On the morning on February 11, 2015, Las Vegas, UNLV, college basketball, and the entire sports world lost one of its greatest personalities and coaches. After a series of health problems in recent years, Jerry Tarkanian passed away.
The lights on the Las Vegas Strip will go dark tonight at 10:30pm after the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels play Boise State. For those few minutes, the casino lights won’t be the attraction in Vegas. A simple but meaningful gesture to honor the city’s rare sports royalty.
No love from professional sports
Las Vegas is the largest and most visited metropolitan area in the country without a professional sports team.
Why is that? It has not been for lack of trying by the Mayor’s office. Sports betting has been the easy excuse by commissioners in the past. Phoenix/Glendale is even hotter than Vegas, so weather can’t be the reason. The new crop of commissioners including Adam Silver of the NBA, and Rob Manfred of MLB actually accept sports betting as reality. What does this mean for a future pro sports team in Vegas? Nobody really knows.
Because there is no professional sports team, few people associate Vegas with sports…except for one constant.
Tark earned respect.
While Jerry Tarkanian was building a successful basketball program at Long Beach State and taking them to the NCAA Tournament in just his third season with less than stellar talent, UNLV was a perennial loser that locals branded “Tumbleweed Tech”. UNLV sports was a joke with few fans.
Tark took over the coaching reigns at UNLV in 1973 and led them to their first Final Four by 1977. Las Vegas finally had a sports program it could respect. UNLV basketball never had a losing record under Tark.
Tark and the Runnin’ Rebels rewarded their fans with a National Championship in 1990. His kept his team focused enough to win the title in spite of all the distractions from the investigations, player suspensions, and accusations of shaving points that would have taken down a weaker man.
How could Sin City not embrace a man like Tark?
Tark created loyalty.
Many Las Vegans are dedicated sports fans, but there are a wide variety of team loyalties among the residents. With no professional sports teams, how do Las Vegans have a favorite? Some because of the team that was good when they first started watching the sport. Some because of who their parents like? And a lot of Las Vegans brought their loyalties with them as transplants of other cities.
But then there’s Tark. Despite the seemingly random favoritism in pro sports, there is one constant when it comes to the NCAA basketball. The common appreciation of the program that Jerry Tarkanian built.
The NCAA against Tark. The nation against Tark. Tark fought back, and Tark won…every time. You’re with Tark, or you’re against him. Las Vegas is with Tark.
Tark was Las Vegas.
Walk into an In-N-Out in Las Vegas and you could hear a debate about any team in any sport. Walk into most bars in Las Vegas, and you will find every tv is showing a different game. Walk into any sports book and you will witness cheering and cursing at seemingly innocuous times by bettors’ wins or losses hanging on a single play.
Walking into the Thomas & Mack Arena for a Runnin’ Rebels game is the one place in Vegas you find singularity. Jerry Tarkanian would be shown on the jumbo-tron and the whole arena would cheer the legend. He was at every game.
The Strip will go dark tonight at 10:30pm. That is prime time for most tourists to be banging on the slot machines, or at a show, or in a club. The casino lights will go out and tourists will go on with their night as if nothing is any different.
But something is different. Las Vegas lost one its greats. Las Vegans will be remembering the man who made Las Vegas a sports town.