March 12, 1984 12:00 PM

It was dedicated last Dec. 17 at a benefit concert featuring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Diana Ross. It was financed through funds from slot-machine tax revenues, courtesy of an extraordinary bill pushed through Congress by Paul Laxalt, the state’s senior U.S. Senator. All told, it cost $30 million to build, approximates Madison Square Garden in size and, rising up out of the Las Vegas desert, is a towering testament to the fact that games are serious business.

One of the biggest on-campus sports facilities in America, the Thomas and Mack Center outshines the otherwise modest campus of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. In a city whose skyline, as Tom Wolfe observed, is made up not of buildings but of signs, the UNLV basketball palace is as much an unabashed statement as the bubbling, spiraling, exploding marquees of the casino-hotels along the Vegas Strip, just three-quarters of a mile away. It states—no, check that—it shouts that the UNLV “Runnin’ Rebels,” currently 25-2, are the most flamboyant, the runnin’est, gunnin’est college basketball team in the land, as well as a hot ticket in a town whose entertainment alternatives are not exactly limited to what’s playing at the Roxy. It trumpets the fact that the team’s mentor, Jerry “Tark the Shark” Tarkanian, who has the best winning percentage (.811) of all active major college coaches, has established what has been called “the Dynasty in the Desert.”

But dynasties aren’t acquired on the cheap, and the cost of this one makes some educators see neon. “If you’re operating on the premise that things are out of kilter here, you’re correct,” says Allen Mori, professor of special education and chairman of the UNLV faculty senate. Indeed, just 75 yards north of the Thomas and Mack Center stands another, equally unabashed statement of educational priority: the UNLV Engineering Building. A one-story rectangle with a charmless brick veneer, it is scarcely bigger than a large mobile home. The legislation under which slot-machine tax revenues became available stated explicitly that the funds were to be used for “higher education capital construction,” and the state earmarked a substantial portion of the monies for the arena. In Las Vegas, a city that revels in high-rolling winners, there was never any doubt that a monumental basketball stadium, and not an edifice for eggheads with slide rules in their holsters, fit the bill.

Lately, however, even staunch supporters of the Runnin’ Rebels have been forced to recognize that the imbalance between athletics and academics at UNLV has become so pronounced that it is perilous to the university’s credibility. During the past decade, only six out of approximately 40 players recruited by Tarkanian have actually completed their course requirements and graduated from UNLV. At the moment, only three former UNLV players are playing in the National Basketball Association. So much for the standard recruiting apologia, dangled in front of kids from the playgrounds of Watts and Harlem, that four years at a basketball powerhouse like UNLV will not only make you smart, but rich and famous to boot.

This controversy was ignited in 1979 when athletic director Al Negratti was brought in from the University of California at Santa Barbara to tame an athletic department deficit of more than $600,000. It took Negratti just two years to rectify matters—in fact, to create a surplus of $100,000. But in the process he discovered that the university was controlled not so much by the faculty, or even by President Leonard Goodall, as it was by the UNLV Rebels Boosters Club. “I tried to get a list of the donors to the university, an accounting of the contributions,” says Negratti. “And I couldn’t because the president wouldn’t demand that they give me the list.” John McBride, the new chairman of the University system Board of Regents and a critic of the athletic-academic imbalance at UNLV, explains just who they are. “It was an odd setup,” he says. “The Boosters Club had two people in the athletic department called ‘fund-raisers,’ but they really worked for prominent booster [and owner of Vegas’ Landmark Hotel] Bill Morris. He wouldn’t let Negratti look at the books and see where the money was coming from or how it was spent.” According to McBride and others, Bill “Wildcat” Morris ran a kind of shadow organization within the Boosters Club itself, which would scalp tickets for Rebel games. As McBride explains it, they sold two season foot-ball-and-basketball tickets (worth about $300) for $600. The profits went toward financing athletic scholarships. “I believe,” says McBride, “the amount they generated was $1.2 million.”

McBride et al. do not charge Morris et al. with pocketing any portion of the “scholarship” proceeds. The Boosters were after prestige, not profits. “Nevada is such a small state, population-wise,” McBride observes, “that if you’re strong enough, you can take control of almost anything. The university is only 25 years old. Certain people got ahold of it early on, and I think a lot of them wanted to mold it in their image. Las Vegas is probably more a winners’ town than anywhere else; they really don’t care much for losers.” Negratti resigned in 1981. President Goodall, who failed to come to his aid, was himself pressured by the faculty into quitting last December. The Boosters Club has been disbanded by the Board of Regents. Still, the Dynasty in the Desert remains.

