For Jerry Tarkanian, time will stand still. At least for one more night.
The longtime UNLV coach returns to the scene of some of his greatest triumphs - the Thomas & Mack Center - tonight, this time as coach of his alma mater, Fresno State. And when Tark walks through the tunnel to coach the Bulldogs against Texas Tech, he’ll find not much has changed in four years.
He’ll be coaching a nationally ranked team. He’ll receive a standing ovation when he is introduced. He’ll work the same bench area he spent prowling with the Rebels for 19 years.
The towel. The ghost chair. His friends looking on from Gucci Row. Everything will pretty much be the same as when he left March 3, 1992.
“It’ll be strange coming back to the Thomas & Mack as a coach,” he conceded. “I haven’t really given it a lot of thought. But I know when I get there, it’ll be real emotional.”
It media crush could be overwhelming, even for Tark, who has received plenty of national attention since returning to the college game a year ago.
A lot of the attention has been positive. But a recent cover story in The Sporting News went after him with all the tenacity of Tark’s Amoeba defense. Essentially, the story dredged up the negative aspects of his past and wondered if he could have changed after all these years.
Tarkanian obviously wasn’t pleased with the story. But like other negative pieces written about him over the years, he shrugged it off and moved on.
The story was right on one account. When it comes to basketball, nothing has changed. The same fire still burns in the 66-year-old Tarkanian’s belly. He still puts a lofty emphasis on winning. He still gives a chance to kids that other coaches wouldn’t or couldn’t touch. And they play hard for him.
Given the quick turnaround Fresno State has made in less than two years under his guidance, he obviously hasn’t lost his touch on the sidelines and in the practice gym.
The Bulldogs went 22-11 last year and made it to the NIT quarterfinals after going 13-15 the year before. This year, they’re favored to win the Western Athletic Conference’s Pacific Division and advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1984.
“We’re not smooth yet,” he said of the current squad, ranked 21st in the Associated Press poll but trying to snap a two-game losing streak. “They’re playing hard. But we’re still trying to find a groove.
“We’ve had so many injuries, it’s unbelievable. The other day was the first day we were able to have everyone in practice in a couple of weeks.”
Tark has tinkered with his lineup, trying to get the most out of his talented backcourt. He has moved point guard Dominick Young to shooting guard and has redshirt freshman Chris Herren running the point.
“Dominick doesn’t see the court real well,” Tark said. “My coaches have been on me to make the change all year. Chris can get the ball to the right people, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Back-to-back losses to Oregon and Texas may have been a blessing. They will motivate Tarkanian in preparing his team and not allow him to worry about all the peripheral things that surround his return.
“I don’t worry about Saturday,” he said. “Texas Tech’s a tough team and we’ve got to get ready for them. That’s what I’m worried about.”
But he did reflect on his 19-year run at UNLV, where the good outweighed the bad by a considerable margin. He remains convinced that had he been able to stay, the Rebels would have been the nation’s dominant program in the 1990s.
“I have no problem with Las Vegas,” he said. “I love Las Vegas. I have so many good memories and so many great friends. I’ll probably come back when I’m done coaching.
“My bitterness is toward three people (former UNLV president Bob Maxson, legal counsel Brad Booke and interim athletic director Dennis Finfrock).”
He’s also not finished with the NCAA. He said he is going on with his lawsuit against the organization he claimed tried to ruin him. The case is expected to go to trial late in the spring of 1997.
According to Tarkanian’s wife, Lois, her husband is very happy.
“He loves it,” she said. “Jerry’s more relaxed. I don’t notice the tension I used to see (at UNLV). “I was worried when he first came back. But he’s so comfortable coaching at the college level and he really loves being with those kids. It’s energized him.”
And there’ll be a lot of energy inside the Thomas & Mack today. As he has said all along, Tarkanian’s not worried about coming back this weekend. It’s the subsequent trip Feb. 17, when he has to face his old team in a WAC showdown, that’ll be hard to deal with.
“This game won’t be a problem,” he said. “I’ll probably enjoy it, if we win. But when we play in February, I think that’ll be the toughest night of my career.”
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