Posted Sep 3, 2013 11:21 AM
Tark being Tark, he wasn't going to phony his way through a bad situation. He wasn't going to sit quiet while his gut told him to take a stand for what he felt was right. He wanted the job, but his way.
And so Jerry Tarkanian basically quit as coach of the Spurs. After 20 games.
Technically, owner Red McCombs fired Tarkanian, but after giving Tarkanian the chance to fall in line and accept the roster in place, unwanted point guards and all. No thanks.
It was Dec. 18, 1992.
It was the end of Tarkanian's career as an NBA coach.
He spent enough time in the college ranks to build Long Beach State into a mounting threat to the machine at neighboring UCLA, turn UNLV into a national power, reach the Final Four on four occasions and the Sweet 16 on 13, and coach 12 first-round picks. But the one attempt at the pros was a passing wave that has mostly been lost to time, even as Tarkanian is set to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame on Sunday (2 p.m. ET, NBA TV) along with Rick Pitino and Guy V. Lewis from the coaching ranks via the North American committee.
McCombs hired Tarkanian on April 15 and fired him eight months later, not quite a quarter into the regular season. In between, there had been admitted jitters about making the move after 19 seasons at UNLV. There were also injuries to contributors Willie Anderson and Terry Cummings, the loss of Rod Strickland to free agency in an eventual tipping point, Tarkanian being briefly hospitalized with chest pains, and players openly complaining about his strategy. And the 9-11 record.
"I don't think he had a lot of regrets about it," Danny Tarkanian said of his father, now 83 and struggling with health issues. "I think he just felt there wasn't much he could do under the circumstances. He was very disappointed, primarily in (general manager Bob Bass letting Strickland go.) Strickland was a restricted free agent, so all they had to do was match Portland's offer, and they wouldn't do so. Afterward, Bass had said, 'We'll get you a point guard.' My dad pushed real hard for a number of them.
"[Then-Clippers guard] Gary Grant, who my dad loved at Michigan and wasn't real strong in the NBA. My dad tried to get them to trade for him and they didn't. Then he really wanted to get [then-Hawks guard] Mookie Blaylock and they wouldn't pull the trigger on that one either."
"So they brought in (Vinny) Del Negro (as a free agent). I think my dad felt there wasn't much more he thought he could have done in that time period. I'm sure he wished he would have had more time to get things to work out. I know the one regret he had, they brought in the point guard (Avery Johnson) at the very end.... My dad didn't play him much and he (Johnson) ended up having a pretty good professional career."
As was his way, Tarkanian refused to let up, which didn't endear him to the Spurs' brass, Danny Tarkanian said.
"My dad has never been the kind of guy to sit back and just say, 'I'm going to continue to coach a team that I don't believe is competitive,' " Danny Tarkanian said. "He went to Bass, he went to McCombs and he said, 'Hey, I need another point guard. I need a better point guard, one that fits in better with our team.' It was the same old 'We'll get you one, we'll get you one.' They got him Del Negro. My dad said, 'That's not it. We need a better one.' They didn't do anything.
"My dad made some public comments in the paper that he didn't think the team could win the whole thing without getting another point guard. He went public with it. McCombs called him in the office with Bass there and said, 'Jerry, if you don't think you can win with the lineup we have now, then we're going to let you go.' My dad said, 'OK.' That was it. I don't think my dad wanted more time with that lineup. I think he would have liked to have more time with Gary Grant or Mookie Blaylock or Rod Strickland as his point guard."
In a statement announcing the firing, McCombs cited "an honest difference of opinion on the expectation levels," indicating the front office believed the roster in place was capable of better than staying close to .500. After one game with Rex Hughes as interim coach, John Lucas took over, went 39-22 and got the Spurs into the West semis.
Tarkanian, 62 at the time, said he would never coach again and that he probably shouldn't have taken the job in the first place. The part about being done, at least, was not true. He returned to his alma mater, Fresno State, in 1995 and stayed until 2002 with a run that included six consecutive 20-win seasons, more off-court issues with players and more special attention from the NCAA.
Asked if his father thinks of himself as ever having been in the NBA, Danny Tarkanian said, "I don't believe he ever had a serious chance to coach in the NBA, no. I don't think anybody could say that either."
Pitino, the current coach at Louisville, had two NBA stints that at least lasted slightly longer: two seasons, one Atlantic Division title and a 90-74 record with the Knicks before leaving for Kentucky in 1989-90. Then came three-plus seasons and little progress in the standings with the Celtics. They were bad when he took over in 1997-98 and bad when he was fired 34 games into 2000-01 with a 47-146 record.
He made it to Springfield on his work in the college game, including national titles with Kentucky in 1996 and Louisville in 2013 on the night his Hall election was announced. Pitino is the only men's coach to take three schools to the Final Four.
Lewis graduated from the University of Houston in 1947 and spent his entire coaching career there, working four years as an assistant before becoming coach for the next 30. His 592-279 record includes five trips to the Final Four, national Coach of the Year twice and coaching eventual Hall of Famers Elvin Hayes, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler among 29 future NBA players. Now 91, Lewis also had a major hand in developing the Game of the Century, the 1968 showdown with Lew Alcindor and UCLA in the Astrodome that raised college basketball to new heights.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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