This past Saturday Dean Smith passed away. During his final years, poor health denied both he and his adoring public of the relationship each desired. He’s been fondly remembered by nearly everyone, inside and out, of college basketball, including this site (see yesterday’s blog).
Now the news is another basketball coaching icon, Jerry Tarkanian, is near the end. Jerry, also, has been in failing health for some time. Last April he was hospitalized for, what at the time was believed to be a stroke. Whether it was a stroke, heart attack or pneumonia, the setback took its toll on the 84-year old championship coach, husband, father of four and grandfather of 10. As with others who experience such a shock to their system, his life was never the same. Gone was the outgoing, fun-loving guy who constantly needed to be around people.
Seldom, if ever, has anyone possessed the number one people skill as well as Jerry Tarkanian: the ability to make people feel important. I recall the day I saw him sitting in his office, listening to someone who was standing, out of my sight, diagramming plays at the white board on his office wall. When the guy left, I asked Jerry who he was. He told me that he had simply walked in (our secretary was on her break), knocked on his door (which was open) and introduced himself.
In classic Tark fashion, he couldn’t remember the guy’s name. They began talking and when Tark’s new best friend mentioned he, too, was a basketball coach, Jerry asked him what he did against a 1-2-2 zone. That’s what led to the scene I had witnessed.
Later on, I found out from the person this guy was actually there to see that, when he saw the basketball office door open, he walked in. Then, he noticed Jerry’s door was open and felt he’d take a chance on meeting his coaching idol. Who then, naturally, requested the mini-clinic, because he thought he might learn something. In no way was he putting this guy on.
Three weeks ago I visited the last of my bosses from a 30-year college coaching career. Jerry couldn’t walk, talk, had a feeding tube in his stomach and he was on oxygen. Yet, when his son, Danny, his daughter, Jodi, and I stated telling stories from our Fresno State days, a glimmer in his eye appeared and a smile began to curl up the corners of his mouth. It was sad that his health had deteriorated so badly but rewarding (although not surprising) to see that he was still battling – because one of his defining traits is he hated losing.
Dean Smith won 879 Division I games, with a .776 winning percentage. Jerry Tarkanian won 784, with a .795 percentage. Each respected the other’s ability to get his players to compete to their maximum potential. Dean’s University of North Carolina guys, for the most part, were clean cut, McDonald’s All-Americans. Jerry’s, for the most part (independent of which school he was coaching), were kids who needed a second (and, occasionally, an additional) chance and the only McDonald’s they knew had arches. Yet, these two giants of college coaching put up such gaudy numbers because they were innovators who cared deeply about the young guys they coached. In addition, there was a shared loyalty that existed between coach and player.
Since Coach Smith’s passing, people who didn’t realize all he’d accomplished regarding civil rights have been educated of his courageous actions – while doing it in the South at a time it wasn’t very popular. What just as many people aren’t aware of is Tark’s stand during the 1968 Olympic Trials. The story shows there is a connection between Dean Smith and Jerry Tarkanian and their views against racial prejudice.
It was 1968 and the Olympic Trials consisted of three NCAA all-star teams, one NCAA college all-star team, and separate all-star squads representing the AAU, NJCAA, NAIA, and U.S. Armed Forces. Jerry coached the junior college (NJCAA) all-stars, selected in large part because he had previously won four straight California junior college championships. It was a round robin event, won by Tark’s JC guys.
At the press conference which followed the championship game, a reporter asked Jerry if he was making a statement by starting five black players, a first for any team competing in the Trials. Jerry gave a response that people who know truly him only can laugh and shake their heads: