Elvis, Frank, Sammy, Dino, Reagan, JFK, George Burns….and tonight, Tark. The strip dimming their lights to honor these men. Pretty cool. And well deserved. My only connection to the first seven were as a fan, but for Coach Tark, it is personal. I would have never met my wonderful wife if it were not for Coach. Back in the mid 50’s, when he was a basketball player at Fresno State College, (as it was then known), each player on the team was assigned to a coach from another sport to serve as a student assistant. As if happens, Tark was assigned to the football coach at the time, a great man by the name of Clark Van Galder, who would become a very influential mentor for him. I had always been big fan and admirer of Tark and knew his background and history fairly well, (his first coaching job was as a student assistant at Edison HS in Fresno, where I spent 4 years as head coach as well), including this part of his life. In December of 1994, I was invited to the wedding of a friend in Fresno. At the reception, I was intrigued, attracted, and really drawn to a beautiful girl, who a mutual friend told me was single. With the help a some liquid courage, I approached her, and knowing her last name was Van Galder, I asked if she was related to Clark Van Galder who Coach Tarkanian talked about in his book? Great opening line, huh? As they say, the rest is history. By the way, best move I have ever made in my life. Back to Coach……In 2000 I had the opportunity to join his staff at Fresno State. The next 3 years were an experience with terrific colleagues and players. But best of all was the chance to see Coach at work up close.
People who knew him could go on forever telling Tark stories, which was always as informative as it was entertaining. But what I learned the most from him was how important PRACTICE and PREPARATION were to success. The intensity of his practices were legendary. Shoot arounds on game days were full on, sweaty 90 minute practices…..blasphemy in todays world. I had seen the 3 hour sessions at UNLV several times, but during those 3 years at Fresno State, I got to experience it first hand. He was first and foremost, a teacher. Those who only saw him from afar would argue that he didn’t exactly play by rules. Everyone has warts, and I’m sure Coach had many. However, as a TEACHER and COACH, he had few peers in the history of college basketball, especially defensively. STANCE, BALL PRESSURE, CLOSEOUT, REBOUND, HELP/RECOVER, SPRINT BACK…..were the staples of his teams. Offensive freedom was given as long as the defensive end was executed the way he wanted. His 1990-91 teams were the best college defensive teams I have EVER seen, and this is agreed upon by coaches older than me, who have seen many more teams than I. Coach not only won, but won playing different styles…….1-2-2 zone at Long Beach State, full court pressure at UNLV in the mid to late 70’s…….Match up Zone AND half court man pressure in the 90’s and early 2000’s. No matter what the defense, his teams ALWAYS play unselfishly on offense. They shared the ball, and played together. With all the characters he coached through the years, to get them to all buy in on OFFENSE was amazing. Coaches, you know what I mean!!
Coach was a humble as could be. I have literally seen him take a play, drill or concept from a Jr. High coach, and this was AFTER he had won a national championship. He would take ideas from anyone. The players loved him and played as hard for him as any coach I have ever seen. He was tough on them when needed, but put an arm around them when needed as well. Tranfers, second chance guys, (and at times 3rd chance guys), guys not highly recruited, he took them all, and molded them into cohesive, hard playing teams.
I don’t need to get into his record, or the numbers he put up, (if you don’t know, check it out, you will be astonished). He was the last of a rapidly dying breed of coach. The characters who were larger than life……Tark, Al McGuire, Lefty, Abe, Bill Mulligan, …..you just don’t have those guys today. But you do have a lot of “corporate” guys.
In an hours time from now, the lights on the Strip will dim……….well deserved, Coach. And thanks for helping me meet my wife. As you always said……”You’re the best”…….