Archive for the ‘Jerry Tarkanian’ Category

Don Quixote Loses – Again

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

After my boss, Jerry Tarkanian, retired in 2002, I was faced with a decision. Where was I going to work? I had been in college basketball nearly my entire adult life – 4 as a graduate assistant at three different schools, 11 as an assistant at three other institutions, 8 as an associate head coach at two others and 7 as Tark’s director of basketball operations – for a grand total of 30 years at nine Division I universities. Working in the field that long, I had made friends and gained the respect of some, if not many, of my peers. I had two or three options to continue doing so.

Picking up and leaving wouldn’t be a challenge. After all, I had moved 16 times and lived in nine states since graduating from college. What was another one. It was only when Andy, our older son (who had just completed seventh grade – he was the president of his class), said, “Dad, do we have to move?” did I realize that nearly all of my moves came when I was single and childless. Now it would mean selling a house, buying another – in our price range and in a good school district for our rising 3rd and 8th grade boys, plus getting a job for my wife who had more than two decades of working for the federal government. All to chase the dream of, one day, becoming a head coach – with no guarantee that will happen. It’s not like, “OK, you’ve coached 40 years. Congratulations, here’s a college team where you can be the head coach.”

One of the coaches at Fresno State mentioned to me that, if I wanted to coach on the high school level, he had a great deal of pull at a local school that had recently dismissed its coach. More and more, the NCAA had been limiting practice time for college coaches with their players. What made coaching high school in California attractive was you could coach your team nearly every day of the year. I got that high school job and conducted practices in May and June – before I even started teaching. In late June while I was at my computer, filling out a form to take the team to Los Angeles for a summer tournament, I felt a sharp pain in my mid-back. It turned out to be a herniated disk (my fourth) that required emergency surgery – that kept me from living the rest of my life in a wheelchair.

The remainder of the summer was dedicated to physical therapy. I showed up for orientation walking with a cane. While that was excruciating, it wasn’t nearly as painful as hearing, as I did in each of the three meetings, that “teachers should document everything, as our parents are a very litigious group.” At the time I was also a member of the National Speakers Association and my main topic was “Team Building” – how the number one characteristic of any great team is trust. My new employers were telling me I should document everything while I was getting paid to speak to groups, often quoting Stephen Covey’s line, “In a no-trust culture, you live in memo haven.”

Unwisely, I thought that my diverse experiences throughout the nation, in addition to my membership in NSA, would allow me to enlighten my new colleagues that maybe the trust thing, combined with hiring better lawyers, was a better strategy. Vegas would have given Don Quixote shorter odds against the windmills.

When No Child Left Behind became the new (mainly political) rallying cry, our school district, consisting mostly of upper middle class families, decided that a necessary addendum would be, “Every student should go to college.” Only not every student in our school wanted, needed nor should have gone to college. It was almost as if the district powers were saying that other schools, the ones that didn’t measure up to us in standardized test scores and such, ought to be supplying the cashiers, bank tellers, plumbers, painters, roofers, auto repairmen and all those other vital professions that many of our kids would have been superstars at, if we’d only helped encourage and train them.

That motto was expanded by a new superintendent (who was as egomaniacal as any “leader” I’ve encountered – and, not shockingly, lasted a year). He pompously made the statement that every student was to take at least one Advanced Placement class during his or her four years in high school. Heck, we had some kids who couldn’t even spell “AP.”

What brought on this blog was an article on Albert Einstein I read last night. One of his life lessons was entitled, “We are all born geniuses but life de-geniuses us.” Beneath it read something I wish all the administrators at that school district would highlight and place on their desks, mirrors and refrigerators. In fact, I forwarded it to several of the teachers from the district, with the hope they’ll pass it along. It said:

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”


The Worst Trait a Coach Can Possess

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

While coaches are leaders, one part of their job differs from that of a traditional executive. The people they’re leading are under their supervision for a limited number of years. Other than the rare Belichick-Brady combo or Popovich and his band of merry Spurs, the maximum amount of time a coach spends with his (using the male pronoun but all of this also applies to the distaff side) team is five years – and that’s only when a college player redshirts and uses all his eligibility. Safe to say, though, the length of time will be less, usually between 1-4 years. And that’s for elementary school coaches all the way to those on the professional level.

