Up until the very moment the bombshell hit, you could have searched the world of college athletics and not found a soul who seriously believed the NCAA would let Nevada-Las Vegas and its basketball coach, Jerry (the Shark) Tarkanian off the hook. After all, how could the NCAA back off after a fanatical, 13-year quest that made captain Ahab's little adventure seem like a day at the beach? After so many years and so much court-clogging litigation, the NCAA last July had finally been able to stick Tarkanian where it hurt most, by denying his splendid reigning national championship team the right to defend its title because of recruiting violations that occurred 13 years ago, when the current Runnin' Rebel players were barely out of diapers.
That penalty struck many observers as unfair to the players, but the NCAA only shrugged and pointed at Tarkanian for taking his case to court instead of taking his medicine those many years ago. But last Thursday, in what has to rank as the most shocking upset in college basketball history, the NCAA's Committee on Infractions announced that it had changed its mind about keeping the Rebels out of the 1991 tournament and was instead offering UNLV two options: 1) Tarkanian would be suspended from coaching during the '91 tournament and the Rebels would sit out the tournament in '92, or 2) UNLV would be banned from live television appearances in the '91-92 season and from the '92 tournament. School president Robert Maxson says Tarkanian, athletic director Dennis Finfrock and university lawyers needed "about 30 seconds" to select the second alternative.
When news of the NCAA's decision reached Maxson's office, fans standing in his reception area cheered, and Maxson said, "I give the NCAA [committee members] credit for their fairness when there's no question they knew other institutions would raise questions." Raise questions? Raise hell is more like it. Although some coaches and administrators agreed with UC Santa Barbara coach Jerry Pimm, who said, "It was good to see some compassion" from the NCAA's four-member infractions committee, many more accused the NCAA of hypocrisy, greed, inconsistency, unfairness and all-around weenieness, not to mention of applying a double standard.
The atmosphere was especially volatile at Kansas, Missouri, Florida, Kentucky, Illinois, Maryland, Houston and other schools that are currently on NCAA probation in either basketball or football for various rules violations, or have been on probation in the recent past. "I sure wish they'd given us a multiple-choice penalty," said angry Kansas coach Roy Williams, whose 1988-89 team wasn't allowed to defend its NCAA title because of transgressions committed under previous coach Larry Brown. Former Jayhawk guard Milt Newton called the NCAA "gutless and spineless." Newton, who is currently working on his master's degree at Kansas, says, "They tried to make an example out of us. Now, we're a wasted example." Added Missouri coach Norm Stewart, whose team was hit last month with two years' probation, including no tournament appearance this season, "It's a total farce."
The most popular theory about the infractions committee's unprecedented change of heart was that it simply caved in before the growing clamor against the NCAA. In six states—Nebraska, South Carolina, Missouri, Illinois, Florida and California—legislation has been introduced or at least discussed that would force the NCAA to drastically change the way it conducts its investigations, which have always been behind closed doors. In addition, U.S. Congressman Tom McMillen (D., Md.), deploring what he calls the NCAA's "school-yard-bully tactics," has enlisted the support of 31 colleagues for a bill that would require the NCAA to grant due process to individuals accused of wrongdoing.
However, Alan Williams, the University of Virginia history professor who is chairman of the infractions committee, denies that the members (the others are SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, Notre Dame head of student affairs Patricia O'Hara and Arizona State law professor Milton Schroeder) were intimidated by the politicians or by the threat of a lawsuit by some of the Vegas players. "That had nothing to do with it," says Williams, "except that [UNLV] feels, and a number of its players expressed, that they might well have gotten in the tournament anyway, by tying up the NCAA in court. But that didn't affect us one way or another."
Hmmmmm. Maybe not. But many observers believe that the NCAA has only opened up a can of worms and caused more problems for itself. Now every school that gets slapped with penalties can attempt to plea-bargain, citing the Vegas situation as a precedent. "I would anticipate that everyone might try it," says Williams, "but I would also anticipate that the committee would find no room to change penalties. It isn't a precedent-setter, because there's no other case like it, and there can be no other case like it."
There Williams has a point.
