Jerry Tarkanian: Complex, successful

Seth Greenberg Reflects On Jerry Tarkanian (4:42)

Seth Greenberg shares his memories of Hall of Fame coach Jerry Tarkanian, who has died at the age of 84. (4:42)

A life is never linear, never a straight line or even a flat line of simplicity. There are successes and failures, accomplishments and embarrassments in store for all of us.

And so it is with a legacy.

Jerry Tarkanian, who died Wednesday at the age of 84, deserves to be remembered as a great coach. Because to deny Tarkanian, who won at every level from high school to junior college to Division I college, his due would not just be unfair; it would be unforgivable.

He more than earned his way into the Basketball Hall of Fame two years ago on the backbone of excellence at the highest collegiate level: 729 wins, a winning percentage of better than 75 percent, four Final Fours and one national title.

When no one recruited junior college players, he made recruiting junior college players OK. When no one thought a school in the middle of the desert could be popular, Tarkanian turned UNLV into a desert-hot ticket, complete with his own Gucci row.

But along with the Runnin' at UNLV, Tarkanian put the Rebel in the school nickname. And that is where the legacy becomes complicated.

To some he is a hero, a man who fought the establishment and won. To others, he is a cheater, a man who tried to beat the establishment and lost.

In reality, he was all of that.

Tarkanian was an incredibly gifted coach and a champion for kids who never had a champion before and needed one.

Yet he also was a man who at least lived in the gray and occasionally tap-danced on the black side of the rules.

He was, like most of us, incredibly complicated and layered, not entirely good and certainly not all bad.

And that is how he will be remembered.

Most of us don't have our own complexities play out in front of the world, juxtaposing our greatest triumphs with our collapses.

Yet that was Tarkanian's path, his coaching vindication nearly colliding headlong with his professional nadir.

Few can argue that the 1990 and 1991 Runnin' Rebels teams rank among the game's best. Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony demolished Duke by 30 in the 1990 championship game, the biggest title game blowout in NCAA history, a game viewed as more a morality play than a basketball game.

A year later, UNLV rode a 34-0 record to the Final Four before the Blue Devils delivered retribution.

And then it all fell apart. In May 1991, the Las Vegas Journal-Review published a photo of convicted game fixer Richard Perry in a hot tub with three UNLV players.

For the NCAA, it was like Eliot Ness finally getting Al Capone as Tarkanian had dogged and dodged the organization since the late 1960s/early 1970s. They cited him for 23 violations while the head coach at Long Beach State, and in an earlier run at UNLV, ordered him removed from all contact with the school for two years. But until that front-page picture, Tarkanian proved every bit as elusive as Capone.

And this was bigger than tax evasion.

This was a man charged with fixing games at Boston College literally putting UNLV in hot water.

The NCAA barred UNLV from the postseason and all TV appearances and Tarkanian announced that the 1991-92 season would be his last.

Tark the Shark, a nickname he embraced as part of his intro at UNLV games, suddenly sounded more sinister than endearing.

College sports -- all sports, really -- are littered with former coaches and players who have been shamed into the shadows. Some lick their wounds and hide forever, some apologize, take their hits and return.

And some fight back.

Anyone who knew Tarkanian never expected him to go quietly. He sued the NCAA, claiming the organization tried to intentionally ruin his career.

In 1998 they gave him $2.5 million, but it was a settlement not a judgment. No one technically said he was right; the NCAA essentially just said it didn't want to argue anymore and so there never was a real exoneration for Tarkanian.

That stained reputation, which took another hit when he returned to Fresno and once again was tagged with NCAA infractions, certainly added to the delay in Tarkanian's Hall of Fame induction.

It finally came in 2013, a decade or two late in the eyes of many.

Slowed by illness and age by the time he got to Springfield, Massachusetts, Tarkanian's induction speech was read by his wife, Lois. He added a few whispered words on his own before taking the stage for a lengthy ovation.

His official Hall of Fame biography begins this way, "Jerry Tarkanian beat the odds, challenged the system, and wrinkled the feathers of basketball traditionalists everywhere. But there is no arguing with success."

And that really is the essence of who Tarkanian was and what now his legacy will be: a great coach, a complicated man, and a life, like most, lived with ups and downs.