Legendary basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, orchestrator of the greatest stretch of success in Long Beach State basketball history, died at 84 years old on Wednesday in Las Vegas after battling a respiratory infection.
Tarkanian’s teams were defined by their defiance to the norms of college basketball. They were cocky and smug, but as talented and hardworking as any program in the country. His teams at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas became synonymous with a new age of basketball after being dubbed the “Runnin’ Rebels.”
The coach known as “Tark the Shark” had a fast-paced, attacking style of offense that represented a stark contrast from the traditional offensive philosophies that emphasized a slow, methodical approach. His new and entertaining style was an instant success that produced winning team after winning team. It all culminated with an NCAA Championship in 1990 while with UNLV.
His journey began in 1968, which was his first year as head coach at LBSU. He led the 49ers through five consecutive seasons with at least 23 wins, three Sweet 16 appearances and an amassed a 122-20 record.
Former Long Beach State Athletic Director Perry Moore called Tarkanian an excellent coach who was loved by everybody. He said the year after Tarkanian left was one of the greatest teams in school history. Moore believes they probably would have won the National Championship had he not left.
“He brought us into the great years,” Moore said. “He had fantastic success. When he was at UNLV, it became a great rivalry between LBSU and Vegas. He brought us into the national scene of college basketball, no question about it.”
Tarkanian’s run of success wasn’t without controversy. In 1973, a month after Tarkanian left the 49ers to become the head coach at UNLV, the NCAA filed a complaint against LBSU alleging violation of NCAA rules.
Moore, who took over as AD at LBSU the year after Tarkanian left, was left to pick up the pieces as the NCAA placed the 49ers on a three-year probation, in addition to other penalties, for alleged rules violations.
Moore said he felt no ill will towards Tarkanian and their relationship remained very cordial. He said former California State University, Long Beach President Steve Horn had a much more negative stance on Tarkanian. Moore said that Horn refused to allow LBSU Athletics to schedule games against UNLV while Tarkanian coached there.
Former LBSU hoops star Ed Ratleff played under Tarkanian from 1970-73. Ratleff said he and Tarkanian had a good relationship and stayed in contact over the years.
“He was one of the pillars of basketball,” Ratleff said. “He loved to win. His players liked him. His teams played harder for him because they liked him so much.”
Ratleff said Tarkanian revolutionized the way basketball was played.
“Everybody knew the Runnin’ Rebels,” Ratleff said. “UNLV had more fans because of coach Tarkanian and because they were so much fun to watch. Nobody else was doing what he was doing. Loyola Marymount played a similar style, but they never played defense. Tarkanian’s teams always played defense.”
Tarkanian led UNLV to four Final Four appearances in a span of 14 years from 1977-91. He finished with 729 Division I wins, good for a .790 winning percentage that ranks in the top-10 all time in college basketball. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.
LBSU head coach Dan Monson said the impact of Tarkanian’s influence, specifically his up-tempo style of offense, could be felt on a national level, not just in Long Beach.
“His matchup zone defense was something that everyone took a lot away from,” Monson said. “Since I’ve gotten here, you hear the stories about his relationship with his players and what he did for this community. [Those] are things that, as the head coach of Long Beach State, you try to emulate.”
Tarkanian was born in Euclid, Ohio and is survived by his four children, 10 grandchildren and his wife, Lois Tarkanian.