A Saint and a Satan

Dean Smith and Jerry Tarkanian both left big legacies in college basketball.

Two of the legendary college basketball coaches passed away within days of each other last week: a saint and a satan.

Dean Smith, the gentlemanly patriarch of North Carolina hoops, won 879 games as the coach of the Tar Heels, which at one time was an NCAA Division I record. He owns now the ninth-best winning percentage of all-time and during his tenure won two national championships and got to 11 Final Fours.

Smith reeked of goodness. He was known for running a clean program even though he landed some of the best scholastic recruits in the nation and was also a liberator of sorts, having recruited the school’s first African-American player — Charlie Scott, who became one of the school’s all-time greats — while also pushing for equal treatment for African-Americans amongst local businesses.

Tarkanian on the other hand was the rapscallion who flaunted this reality: The concept of student-athlete is a myth and is only relevant to the fans of a college only when it comes with sports success. Tark “The Shark” won almost as many games of Smith. He had 29 seasons with 20 or more wins, took his Running Rebels to four Final Fours, and won the 1990 national championship with one of the most talented teams ever assembled (Larry Johnson, Stacy Augmon, Greg Anthony, Anderson Hunt), blitzing goody-goody Duke in the national title game, 103-73.

Tarkanian recruited the best talent he could find, regardless of academic standard, and made the Runnin Rebels the biggest and loudest show in a town of considerable glitz. He had his own private booth in the most popular restaurant in town, where he would entertain celebrities over bottles of red wine and cigars. Sinatra. Sammy Davis Jr. The tiger dudes, Seigfried and Roy. All of this would make him an enemy of the egalitarian NCAA, which hovered over him like a stealth readying a scud. And the collision between these two entities wound up on the lap of the Supreme Court of the United States.

In the early 1970s, the NCAA launched an investigation in the questionable recruiting methods of UNLV and three years later, with a transparent mission to get Tarkanian, hit the school with 38 rules violations. The NCAA proposed a two-year probation for UNLV with the suspension of Tarkanian included. In response, school officials weighed three options: To reject the NCAA’s recommendations and risk further NCAA sanctions, accept the sanctions reluctantly while not acknowledging that the NCAA was correct in its recommendations, or withdraw completely from the NCAA and join the NAIA, another college organization not subject to NCAA regulations.

UNLV wound up accepting the second option and reluctantly suspended Tarkanian. But the coach had another legal ace up his sleeve – he sued the NCAA, saying he hadn’t received due process, and got an injunction lifting his suspension. He coached UNLV through the next 10 years of legal entanglement, and won two cases in lower court against the NCAA until the Supreme Court shot him down. The reasoning: the NCAA was a private organization, not part of the state education process of a state university such as UNLV, and they therefore didn’t have to provide due process. The case set a precedent however where due process thus became mandatory even in NCAA cases – which the NCAA would violate years later in its sanctioning of Penn State in the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

When UNLV a few years later would hire more of a stickler academic president named Robert Maxson, Tark’s goose was pretty much cooked. After a photo ran in the Las Vegas Review-Journal showing several of Tarkanian’s players in a hot tub with Richard Perry, known as “The Fixer” for his notorious involvement in sports point shaving, Maxson fired Tark. He ended up coaching the San Antonio Spurs for about a half hour, and finished his college coaching career at his alma mater Long Beach State.

As for Smith, in covering college basketball for several years as a reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer, I always thought his reputation was more pious than it deserved. He was a notorious referee baiter on the sidelines, though he did in more of a pastoral way. At times, he came off as sanctimonious snob.

In 1988, Smith’s Tar Heels hosted Temple in a monumental nationally televised game in Chapel Hill in the newly-built arena known as the Dean Dome. The Owls of John Chaney that week had moved to a No. 1 national ranking, but in the game before North Carolina had struggled in beating lowly Penn State by a point at McGonigle Hall. Minutes after Temple smoked North Carolina that Saturday afternoon, 83-66, Smith was asked whether he thought Temple should be ranked No. 1.

“Well, I’m not so sure Penn State would think so,” Smith answered snarkily.

Later in the press conference, Smith said that he thought Temple allowed star freshman Mark Macon, “to do too much.”

I relayed that to Chaney for a comment and the outspoken Temple coach didn’t disappoint.

“Man, who the hell is Dean trying to fool,” Chaney said. “If he had Mark Macon, he’d allow him to do anything he wanted, including selling the damn popcorn.”

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