Jerry Tarkanian is the dynasty’s pharaoh, and the life he leads is accordingly sumptuous. His base salary is $125,000 a year, twice that of Nevada Gov. Richard Bryan. But the basketball coach’s total income is probably twice that figure—thanks to his local TV and radio shows, his ghost-written newspaper column, his appearances at half a dozen basketball clinics each year, and the fee he receives for serving on the advisory board of Nike, a leading manufacturer of athletic shoes. Tarkanian also trades a portion of the basketball program’s allotted 250 season tickets for such conveniences as leased cars; he is widely “comped” in those bastions of Boosterdom, the Vegas hotels; plus he enjoys a lavish home purchased at builder’s cost.

Tarkanian was given the nickname “Tark the Shark” because of his feverish appetite for winning basketball teams. He is a voracious competitor and recruiter, who was introduced at Hoopster Club luncheons at his previous place of employment, Long Beach (Calif.) State, as “a guy who doesn’t know there is a war in Vietnam, but who does know where the best forward in the country is.” Indeed, in 1974 the National Collegiate Athletic Association found Tarkanian’s program guilty of 23 violations—including improper gifts to potential recruits and fixing athletes’ test scores—committed at Long Beach when he was leading the team to its best season ever. Yet Tarkanian had left Long Beach for UNLV in 1973. Undaunted, the NCAA concocted what has come to be known as the Tarkanian Rule. It said, in effect, that the Shark carried a two-year suspension from post-season play with him to UNLV. However, in 1977 a Nevada court thwarted the NCAA with a permanent injunction against Tarkanian’s suspension, maintaining that the NCAA investigator who had built the case against Tarkanian had “an obsession to the point of paranoia to harm” him. According to UNLV professors Richard Harp and Joseph McCullough, Tarkanian fans who have written a book about him, “The NCAA has a vendetta against Tarkanian because he has won at high levels for a long time with often hard-to-handle athletes.”

By some people’s lights, Tarkanian is a sort of Father Flanagan, converting street toughs into useful citizens in his own version of Boys Town; others see his motives less charitably. By his own admission, Tarkanian recruits ghetto kids who are often so marginal—both academically and emotionally—that no other coach would dare touch them. Vegas sportswriters speak of players like Michael Johnson, a man-mountain whom Tarkanian recruited out of Oxnard, a junior college in California, in spite of the fact that Johnson had once become so irked by a referee’s call that he hung on the rim for 10 minutes, then lay down in mid-court, after taking off his shirt, folding it neatly and using it as a pillow.

Tarkanian denies the charge that only six of his players have graduated in the past 10 years but declines to give a different figure. “Every year I kept guys on scholarship for their fifth year to help them graduate,” he says. “Instead of recruiting another kid, I kept those kids on. But a great number of the kids we have brought in have been j.c. [junior college] kids or inner-city kids where education wasn’t their No. 1 goal. By the time they came to us, they were behind. I thought we did a great job with them.” He sees nothing wrong with admitting students to college who can barely read. “Isn’t that what a university is for?” he asks. “To educate?” He perceives himself not as an exploiter of young ghetto blacks, but as someone who gives them a much-needed break. “It’s where you start from and where you complete,” he says. “It’s taking a kid who comes to you with a lot of deficiencies and seeing how far you can bring him. We’ve taken kids who can hardly talk in public. We’ve taken them to where they can function socially, read, mix in the community. The real test of the program is not how many people you graduate. It’s to talk to the players who played in the program and find out their reaction….”

The players out of Tarkanian’s program at UNLV have not had time enough, as yet, to feel the good or ill effects of his tutelage. Just half a dozen years or less removed from the Dynasty in the Desert, many are still playing ball in Europe, or have caught on as $30,000 blackjack dealers at one of the casinos on the Strip. And things are improving at UNLV, thanks largely to NCAA scrutiny. Nowadays the basketball team has its own academic adviser, who coordinates tutoring, and players are said to be encouraged to take other than Mickey Mouse courses. Although other college basketball powers are also guilty of giving academics short shrift, the percentage of graduates among Tarkanian recruits remains considerably lower than the national average for college basketball players: about 15 percent vs. 40 percent. “It’s a mortal sin,” says NBC-TV sports analyst Al McGuire, former basketball coach at Marquette University, “for ballplayers not to get degrees.” Veterans of Tarkanian’s regime in Long Beach—mature men mostly in their 30s, many with families—couldn’t agree more.