Still and all, the coach can have a powerful effect on his charges, as long as he understands the relationship is a two-way street. Each side must be loyal to and trusting of each other. Once guys become professionals, the old saying is, “You can tell pros, but you can’t tell them much.” Those guys have so many other “advisers” in their heads, getting them to play hard and together is about the most a coach can hope for. Getting only one of those could cost him his job.

For the overwhelming number of coaching situations, on any level, there is one negative characteristic a coach must avoid at all costs. In truth, it’s difficult for some coaches, possibly because of their competitive nature. That characteristic is stubbornness.

Having been in the field of coaching for 35 years, I’ve seen some stubborn coaches. One of an assistant coach’s primary responsibilities is scouting opponents. Stubborn coaches are the easiest to scout. They have a style and, come hell or high water, that’s the way their teams are going to play. The open minded coaches always have a wrinkle or two you haven’t seen but worry about because you know, if the situation demands it, they’re prepared to use something you’ve never seen.

During my career, I worked for a stubborn coach or two. And I worked for coaches who not only invited outside thoughts but demanded you contribute your ideas. I recall a day at Fresno State when I walked into Jerry Tarkanian’s office, not realizing he had a visitor. The guy was at the white board, showing Tark (who, at the time, was the winningest, by percentage, active college basketball coach in the nation) his zone offense. The previous year he had been a seventh grade coach. We didn’t use the offense but the fact Tark thought he might learn something spoke volumes.

In a brief number of bullet points, here’s why being stubborn leads to a coach’s downfall (which usually translates into losing games and, possibly, his job):

Nobody knows it all.

Everybody can use some help.

There’s a great deal of knowledge out there.

Coaches love to talk X’s and O’s (as well as all things related to the profession).

Tark used to tell stories of how he and Lefty Driesell would sit on the beach, putting sun tan lotion on their bald heads during the annual Nike trip and talk basketball (Nike would take the head coaches of the teams they sponsored on a luxurious cruise or to a lavish resort during the off season – all expenses paid, naturally). I blogged several years ago about how George Raveling, as a young head coach, contacted a handful of coaches he respected and began a self-improvement clinic that lasted 40 years – and how Larry Shyatt and Scott Duncan, currently head and assistant coaches at the University of Wyoming, and I – stole the idea and started one of our own in the 1980s (and that still exists today).

One of today’s most repeated coachspeak words is “share.” Coaches absolutely love it when their teams “share” the ball. It’s the same with knowledge. Over and over you hear that coaching is a copycat profession. One reason is coaches see something one of their colleagues has success with and they incorporate it. Another is more simple. One coach sees something another has done and, unless they’re in the same league (or play each other), he calls the “innovator” and asks about what it is that caught his eye. In nearly every case, sharing is what follows.

Stubborn coaches often have another trait. They’re smug. I mean, why listen to others, including their assistants or players, when they have all the answers. What need is there to be humble. Unfortunately, for those coaches, another characteristic they wind up sharing is getting fired.

Most, if not all, people (coaches included) believe the best coach ever is the late John Wooden. He came up with many prophetic lines during his years leading men. One that he used quite often was:

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”


SI’s Story on Homeless Athletes Brings Back a Memory

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

Last week’s Sports Illustrated cover story was about homeless athletes. That subject reminded me of a story I retold in a blog from August, 2013. Due to the timing and impact of the SI story, I felt it might be a good time to re-post it.


Many of Jerry Tarkanian’s critics claimed he gave his players too much leeway, i.e. his disciplinary beliefs were entirely too soft, even non-existent. I’ve always maintained that one thing I particularly liked about working for Jerry was that he let you be yourself. Of the ten head coaches I worked for, he was definitely the best in that regard. (I worked for him at Fresno State). He felt that he hired us to do a job so why not let us do it. That’s not to say he wouldn’t take us to task if our job performance wasn’t up to par.

