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UNLV basketball coaching legend Jerry Tarkanian, who shared a once-heated rivalry with Lute Olson, his Hall of Fame counterpart at Arizona, passed away this morning at age 84.
Tarkanian was hospitalized Monday with a respiratory ailment and infection. It was the third hospitalization in 10 months for Tarkankian, who had his second heart attack in April and was treated for pneumonia in November.
Tarkanian’s deteriorating health prevented him from speaking in front of the crowd at the Hall of Fame ceremony at Springfield, Mass., in 2013, but he extended an olive branch to other coaches in a message that could be heard from Las Vegas to Tucson.
One of Tarkanian’s most significant coaching rivals was Olson, who was dubbed “Midnight Lute” by Tarkanian after the legendary Arizona coach managed to sign Tom Tolbert out of junior college in 1986 after Tolbert reportedly verbally committed to UNLV.
During the taped Hall of Fame speech two years ago, Tarkanian talked about his coaching “comrades” and his “fiery and competitive, even argumentative” past with members of the coaching profession.
“I have loved the game of basketball since my earliest memories,” said Tarkanian, with his wife Lois Tarkanian near him for support. “Basketball has been good to me. I’ve been able to be comrades with some fine individuals in the coaching profession.
“Sure we can be fiery and competitive, even argumentative, but we all loved the game, that special game of basketball. Deep down, we’ll understand the other. Thank you for your friendship. Finally, thank you, Hall of Fame, for giving me a special honor. It means so much to me, to our players, fans, coaches and staff. We are part of you. That makes us very happy and very proud.”
Deep down, we’ll understand the other.
Tarkanian did not name names but Olson’s name came immediately to mind with that statement.
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Tarkanian’s controversial history with Olson dates to when Olson succeeded Tarkanian at Long Beach State in 1973 only to inherit a program placed on NCAA probation. Sports Illustrated documented the rift between the two Hall of Fame coaches in a 1988 article.
Tarkanian was on the offensive against Olson and Olson’s former Arizona assistants in 2010 despite not having coached against the Wildcats for 20 years.
“People said a lot at our expense,” Tarkanian told Sports Illustrated in a 2010 interview. “The Arizona assistants, they were always telling the parents of our recruits that the mob is going to get your sons or the hookers are going to get your sons if they go to UNLV. We heard it all.”
That followed disparaging comments he made about Olson, Arizona and the Wildcat fans in a “Shark Bytes” blog once published online by The Las Vegas Sun.
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In March of 2010, Tarkanian blogged about silencing Arizona’s fans at McKale Center with a win over Georgetown in the 1991 NCAA tournament there.
“Our fans who traveled to the game said they were treated so badly,” Tarkanian wrote. “They would go into restaurants and have a hard time being served. To this day, John Thompson will tell you that was the only time Georgetown got cheered on the road.
“They were always considered the villains because they were a pretty rough and physical team. But when they took the court against us in Arizona, they received a standing ovation. You could say we got the last laugh. We beat Georgetown and advanced to the Final Four. And our players left a gift for Arizona’s players. We were assigned the Arizona locker room, which had this big basketball decoration inside it in with Arizona’s logos and colors. Well, our guys shouldn’t have done this, but they each autographed the ball after we won.”
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Tarkanian wrote in another blog that UNLV would have defeated Duke for the 1990-91 national title if it had former UA guard Matt Othick, a Las Vegas resident who attended Bishop Gorman. Olson managed to snag Othick.
Tarkanian’s lead paragraph of the blog: “Matt Othick would have played much better for us at UNLV than he did for Arizona.”
In December 2008, Tarkanian wrote a couple of blogs titled, “Beating Arizona, Part I” and “Beating Arizona, Part II”. In the first blog, he writes that beating Arizona and Sean Elliott in the 1989 Sweet 16 was one of the greatest victories he enjoyed. An excerpt:
“I was so happy. It was one of my favorite victories, because it was Arizona. We wanted to beat Arizona bad because of earlier in the year, the way they celebrated on that floor (after beating UNLV 86-75 in Tucson). Our players went nuts in the locker room. We went back to the hotel and celebrated all night. A bunch of our boosters went to the airport the next day to see Arizona go home. People were drinking and yelling, Arizona go home! Arizona go home!”
Olson pulled the plug on Arizona facing UNLV in the regular season after the Wildcats lost 95-87 in Las Vegas in 1990. Following that game, Olson commented that UNLV guard Anderson Hunt cursed at him and his staff after diving for a loose ball near the UA bench. Hunt denied cursing at Olson and claimed it was Olson who swore at him as he walked back to the court.
“This is the last year of the series,” Olson told reporters. “It is not in the plans to play them again. I just don’t think it’s a series we’ll continue.
“I don’t have to indicate what my reasons are.”
Olson mentioned to college basketball TV sports personality and reporter Seth Davis on a Campus Insider interview in November 2013 that he “wanted our teams to play against people who followed the same rule book that we followed. That’s as nicely as I can put it.”
The coaches made amends in recent years. They were pictured smiling together at a function preceding last year’s Final Four in Dallas.
“He had a radio show, and I’d go on the radio show and we’d talk,” Olson told Davis. “During the summer sometimes I’d go to Coronado (Island) and go up to Del Mar (Calif.). Tark liked the ponies so I had a chance to visit him up there.”
Olson attended the Hall of Fame ceremony two years ago in which Tarkanian indirectly reached out to his former adversary.
“I thought with all that he has accomplished in coaching … you know, there are a lot of people in the Hall that haven’t come close to what he accomplished,” Olson said. “I was very happy for him.”
The Wildcats went 16 years without playing UNLV until Olson broke the ban, scheduling a four-year home-and-home series in 2006 with UNLV, which had Lon Kruger in charge at the time. Arizona and UNLV began another four-year home-and-home last season.
Arizona is 7-12 overall against UNLV and 4-8 against Tarkanian, who also had intense battles with Fred Snowden in the 1970s. Tarkanian and Snowden each won three games against each other.
The Tucson Citizen reported upon Snowden’s hire at Arizona on March 20, 1972, that Tarkanian was a candidate for the coaching vacancy following Bruce Larson’s resignation. Snowden and Northern Illinois’ Tom Jorgensen were interviewed by athletic director Dave Strack.
“A third person, Long Beach State coach Jerry Tarkanian, was contacted concerning the UA vacancy, but never was brought in for an official interview,” states the Citizen report, written by former sports editor Carl Porter.
Tark beat Ben Lindsey’s lone UA team in 1982. He was 4-1 against Olson’s teams.
The Top Five games involving Tarkanian’s UNLV program and Arizona:
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