“I told Tarkanian when he was recruiting me that the main thing to me was to get a degree,” says Oxnard-born David McLucas, 35. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ve got help. You’ll get a degree. You’ll start. You’ll play pro ball.’ ” McLucas didn’t start on the Long Beach team, didn’t graduate, didn’t make the NBA. “My whole world ended when my eligibility ended in 1972 and I quit school,” he says. “I was almost suicidal. I couldn’t face my friends. I dropped out of society for a year.” Now, he senses that he has been deprived of a future. He is a $22,000 “product materials coordinator” at Northrop Corp. in Newbury Park, Calif. “When I came out of my depression I realized I had to make something of myself,” he says. “But the next step in the company is closed to me because I don’t have a degree.”

Tarkanian started recruiting Glen Gerke when he was only 14 and a high-school sophomore in Long Beach. “He could convince you so well,” says Gerke, now 29, “that I turned down recruiters from Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard, the Air Force Academy.” Gerke managed to get his degree at Long Beach, in part because he injured his ankle and went five years on scholarship. “We’re called student-athletes,” he says, “but you tell me, how are you a student-athlete if during the month of December you’re on the road 25 days out of 31? Since I couldn’t go to my classes, my professors didn’t know who I was. I was a phantom. The athletic department filled out my forms. I had no choices as to what courses I was taking. The big brainwash was that Tark said, ‘We’re third in the country. We’re going to beat UCLA!’ ”

Gerke was eventually able to parlay his degree into a $30,000 computer job in the aircraft industry. Sam Robinson, however, who led Long Beach to a 23-3 record in 1968-69, did not graduate and now finds himself stalled in a submanagement job, weighing trucks in Long Beach for Procter & Gamble. “I feel bitter and cheated,” says Robinson, 35. “I feel if I had gone to a smaller school, where there was not so much emphasis on winning and raising funds and putting the school’s name on the map, I would have gotten my degree. They call him Tark the Shark because he knows exactly how to recruit players and he’ll tell you exactly what you want to hear. Once you make that commitment, you’re stuck.”

Dwight Taylor’s story may be the saddest of all. Recruited out of high school in Compton, Calif., he played for Long Beach from 1968 to 1972. He did not graduate. He knocked around the Mexican league for a couple of years and never quite got himself together thereafter. At the moment he works at temporary jobs in shipping, making $250 a month if he’s lucky.

In discussing the Long Beach years, what rankles Taylor the most is the fact that he was persuaded by Tarkanian to change his major from art to physical education. From the time he was a child, he had always been interested in drawing. “I had to change from commercial art because they said they could ‘control’ things better if I majored in phys ed,” he says. In other words, a truly academic program created problems for the coaching staff: Real students attended classes, took tests, received undoctored grades. “I think I’d be a hell of an artist today,” says Taylor, “if they had just helped me in the thing I really liked and wanted to do.”

Amen Rahh, who was known as Arthur Montgomery when he played for Long Beach, now teaches black studies at the university. In his younger and more impressionable days, Rahh used to recruit for Tarkanian. That is, until he began to understand what the “program” did to, not for, young black men who dreamed of playing for the Knicks or Lakers. “You get a free ride for two or three years, traveling around the country, and all your responsibilities are taken away from you,” says Rahh, 35. “Young kids think they are on the gravy train. It was a patriarchal relationship they had with Tarkanian. None of them was really ready to hit the real world.”

At 6’5″, Rahh is an imposing figure, who acts as a sort of father surrogate to black athletes, past and present, at Long Beach. He pauses, considers for the moment Tarkanian’s current place of business: Las Vegas, with its glitter, its air of easy seduction, its weatherless unreality. “It must be a mecca for these kids,” he says. And the cheerless prospect remains that the ones who catch on in the casinos, after the fanfare has died, may eventually get turned over themselves—just like the cards they are dealing?

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