In the case of players, the standard line Tark would use when one of the guys would get in trouble was, “He’s a good kid.” Where his philosophy might have backfired was several of the players we had shouldn’t have been themselves. Being themselves is what got them where they were. True, many of his players took advantage of his ultra-loyal nature. Many people wondered, “How could an intelligent guy” – which when it came to understanding people, Jerry was as good as anyone – “be duped so often?” A story from his early coaching years sheds evidence on his behavior better than any psychological explanation can.

It was at the beginning of his junior college career and Tark was no different than most budding, young coaches of the time – a fiery leader who wanted to show he was in charge and was going to demand full intensity at every practice. One of his best players had a really bad practice, playing well below his potential. Making matters worse was that it was the young guy’s second subpar practice in a row. If anyone knows Jerry, practice is absolutely sacred time. It’s when teams are made into winners. Or losers. Any great coach feels exactly the same. He told the kid to see him in his office after practice.

Once the player walked in, Jerry immediately lit into him – yelling about how he was letting the team down, that the only chance they had of being a great squad was for this kid to be a leader – that his effort would dictate how practices, and then games, would turn out. He got hit with the full wrath of a young Coach Tark.

Jerry said the player had tears in his eyes and began to apologize. What he said would have as much of an impact on Jerry Tarkanian as any other incident in his long and storied career.  “Coach,” the youngster began, “I know I’ve let you and the team down the past few days. It’s just that I haven’t had anything to eat for the past three days but ketchup and water. We don’t put the water in to make it taste better, just to make it last longer.”

Tark has said he felt about an inch tall. He got a lump in his throat, as he does to this day when he recounts that story. “I never, ever, considered that was the reason the kid was having bad practices. I couldn’t believe anybody had to live like that.” The coach made sure the young man got something to eat from there on out and, sure enough, he became the player Jerry thought he would be.

There are many versions of the following quote but the most pertinent in this case – and the most telling when it comes to explaining Jerry Tarkanian’s feelings toward his players – might be:

“Try walking a mile in my shoes and see how far you get.”

Is Michael Phelps Really Sorry?

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

Michael Phelps was arrested for driving under the influence in Baltimore, Maryland. TMZ, today’s celebrities’ BFF, reported he was doing 84 in a 45 mile zone around 1:40 am. Phelps failed his field sobriety test and his blood-alcohol limit was almost twice the legal limit.

My old boss, Jerry Tarkanian, used to tell his players that nothing good happens after midnight. I’m not sure how he figured that out but the guys seemed to do whatever they could to prove him right. In Phelps’ case it’s understandable that the time was after midnight.

After all, how early in the morning would he have had to start drinking to have his blood-alcohol level twice the legal limit by 1:40 pm? In addition to the speeding ticket and DUI, Phelps was cited for crossing double lane lines.

This is a repeat offense for Phelps. In 2004 when he was 19 years old Phelps had a DUI arrest, also in Maryland. In that case he struck a plea deal with prosecutors and pled guilty in exchange for 18 months probation.

Following this latest discretion, the Phelps’ camp released the standard celebrity response: “Earlier this morning, I was arrested and charged with DUI, excessive speeding and crossing double lane lines. I understand the severity of my actions and take full responsibility. I know these words may not mean much right now but I am deeply sorry to everyone I have let down.


There must be a school that agents and PR people attend for just these situations because all the releases sound the same. The person who broke the law always “understands the severity, takes full responsibility and is deeply sorry for letting fans down.”


Harvey MacKay is one of the world’s best speakers and authors, as well as an extremely successful businessman. He’s also a syndicated columnist and in yesterday’s column he included several of his favorite quotes. The one that sums up Michael Phelps’ most recent transgression, as well as many of the other negative issues that have occurred all too often lately, is:


“Saying you’re sorry and showing you’re sorry are not the same thing.”

Keeping Up with the Latest Hoops Jargon

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

Taken – and edited some – from my 5/15/09 blog.

The game of basketball is relatively simple, i.e. put the ball in the basket and keep your opponent from putting it in his (or hers). Today’s analysts and talking heads, presumably in an attempt to create more of a mystique about the game, have expanded the dictionary of basketball terms. Why people feel this is necessary could be due to the popularity of Dick Vitale (“diaper dandy”, “PTPer”) or Clark Kellogg (“stat sheet stuffer”, “squeeze the orange”). Or maybe it started when Hubie Brown, lecturing at a clinic in the South in the late ’70’s, spoke about “sticking the J.” I was actually at this particular clinic, in which Hubie was interrupted by a coach in attendance who asked the question, “What’s a ‘J’?”