The NCAA's obsession with Tarkanian goes back to the early 1970s, when his program at Long Beach State was investigated. The Shark got out of town a step ahead of the posse, leaving his successor, Lute Olson, to endure the consequences-three years' probation for the 49ers. The NCAA bloodhounds followed Tarkanian to Las Vegas. In '77, after the Rebels had reached that year's Final Four, the NCAA found UNLV guilty of recruiting and organizational violations, and hit the Rebels with a stiff probation that kept them off TV and out of postseason play for two seasons, '77-78 and '78-79.
In addition—and this is the crux of the current row—the NCAA asked UNLV to show cause why the university shouldn't take appropriate disciplinary and corrective action against the head basketball coach, and the committee would determine if it was appropriate. The NCAA let it be known that it wanted the school to suspend Tarkanian for two seasons.
Tarkanian responded to the order by going to the Nevada district court and getting two injunctions—one against the university, preventing UNLV from suspending him, and another, against the NCAA, preventing them from ordering his suspension. So began the long court battle between the NCAA and Tarkanian that wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court, which on Dec. 12,1988, ruled in a 5-4 decision that the NCAA, as a private organization of voluntary members, had every right to make UNLV show cause why Tarkanian shouldn't be punished.
Predictably, the Nevada district court took its sweet time—more than 15 months—dissolving Tarkanian's injunction against the NCAA. When that finally occurred, on March 26 of this year, exactly one week before Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and their UNLV teammates smashed Duke in the national title game, the NCAA renewed its efforts to punish Tarkanian. On July 20 it announced the latest penalty for Tarkanian's long-ago transgressions: His Rebels would not be allowed to participate in postseason play in '91. This placed Johnson and Augmon, both likely NBA first-round picks, in a bind since the NBA's deadline for early-entry candidates had passed. They could have taken their skills to a pro team in Europe or transferred to another school, where they would have been immediately eligible to play. Eventually both opted to remain at UNLV, gambling that the infractions committee would ultimately allow UNLV to defend its title.
Here are the events that lead up to last week's NCAA reversal: In a meeting in Kansas City in June, the infractions committee asked UNLV to do the same thing it had asked 13 years earlier, to show cause why the coach shouldn't be suspended for two years. The university threw itself on the mercy of the committee, saying its hands still were tied by Tarkanian's injunction against it, which remained in effect.
"Our position was that the university had suffered all the penalties," says Max-son. "We didn't know what else to do at that point."
The committee gave UNLV no indication that it might be willing to consider alternative penalties. "By the nature of the show-cause order, [the committee] invited the university to come back with alternative proposals," NCAA spokesman Jim Marchiony said last week. "But [UNLV] didn't. It said, basically, 'Let's let bygones be bygones.' The committee then said, 'That's not good enough. Boom, you're out of here."
About a week after the announcement that Vegas would be banned from the 1991 tournament, Tarkanian went to Maxson and for the first time offered to step aside for a time if the infractions committee would consider a compromise that would allow the Rebels to defend their title. After huddling with lawyers and Finfrock, UNLV officials contacted the NCAA and asked for a special hearing on the basis of "new information."
The infractions committee agreed, and the two sides met at Chicago's O'Hare Hilton on Oct. 28. Fittingly, or so it seemed at the time, the meeting was held in the Montgolfier Room, named after the brothers who popularized the hot-air balloon. That's all it would amount to, right? Hot air. Instead, the committee members listened with open minds as Maxson outlined four alternatives, ranging from simply sitting out the 1992 tournament instead of the one in '91 to a complex agreement by which Tarkanian would not coach in the '91 tournament, would forfeit the bonus he would stand to get out of UNLV's share of the tournament revenue and would agree to recruiting limitations. To sweeten the deal, Tarkanian agreed to take no further legal action against either the NCAA or UNLV.
The committee considered the matter, made its historic offer, and—following the Rebels' selection from the two options—everybody was happy. Well, maybe not quite. Up in Vancouver, B.C., where UNLV was preparing to open its season last Saturday against Alabama-Birmingham, Tarkanian indicated that he was not exactly ready to enjoy a nice, relaxing dinner with David Berst, the head of the NCAA's investigative division. "Sometimes I feel the NCAA is the only organization that's above the law," said Tarkanian bitterly.
