It was one of the most entertaining, glitziest and controversial Las Vegas shows ever. And Lima’s Tom Sawyer had a courtside seat for it.
Former UNLV men’s basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian’s death at age 84 on Wednesday reminded people who remember college basketball in the 1970s and 1980s just how big the Running Rebels’ program was.
UNLV won the 1990 NCAA championship and made three other trips to the Final Four for Tarkanian. It also made numerous trips to the NCAA’s dog house for alleged and real rules violations.
The Rebels became like Las Vegas’ pro team and Vegas embraced them with its sequin-studded arms.
Tarkanian was a controversial figure. His teams won 784 games at three NCAA Division I schools — Long Beach State, UNLV and Fresno State — but all three ended up on NCAA probation.
Some compared him to Father Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, a famed orphanage for boys. Others thought he got the “Tark the Shark” nickname for a reason.
Sawyer, best known in Lima as the owner of the Ohio Mixers of the Continental Basketball Association in the early 1980s, was a bench player for UNLV in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
“I was like the eleventh man on a roster where he played eight,” Sawyer said. “I didn’t get to play as much as I wanted. I was a practice player. They were looking for a big guy.”
Other than getting only occasional playing time, Sawyer has fond memories of his time at UNLV.
“It was a sad day,” he said about learning of Tarkanian’s death. “He was my coach, my mentor. I learned so much basketball from him. To play for a legendary coach like Tark was the thrill of a lifetime.
“I feel very sad for the Tarkanian family. I appreciate everything he did for me,” he said.
Sawyer said it was six years ago when he last talked with Tarkanian, who had survived two heart attacks and pneumonia in recent years.
The story Sawyer tells about their first meeting has a distinctly 1970s feel to it.
It started with him getting a ride from Lima to Albuquerque from a friend. Then Sawyer hitch-hiked to Las Vegas.
After several days of playing in pick-up games in one of the two gyms at UNLV’s practice facility, he says one of the players on the team approached him and said, ‘Tark wants to see you in the other gym.’
“And then Tark asked me some questions like, ‘What kind of eligibility do you have left?’ ” Sawyer said. That meeting eventually led to a spot on the roster.
The glamour of being associated with UNLV in Las Vegas filtered down even to the eleventh and twelfth players on the roster and benefits like tickets to boxing title fights or casino shows became available to them.
“He had so many friends in Vegas who were the big shots — the multi-millionaires, the casino owners. Tark knew all the big shots. He’d be rubbing shoulders with Frank Sinatra and his entourage,” Sawyer said.
Tarkanian knew how to play the odds even before he got to Vegas. He knew he wasn’t going to fill his team with elite players like the ones who were going to end up at North Carolina or Duke. So he gambled on some players many coaches wouldn’t or couldn’t sign.
“He took in some players who other coaches wouldn’t think of taking a chance on,” Sawyer said. He would take anybody. He would take kids who had nothing. I cannot believe that I’m 61 and Tark is 84 and dead. How time flies.”