It was kind of funny at that time seeing Hubie try to conceal, a little, a smirk at the question. Earlier in his career, Hubie’s retort might have been, “How the f… can you coach basketball & not know what a ‘J’ is?” but he’d mellowed somewhat by then. I have to admit the guys in my group felt bad for the coach who asked the question, but felt relieved – although not as relieved as the coach would have been – had Hubie answered with the response we anticipated.

Players in this era have so many terms running through their heads, the only two groups that can be effective are the “thinkers who can play” and the “players who can think (some),” i.e. something along the lines of the NCAA’s sliding scale. To some coaches, namely my old boss, Jerry Tarkanian, thinking is a detrimental skill when it comes to being a basketball player. Tark’s mantra always was, “The more a player thinks, the slower his feet get.” While today’s game is quite similar that of Tark’s day, the “lingo” has certainly changed..

For example, players now “score the ball.” When I was coaching, I always took pride in keeping up with different strategies, but today I would need an answer to the following question, “What the hell else can you score?” I mean, have you ever heard, “Manny is really having a tough time scoring the ball tonight, but he’s been on fire finding the bottom of the net with several pairs of socks, a few rolls of athletic tape and three Gatorade cups he found lying around.” For the more sophisticated announcer, the term has recently morphed into. “score the basketball.” They must think the listener has to pause for a moment to ponder their brilliance.

Today’s players are no longer accomplished dribblers. They have “great handles.” I thought for a minute I might be able to make a comeback as a point guard because my wife keeps telling me I have great handles, but it turns out anybody can get those – as long as a person has enough discipline to overeat on a daily basis. Another new term is “touches” which is how many times players get the ball in scoring position. Coaches now talk about the need to get their best player “touches.”

To use dribbling to “score the ball,”  players used to be very good at driving it. Today, the scouting report will tell the guys to play the opponent’s wings as drivers because they can really put the ball on the floor or, in today’s verbiage, “deck it.” The last time I saw one of my friends deck it was when some guy insulted his girlfriend at a bar. “Deck it” was the phrase used, but “it” was the guy who unwisely opened his mouth about my buddy’s girl. Seemed like my buddy objected to him trying to get too many touches.

Also, guys who used to be great shooters are now considered wet. In years past those same shooters were called “silky smooth.” Apparently, silky smooth has been replaced by “wet” although you’d think a player would rather be smooth, especially of the silky variety, than wet but, with more and more announcers and people in the studio attempting to carve their own niche, it’s become a way to separate one personality from another. It’s certainly easier than being more knowledgeable.

When a shot goes up, the coach no longer tells players to “rebound” but to “board it.” Playmakers don’t get assists for passes that lead to scores, they drop dimes. The more dimes you have, the more guys want to play with you – especially wet guys. It’s evidently the same story in the inner city, i.e. people want to hang with the guy who has the most dimes, but they’re of a different variety. When that guy gets his picture taken, there’s a better than even chance it’s going to be both front and side.

There are those who wonder how anyone understands anyone else. No one is clear when they speak today. That wasn’t the case, however, when Harry Truman was asked why he felt that Dwight Eisenhower was struggling when he switched careers from the army to politics. Harry did his best “Give ‘em hell” answer to a question most politicians would have waxed poetic or sidestepped altogether. Instead, Truman’s response was:

“Dwight Eisenhower wasn’t used to being criticized and he never did get it through his head that’s what politics is all about. He was used to getting his ass kissed.”

Fans Say the Darnedest Things

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

So often in this space I comment about the remarks fans and talk show hosts make when it comes to second guessing players, and more often coaches – usually after their favorite teams lose. Most of the time I’ll listen to an audio book in my car but when I finish a book and don’t have another “on deck,” I’ll turn on sports talk radio (unless I get that feeling for 50s on 5 – if you’re from my era, you’ll understand; if you’re not, sorry).