One reason for Tarkanian's pique is that he knows the NCAA isn't finished with him. Within the next couple of weeks UNLV will receive the NCAA's findings in the sordid matter involving Lloyd Daniels, the celebrated New York City player who signed with Vegas in 1986. Later it was discovered that Daniels, who became the legal ward of a Rebel assistant coach, was virtually illiterate and had a drug problem. Although Tarkanian says UNLV isn't guilty in the Daniels case, the NCAA's harpoon could stick the Shark again. According to Williams, the Daniels decision, whatever it turns out to be, probably won't come down until next summer, so there's no chance that the NCAA will kick the current team out of the 1991 tournament—again.
John Weistart, a Duke law professor and co-author of the authoritative book The Law of Sports, says, "This is another situation where one's first impulse—to be cynical—is probably appropriate."
Weistart adds, "It's a hard case, very hard. You can see it as, 'Oh, they really are protecting the interests of the athletes.' Or as, 'The NCAA doesn't want to give up the great hype that's going to come about if UNLV has a chance to defend its national title.' There can be fine lines of wisdom, yes, but it's hard to convince others why their cases differ. If an unheralded team now says, 'Hey, we're in the same situation as Vegas!' how do you answer them to their satisfaction?"
The NCAA's response is that Vegas did, in fact, serve those penalties for two years back in the late 1970s, just as other programs have served their penalties.
The difference in Tarkanian's case was the show-cause order. Also, Williams does not anticipate that the same situation will arise with other schools, because as a result of NCAA legislation that went into effect in 1985, it is now standard in virtually every coach's contract, including Tarkanian's, that he may be fired if his program is found guilty of NCAA violations.
And that's not the only good that has come of the Tarkanian mess. It's healthy that the NCAA is being scrutinized and challenged, just as it's encouraging that more university presidents are bringing their coaches to heel. Also, at least now Augmon and Johnson won't be penalized for staying at UNLV and the other Vegas players will have ample opportunity to transfer, if they want, after this season.
And whither Tarkanian? Good question. In addition to the Daniels case, he may have trouble on other fronts. The Nevada attorney general's office is investigating allegations that individuals have been improperly selling UNLV basketball tickets, an investigation that, according to at least one law enforcement source, possibly involves Tarkanian. There are also suspicions that Tarkanian will bail out after this season and, take your pick, coach a pro team, open a casino or retire. Whatever happens, he will at least have the satisfaction of having the fate of his defending champions decided on the court instead of in the courts.
The Rebels celebrated their reprieve by blasting Alabama-Birmingham 109-68 as Johnson scored 26 points and Augmon 19. Now it's up to Arizona, Arkansas and everyone else in college basketball to stop whining about the Rebels and show cause why, come April, UNLV won't win the NCAA's big trophy even more convincingly than it did last season.
Johnson (far right) and mates had more to celebrate last week than just a win over UAB.
Newton, whose team couldn't defend its title, called the NCAA "gutless and spineless."
Daniels, a former CBA performer, could bring Tarkanian additional NCAA penalties.
TARK'S 13-YEAR ORDEAL
AUG. 25, 1977
The NCAA announces a two-year probation against UNLV for recruiting violations committed between '71 and 75.
SEPT. 7, 1977
UNLV president Dr. Donald Baepler suspends Tarkanian.
SEPT. 8, 1977
Tarkanian files suit against UNLV and later adds the NCAA as a defendant.
SEPT. 26, 1977
Clark County (Nevada) District Judge James Brennan issues a permanent injunction preventing UNLV from suspending Tarkanian.
JUNE 25, 1984
State of Nevada Court Judge Paul Goldman rules that the NCAA violated Tarkanian's due process rights.
AUG. 27, 1987
The Nevada Supreme Court upholds Goldman's ruling.
DEC. 12, 1988
The U.S. Supreme Court upholds the NCAA's right to discipline its members.
JULY 20, 1990
The NCAA bans UNLV from the '91 NCAA tournament.
OCT. 28, 1990
UNLV offers the NCAA four alternatives to the tournament ban.
NOV. 29, 1990
The NCAA and Tarkanian settle on a compromise that allows UNLV to defend its title.