of academics, and he cites statistics that he says show that during UNLV's glory years on the court the team also had one of the best graduation rates among the nation's top 20 basketball programs.

However, Coach Tarkanian's battle versus the NCAA was not over. The NCAA appealed the Nevada Supreme Court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1988 issued a 5-4 decision reversing and remanding the portion of the Nevada decision that found the NCAA liable. Thus, UNLV was liable for suspending Coach Tarkanian in the 1970s because UNLV is a "state actor" employing Coach Tarkanian and, as such, was legally required to honor Coach Tarkanian's due process rights; however, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the NCAA is not a "state actor," and therefore is not required to honor Coach Tarkanian's due process rights. In layman's terms, even though the NCAA acted in a sleazy way, there is no legal remedy available to Coach Tarkanian regarding the NCAA's conduct--but he did have a legal remedy available regarding UNLV, so that part of the decision was upheld, and the Nevada Supreme Court subsequently ruled that UNLV must pay all of Coach Tarkanian's legal fees relating to his original due process lawsuit. The original ruling had required the NCAA to pay 90% of Coach Tarkanian's legal fees, while requiring UNLV to pay 10% of Coach Tarkanian's legal fees; after the U.S. Supreme Court let the NCAA off the hook, UNLV had to assume the portion of the liability that had first been taxed to the NCAA. UNLV appealed the ruling requiring the school to pay 100% of Coach Tarkanian's legal fees, and Coach Tarkanian prevailed in court on that issue.

Coach Tarkanian may not have been a saint, and his son may not be the most objective chronicler of his actions, but it is clear that the NCAA had a vendetta against Coach Tarkanian, and that the NCAA pushed the boundaries of ethics and the law to pursue that vendetta. Coach Tarkanian subsequently sued the NCAA, and the NCAA paid him a $2.5 million settlement after the organization's lawyers ran several mock trials and determined that Coach Tarkanian was likely to prevail in court. Coach Tarkanian's court victory against UNLV and his large settlement award from the NCAA set the stage for many other people to finally challenge the NCAA in court, a prospect that had previously been perceived as too daunting (which is why Coach Tarkanian's colleagues in the 1970s had urged him to back down).

It is important to note that the split U.S.Supreme Court decision--based on some odd reasoning that is a bit beyond the scope of this article--did not in any way justify or vindicate the NCAA's investigative and enforcement procedures; the decision merely held that the NCAA was not acting as a government entity, and thus was not liable for damages under the law that formed the basis for Coach Tarkanian's original lawsuit. This was a technical, hollow victory at best for the NCAA, as demonstrated by their willingness to pay a multi-million dollar settlement to Coach Tarkanian.

Not long after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of the NCAA, the NCAA again attempted to impose sanctions against UNLV and Coach Tarkanian. Initially, the NCAA sought to ban UNLV from NCAA Tournament play in 1991 and 1992, which would have prevented the team from defending its 1990 championship. UNLV eventually worked out a deal with the NCAA to enable UNLV to play in the 1991 NCAA Tournament while accepting a ban from the NCAA Tournament in 1992 and 1993.

UNLV lost to eventual champion Duke in the Final Four in 1991, and Coach Tarkanian resigned after leading UNLV to a 26-2 record in 1992. Coach Tarkanian accepted an offer to coach the San Antonio Spurs in 1992, but he resigned after the team started the season 9-11. He returned to college coaching in 1995, compiling a 153-80 record in seven seasons at Fresno State, with two NCAA Tournament appearances and five NIT appearances. Danny asserts that the NCAA continued to target his father even after paying the $2.5 million settlement, and he makes the case that the NCAA's allegations pertaining to Coach Tarkanian's tenure at Fresno State fall into two categories: (1) minor infractions of the type that are committed by every basketball program but only selectively punished by the NCAA, and (2) false accusations of more significant violations for which the NCAA did not provide evidentiary support. Part of the problem--both for individuals fighting the NCAA, and for media members attempting to find out the truth--is that the NCAA is not required to publicly present its evidence. So, the NCAA asserts that Fresno State committed violations, Coach Tarkanian (and his son) deny this, and an outsider is left to assess who sounds more credible. Danny was an involved and affected party, so it would be difficult--if not impossible--for him to be objective, but that does not mean that he is wrong. Anyone who knows anything about the NCAA and its tactics, or anyone who reads the court proceedings involving Coach Tarkanian and the NCAA (as I have), understands that the NCAA does not have much credibility.

This book is clearly a labor of love for Danny Tarkanian, and it is a tribute to his father. The text would have benefited from more editing and fact checking (see below, but if you are interested in the behind the scenes details of Jerry Tarkanian's life and his coaching career then this book is worth your time and attention.


Some of the author's stylistic choices are awkward, and the book would have benefited from a more involved editorial touch, but I chose not to focus on that during the review. However, factual errors must be noted, and hopefully will be corrected in future editions:

1) On page 87, Mack Calvin is referred to as "an NBA Defensive Player of the Year recipient." Calvin never won that award, and during the time frame referenced in the book he was an All-ABA player who had not played in the NBA; after the ABA/NBA merger in 1976, Calvin played four seasons in the NBA, but he was not an All-Star and he was never selected to the All-Defensive Team.

2) On page 96, it is stated that Eddie Ratleff "turned down an $800,000 offer from the ABA (American Basketball Association) Indiana Squires..." The ABA had a team called the Virginia Squires, and a team called the Indiana Pacers, but there was never an ABA team called the Indiana Squires.

3) On page 167, University of Louisville player Darrell Griffith is referred to as "Darryl Griffin."

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:00 AM



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