It’s often comical to hear callers (if not the hosts themselves) chime in on their favorite calls and non-calls – by coaches and referees. Sometimes it’s readily apparent the callers who bet the wrong side (“Why the hell would he call for a field goal in that situation? They were up 10 and, sure it was 4th & 8 with three minutes to go from the 20, but they were already up two scores and a touchdown would have put the game out of reach?” – and covered that 14 point spread). Other times you can swear people call in so their friends will tell them they heard them on the radio. I heard a guy on Mad Dog Sports on my way back from Chico last Sunday that reminded me of a caller from years gone by – when I was doing postgame Dog Talk during the Tark years at Fresno State, although our caller was a lady. The story is in my book, Life’s A Joke.

Chris Herren (whose life story is amazing in itself – if you don’t know him, or it, Google his name) was going through a really bad shooting slump, although his overall floor game was still quite good, especially his assist to turnover ratio. After a game we’d won, which was about the third game in a row in which Chris shot poorly, a woman called in and said, “I don’t know why Jerry Tarkanian continues to play Chris Herren. His shooting is absolutely horrible.”

I always tried to deal more in facts than opinions to keep the show as balanced as possible. I replied to her, “You’re right. Chris isn’t shooting well, but do you realize that over the last three games he has 32 assists?”

The lady’s response was classic. “Yeah, but has each of those assists accounted for a basket?”

As Benjamin Franklin once said:

Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain – and most fools do.

“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain – and most fools do.”

When Only One Can Win, Losing Hurts Really Bad

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

People have been freaking out over Richard Sherman’s postgame remarks (especially those done after Erin Andrews leaned the microphone in his direction). While they’re not freaking nearly as much as Sherman did, chances are that 90% of undecided Super Bowl fans, after witnessing his tirade, have swung over to the Denver Broncos’ side (based completely on an unofficial poll conducted with only emotionally stable individuals). While Rich may have gone a bit apoplectic with his comments (kind of like the Exxon Valdez leaked a bit), America’s sports fans got to see how much emotion goes into a game that means whether you play the last weekend of the season – or you don’t.

Few people get to feel the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” quite like those who have a singular, terminal goal. A goal that, once you have in sight, no matter how distant, envelopes you. So much time is devoted to the attainment of that goal that, when the quest finally ends, you are (in the words of the latest Naismith Hall of Fame inductee, Jerry Tarkanian) “mentally, emotionally and physically” spent. While it doesn’t have to be the Super Bowl, it usually has to do with sports, simply because there is a championship of some sort involved. In the pros, you have the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, the World Series, Lord Stanley’s Cup, the World Cup and others I’m not as familiar with but, nonetheless, serve as the pinnacle of that sport. For Olympians, it’s the gold (or any) medal and for colleges and high schools, it’s the numerous championships in the respective sports.

Most of my adult life was spent in Division I college basketball, so our Holy Grail was the Final Four. Sure for guys like Coach K, Pitino, Izzo and maybe a few others, it’s the national championship but for most coaches who toil at college hoops, getting to the Final Four is the much more realistic prize (and even that ain’t too realistic). Those who have actually accomplished the feat (assistants as well as head coaches) probably relive it every March Madness (which now makes it into April). For the rest of us, we can only talk of how close we came when our dream was dashed.

Personally, I really never was exactly within a whisker, but on a couple of occasions, coaching staffs I was on got a little whiff of the Final Four. Before those stories, let me say that in two years, teams I was affiliated with reached the Final Four of the NIT. For those who pooh-pooh the “other” national championship, let me assure you that anything that has its championship in the Big Apple is an event. The first time we went was when I was an assistant at Tennessee and we lost to Indiana (who then lost to UCLA in the finals) before beating Louisville for third place. The next time I was the director of basketball operations at Fresno State. We played Minnesota in the semis and had a three point lead with about 20 seconds to play when one of their players shot a three which missed and caromed all the way to the corner. One of their guys ran it down, turned and heaved it at the basket. Nothing but net. We inbounded, raced the ball up the floor, passed it to one of our forwards at about 12′ and his shot went halfway down the rim before bouncing out. We lost in OT and then again in the consolation game – which I can’t even remember. Other coaches, as well as our players I’ve asked in subsequent years, tell me they can’t remember anything about the consolation game either.

