Saturday night, at a packed Elbow Room restaurant, Jerry Tarkanian’s favorite Fresno hangout, nearly 150 of his friends honored him with a pre-induction Hall of Fame dinner party. One by one, people would stop by the 83-year-old former coach’s table to thank him for being their friend, for turning around a program that had become non-competitive and for creating so much excitement at Selland Arena that the university had no choice but to build the on campus facility. Speaker after speaker told of Tark’s humility, people skills and uncanny knack of unforgettable events.
A couple stories dealt with the coach and five of his friends who would annually go to a big-time football game. On one occasion they dined at a high class Italian restaurant in South Bend. A group of tough guys in expensive designer suits kept looking over at the “Fresno” table. The waiter came over with a bottle of wine for Coach Tarkanian and his friends, compliments of the “suits.” As the guys left, they stopped by the table and said, “Coach Tark, we really enjoyed watching your teams play.” After they were gone, the owner told them their friends were members of the John Gotti family.
Another incident took place when the fellas took in an Oklahoma State game. They were at a pregame function in which it seemed everyone in the room was trying to have a conversation with an obviously very popular man. When the man saw Jerry and his group come into the room, the man broke away and walked up to Coach Tark and said, “Coach, I really admire the way your teams played.” That stranger was T. Boone Pickens who, not so unbelievably, Jerry found absolutely fascinating as well.
Larry Abney, one of Jerry’s former Fresno State players spoke from his heart about being a college graduate with a good job (selling solar systems) and having had a 13 year professional career overseas in numerous countries (and had played on every continent except Antarctica). “I owe it all to Coach Tark. I remember early in my career Coach telling us that we could bullshit our friends and we could bullshit our parents and we could bullshit our professors but, when the game started, all the bullshit ended. That struck a chord with me I took on the court every time I played.”
Jerry’s son, Danny, spoke to the group about how their family would leave southern California to spend summers in Fresno - and how unbearably hot it was for the Tarkanian youngsters. “We could never understand what our Mom and Dad liked so much about the Central Valley - it was so hot!” the younger Tarkanian told the crowd. After returning to assist his dad at Fresno State, Danny said he could see how accepted and loved his dad was, even more than he was in Las Vegas where Tark realized his greatest success, including a national championship in 1990. On behalf of his father (who’d had a heart attack and is in poor health), Danny thanked those who attended as well as the people of the San Joaquin Valley.
While he was a lightening rod for many, one Hall of Fame coach (who shall remain nameless because I haven’t been able to reach him and don’t want to attribute the following quote - which I’ve heard him say - without first speaking with him) said about Coach Tark:
“I don’t think there’s ever been a person who really got to know Jerry Tarkanian who doesn’t like him.”