Jerry Tarkanian and Dean Smith: Polar Opposites, Similar Impacts

Jerry Tarkanian’s legacy in NCAA Men’s basketball can only be matched by few. When the news came that the former UNLV Runnin’ Rebels’ head coach had passed away at the age of 84, the sports world began mourning again. His death came just a couple of days after Dean Smith, one the greatest coaches in the history of college hoops died.

While the famous coaches died in a week’s time of each other, there could not have been any more stark a contrast between them.

While Dean Smith was coaching at one of the holy-grail basketball schools in the country in the North Carolina Tar Heels, Jerry “The Shark” Tarkanian built his name at smaller universities.

Smith’s career was filed with a litany of players who would go on to be NBA stars. During his North Carolina days, Smith coached big names such as James Worthy, George Karl, Vince Carter, and a guy named Michael Jordan. His players loved him dearly. Most of them speak fondly of Coach Smith, including Jordan, per a recently published report in the Washington Post. The greatest player to ever play the game of basketball thought of Smith like a second father.

“Other than my parents, no one had a bigger influence on my life than Coach Smith. He was more than a coach — he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father. Coach was always there for me whenever I needed him and I loved him for it. In teaching me the game of basketball, he taught me about life. My heart goes out to [Smith’s wife] Linnea and their kids. We’ve lost a great man who had an incredible impact on his players, his staff and the entire UNC family.”

Michael Jordan on Dean Smith

Coaching from 1961 to 1997, Smith won two National Championships at North Carolina. He guided his teams to 27 NCAA Tournament appearances during this time. Players and opposing coaches alike saw him as mentor, a master teacher when it came to the game of basketball and life. He kept his Tar Heels teams scandal-free for the most part. His 879 wins are fourth all-time in men’s hoops.

He fought for civil rights and equality for potential players, coaches and other teams. Looking back on it, Dean Smith wore a white hat, while Jerry Tarkanian preferred a black hat and a white towel to chew on.

Tarkanian did things slightly different than Smith, but the impact he had on college basketball was similar. Like Smith’s North Carolina teams, Tarkanian’s UNLV teams were forces to be reckoned with. The Runnin’ Rebels went to the NCAA Tourney in eight consecutive seasons, winning one championship in the 1989-90 season. They followed up that campaign by going undefeated into the big dance before losing to Duke University in the Final Four.

Controversy came the season after surrounding convicted game-fixer Richard Perry, as retold by ESPN, a saga that gave UNLV a black eye. Few people seemed to give Tarkanian a fair shake. Jerry Tarkanian at the time was famous for bending the rules. In essence he fought the establishment and won some, then lost more. Those loses never affected his abilities as a head coach. Of the 784 wins he had as a coach, 48 of the victories were vacated due to improprieties.

The most famous players he coached were Larry “Grandmama” Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony. Tarkanian took advantage of recruiting opportunities among the junior-college players few teams wanted, and he won with them. Coaches now do not see this practice as taboo the way they did in the late 1980’s and early 90’s. His specialties included teaching pressure defense, using the lead guard and small forward at the point of attack. It is the same defensive practices that many schools employ today.

An additional practice that he allowed his players to use frequently is the three-point shot. Tarkanian embraced the long-range jump shot more than many of his counterparts. Eventually other coaches would catch on and give their players the green light to take three-point shots with regularity.

Current prominent college coaches recall Tarkanian’s impact in a USA Today article. Kansas Jayhawks’ coach Bill Self remembers him fondly.

“The thing about Tark that amazes me, obviously he won a ton of games, obviously he recruited unbelievable players, obviously he got them to play together and to play hard. The players that play for him, the ones that I know, all sing his praises. They say he was a tough, tough guy. He loved the game. He had great respect for the game and for other coaches. I love Tark.”

His former players and son speak of him the same way.

It is hard not to acknowledge what he has done for the sport of college basketball. He was a rebel true to the team that he is most famous for. He also may not be remembered in the same light as the legendary coach who proceeded him in death, but Jerry “The Shark” Tarkanian’s legacy is undeniable.