As far as my adventures with NCAA postseason play, there are two seasons of note. The first was the 1980-81 season. It was back when there were only 48 teams invited and we were one of the 16 to receive a first round bye, meaning after we won our first game, we were in the Sweet Sixteen. Our opponent was #1 seed Virginia and their young giant, Ralph Sampson. We had a burly, 6’7″ center who made sure he got to the block first, then bumped Sampson out to around 12′ by using his massive chest. No fouls were called because his hands were always up while he walked into big Ralph, who at that stage of his career, didn’t mind playing that far away from the basket. He didn’t even score in double figures but UVA had a husky type forward of their own who went for a career high of, I believe, 22 and we lost a close contest.

There is so much hullabaloo at the NCAA tournament (managers gathering up the swag, e.g. watches, shirts, hats, etc., press conferences, guys showering and getting dressed, local media obligations, etc.) that the second game (Notre Dame-BYU) was well under way before we boarded the bus back to the hotel. We stopped and ate somewhere, then got back on the bus. To this day, I can remember the exact spot at that hotel when I stepped off the bus and heard, “Danny Ainge just went coast-to-coast to beat Notre Dame!” First of all, the Fighting Irish were the #2 seed and were heavily favored in that game. In addition, we had beaten BYU earlier in the season by 16 points in the finals of our own Volunteer Classic, their guards not being able to match the quickness of our guards.

My other heartbreak (actually two of them) came in 1992 when, as associate head coach, our USC team went 15-3 in the Pac-10 and beat UCLA twice – only to get no help from anyone else in the conference. The Bruins went 16-2 and wound up the #1 seed in the West, with us getting a #2 seed in the Midwest. It marked the first time a team in the Pac-10 went 15-3 and did not win the league title. But our biggest letdown was soon to come.

We went to Milwaukee and easily beat NE Louisiana on Thursday in the first round. Our next opponent, on Saturday, was the #7 seed Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, a team who, despite several future NBA players, had badly underachieved during the regular season. The game was a classic, both teams battling like their season would end if they didn’t win (because it would). With the score tied and 2.6 seconds to go, one of our guards knocked down a short baseline jumper to put us up two. They called their last time out. We picked up 3/4 court and one of their guards dribbled the ball upcourt, bouncing it off our guy’s foot as he got to halfcourt with 0:00.8 to go. That’s eight tenths of a second. They were out of times out so they couldn’t set up a play.

Before continuing, let me take you back to the first game, #3 seed Arkansas vs. #6 seed Memphis State (as it was known then). Charlie Parker and I were the assistants in charge of scouting the game, me scouting the Razorbacks, Charlie on MSU. With a couple minutes to go in a close game that Arkansas had led throughout, I turned to him and said, “I don’t think we can beat Arkansas, Charlie. We’re little and quick. They’re big and quick.” He looked at me and remarked, “Well, we definitely can beat Memphis. They have the Hardaway kid” (Anfernee, or “Penny”) “but he can’t beat us alone and their shut-down forward, Smith, won’t be able to handle Harold” (Miner). The game resumed, got to the final seconds and, somehow, Memphis State pulled ahead by one. Arkansas moved the ball up the floor, took the final shot – and missed! The two of us looked at each other as we walked to the locker room, knowing (although we’d never actually say it) that if we could take care of business, we’d, in all likelihood, be a game away from the Final Four.

As a post script to a story I haven’t even finished (I know it’s hard but try to stay with me), the chances of us actually going to the Final Four (assuming we’d beat Tech and, then, Memphis) would rest on our ability to, in all probability, beat Kansas in Kansas City, a feat highly unlikely. Because KU did play until Sunday, we had no way of knowing that problem would be moot because UTEP was going to upset the Jayhawks.

Back to our game with Ga Tech. By now, every basketball fan over the age of 8 has seen the last 8/10ths of a second of that contest. Their freshman popped out, caught the ball and (as he admitted in the postgame presser) didn’t have a chance to look at the basket. He just got it and shot it – and made the first three-pointer of his career! Al McGuire was screaming, “Holy mackerel!” over and over. Our guys were heartbroken. As were we.

