Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - They say that death comes in threes, which means the college basketball community is now holding its collective breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Over the weekend we lost one of the most beloved coaches basketball has ever known in North Carolina's Dean Smith and only days later we are being forced to mourn the passing of another iconic figure in Jerry Tarkanian, who died at the age of 84 on Wednesday after being hospitalized earlier in the week.
If Smith were the proverbial knight in shining armor when it came to changing the landscape of college sports in the south with his racial integration along Tobacco Road, Tark the Shark was the black hat who was prepared to win at all costs in Sin City of all places.
Coach Smith was seen as the man who did it by the book, while Tarkanian appeared to be more than willing to write his own chapters when it came to recruiting and abiding by the archaic rules of the NCAA, the supposed non- profit association that regulates student athletes that The Shark considered the evil empire.
The soft-spoken Tarkanian, who was rarely without his trademark towel firmly entrenched in his mouth on the sidelines, quite possibly to keep him from saying something he would soon regret, was adored by fans and players alike, but perhaps for not all the right reasons.
Tarkanian, who is survived by his wife, Lois, four children and seven grandchildren, gained fame with the star-studded UNLV Runnin' Rebels, a team which he led to the NCAA Championship in 1990, but that was Tark on the court, in his comfort zone. He thrived under the hot lights of the arena spectacle at the Thomas & Mack Center, but there were also too many times when he was put under the spotlight for more dubious dealings off the floor.
Make no mistake ,Tarkanian, who began his college coaching career at Riverside City College and even had a cup of coffee in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs, could be both charming at one moment and devious the next, which might be the reason why he became a lightning rod for attention.
He dared to start a predominantly all-black lineup when he took over the Long Beach State 49ers in 1968, setting the stage for a highly successful run in Las Vegas where, without any pro sports, he was larger than life whether or not UNLV's administration wanted to admit it or not.
"Coach Tarkanian's contribution to UNLV and Southern Nevada stretches far beyond the game of basketball," said UNLV President Len Jessup." Many in Southern Nevada and around the nation were introduced to UNLV through Coach Tarkanian and the Runnin' Rebels. He made Runnin' Rebel basketball a brand name during his 19 years on campus, inspiring our community and creating a legacy that endures to this day. He will be deeply missed though fondly remembered as a college basketball icon and as one of the greats in our university's history."
All three major college institutions, which included Fresno State, where he sat on the sidelines with towel-in-mouth, displayed glowing tributes on their athletic websites on Wednesday, gushing over his achievements. Whether it was his four trips to the Final Four with the Rebels, the national title blowout win over Duke by a massive 30 points, 103-73 (which holds up as a record), or his staggering winning percentage (.829) during his stretch in the desert, the schools he touched all recognized the good he did for their programs.
"Jerry Tarkanian is one of the true legends in the coaching profession," Bulldogs head men's basketball coach Rodney Terry stated. "He was successful at so many different levels in college basketball. Coach Tarkanian welcomed me in from the first day I arrived in Fresno. He loved the Bulldogs and stayed connected with our program throughout the years. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Lois and family during this extremely difficult time."
Of course no one is going to talk about his tangles with the NCAA and the manner in which the renegade ran his ship, at least not right now anyway, but the slate cannot be so easily wiped clean.
Yes, Tarkanian is one of the winningest coaches of all-time in his profession, becoming the second fastest coach to reach 700 career wins in NCAA history behind only Kentucky's Adolph Rupp (another, shall we say colorful character) while churning out 13 All-Americans, but his story goes much deeper than the glitz and glamour of on-court success. He was finally inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame just two years ago, a move that many believed was delayed due in part to his questionable practices and shrewd recruiting of talented, but sometimes lost souls.
But now is not the time to dive deep into his dealings with the NCAA. For the moment, it is time to celebrate the exciting brand of basketball that he brought to the national stage. At a time when playing conservative was the norm, Tarkanian used all 94 feet of the floor with a suffocating defense and an offense that produced highlight-reel moments on a nightly basis.
At the time of his retirement in 2002 from Fresno State, Tarkanian's 988 career collegiate coaching victories were the most ever covering all divisions. He notched 20 wins or more for 17 consecutive seasons and reached that mark in all but two of his 31 seasons as a Division I coach.
Those who were so touched by Tark's profound influence on the game will be celebrating his life and achievements, as well they should, while the rest of us are left to wonder who will be the next legend to fall.