Through the years, people have told me how bad they felt for me, how they could understand how devastated I must have been. I thank them without ever correcting their sentiment. Because unless you have a Holy Grail – like occurs in sports, be it a high school state championship, Little League World Series or something higher – you’ll never even begin to comprehend what that feeling is like. The finality of your season hits you all at once. That comment is not to take away from the business world, the teaching profession or any other of a number of industries. It’s just that all the time you put in, all the success you realize along the way, none of that matters. Because when there’s a winner and a loser and the final score is 79-78 (as was the score in our game with Georgia Tech), the only thing that matters is that you’re 79. It only happens in a few professions and, while victory is exhilarating – the ultimate high (so I’m told by friends who’ve achieved it) – the loss absolutely crushes you.

Which is why Jim Harbaugh stated after his 49ers lost last Sunday:

“Not many people get to be in this arena.”

New Book on Tark Should Be Fantastic

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

A couple days ago I received an email from Danny Tarkanian, Coach Tark’s older son and former highly skilled point guard. Danny was informing his father’s former players and coaches that he is currently writing a book on his dad’s career and was requesting any funny or memorable stories.

There were a ton of humorous stories from my Fresno State days with Jerry, some involving him, most not, all hilarious. They make up a good portion of a book I wrote called Life’s A Joke. The following one, especially in retrospect, is a classic.

During the 1997-98 season a television documentary was done on our basketball team. It was entitled Between the Madness. A crew from Fox-TV followed our team every day from the first practice until the final day of the season. In one scene, the night before our game against Pacific in Stockton, assistant coach Johnny Brown was assigned bed check. Although bed check wasn’t until 11:00pm, Johnny decided to start at 10:50. Since I was rooming with Johnny, I went along but hung back, not wanting to have anything to do with what I figured would be shenanigans of some sort. We didn’t have to wait long. Prior to knocking on the door of the first room, he thought he heard the sound of girls talking. He knocked on the door and heard some scurrying – an obvious stall tactic.

“Hey, it’s JB,” he said. “I’m doing bed check. Open the door.” One of the guys opened the door and Johnny barged in, saying, “I know there are girls in here.”

In unison, the two players said, “Aw, c’mon, JB, we don’t have any girls in here.”

Johnny went out and looked on the balcony. No one. “I know I heard girls’ voices in here,” as he looked under the beds. Nothing.

By now, these guys were pleading. “C’mon, coach, we told you there aren’t any girls here.”

Johnny’s next move was into the bathroom. He pulled back the shower curtain. Again, nothing but the tub and fixtures. “I know I heard them,” he said.

Just then, he opened the closet door and there were shrieks. Busted! Out of the closet sheepishly step four girls. The shock hits them as they realized they got a little more than they bargained for. They were facing a live television camera. Little did they know they had cameo appearances on a national TV documentary. The girls were ushered out of the room, possibly thinking how they were going to explain to their parents (and, possibly, boyfriends) what they were doing.

Two days later at a staff meeting, Danny brought up the incident to his dad, saying there was a potential problem. He then described what happened – from Johnny checking curfew, to his knocking at 10:50, to the four girls in the room, to the guys denying it, to the cameras following them out. The assistants’ question to Tark was, “What should we do about it?”

Jerry leaned back in his chair, briefly thought about it, and said, “So the girls were out before 11?”

Think of this story the next time you hear the phrase:

“He’s a real player’s coach.”

The Simple Fact Is the USCs of the World Beat the Fresno States of the World

Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

It’s said about people from Fresno that they have an inferiority complex. Fresno is the third largest city in the state (about three hours southwest of Los Angeles and three hours northwest of San Francisco, the two most highly populated), yet it doesn’t get a fraction of the respect of either. Our family has lived in Fresno for nearly 20 years so I do have some credibility when discussing the city, its good and bad.

Fresno has made the top ten “worst cities in America” lists on various subjects (murder per capita, dirtiest city, drunkest city to name a few) more than once. However, we raised our two boys here and couldn’t be happier living in Fresno. What I’ve discovered, up close and personal, is the pride Fresnans have in Fresno State University and, especially, its athletics teams. I was director of basketball operations during Jerry Tarkanian’s seven year tenure. Five times we played in the NIT, the other two in the NCAA tourney.

There is additional tradition in Fresno State athletics, e.g. NCAA championships in softball (1998) and baseball (2008) and an NIT championship (1983). This football season, though, was the perfect storm. If ever the Bulldogs were going to participate in the BCS, 2013 was the year. Its quarterback, Derek Carr, arguably (especially with Fresno State fans), the best QB in the nation, led the country in attempts, completions, yards and touchdown passes (50 to 38 for the QB who was second – Heisman trophy winner, Jameis Winston). Prior to his college career, Carr was the adopted son of Fresno & the San Joaquin Valley because, first of all, he was from Bakersfield and second, and more importantly, his brother, David, not only played at Fresno State but played so well that he was the #1 overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft.

Even when Fresno State was 10-0, with Carr and his premier group of receivers (they ended the season as one of only five teams in history with three receivers having at least 1000 yards), they didn’t exactly blow through the competition. In the season opener against Rutgers, the home fans held their breath as, on the last play of regulation, the Scarlet Knights’s place kicker attempted a game-winning field goal. It was wide and the Bulldogs prevailed in OT. Later in the season, an identical situation occurred, only this time it came on the road at San Diego State. The Bulldogs blocked the FG attempt and prevailed in OT. In between those two contests, Bulldogs lost a chance to beat a BCS school when torrential flooding in Boulder, CO and the surrounding area forced officials to cancel the game. However, since Colorado was the second worst (Cal finished winless in the conference) team in the Pac-12, not playing might have actually helped. Adding to the drama, long-time nemesis Boise State (“only” 8-4 this season) came within a whisker of continuing its dominance of the Bulldogs when FSU won, 41-40.

What happened next against Hawaii people would only believe if it was a video game – substituting for the losing player was allowed. With 6:15 to go in the third quarter, the ‘Dogs led 42-3. Fast forward to the game’s final play, a Hail Mary by UH which, had one of their receivers caught it, would have resulted in a victory for the Warriors! The remainder of the games (until the conference championship game) were blowout victories with one exception – the last regular season game against San Jose State. The Spartans had a nice squad and a great QB but was really no match for the Bulldogs’ offense and Carr. Fresno State lit up the scoreboard for 52 points. Except that SJSU posted 62! Gone in a flash were the BCS hopes.

You would have thought Fresno was in mourning. Earlier that week, Northern Illinois had leapfrogged FSU in the computer poll and, because they were also a non-AQ and undefeated, it would have meant, had both schools won out, the one spot reserved for non-AQs (the entire scenario is too lengthy to explain) would go to the Huskies. During the week, as fans are wont to do, there was little talk of beating the Spartans (sure San Jose State was good but there was no way they could beat us), most of the chatter was the indignation of NIU passing up Fresno and taking away what was rightfully theirs. Until the Bulldogs lost.

As testament to their resolve, the squad rebounded with a 24-17 win over Utah State in the conference championship game (which, ironically, Northern failed to do the next week, rendering the point moot, and, serving up a message of “don’t count our chickens” for both schools). The Bulldogs were rewarded with something nearly as great (some fans would claim greater) – a spot in the Las Vegas Bowl . . . against USC.

At the outset of this blog, I said Fresno State had an inferiority complex. Of all the fine universities in the state, it’s USC that rankles people from the ‘No more than any other. I always felt Fresno State plays into it because SC (my employer prior to working for Fresno State) doesn’t think nearly as much about FSU as the Bulldog fans do about the Trojans. In fact I had the title of associate head basketball coach at USC in 1992 when the biggest win in Bulldog history occurred, the 24-7 thrashing of SC in the Freedom Bowl. SC’s coach was fired after the game, a new one came in and I didn’t hear about the Freedom Bowl again until I got to Fresno three years later – when the sports information director, who had seen I had worked at USC, said to me, “How ’bout that Freedom Bowl?” He could see from the look on my face I didn’t know what he was talking about so he reminded me. From then on, anytime someone asked me about that game, I told them what the general consensus was throughout the football nation. Fresno State was the more talented team. If you have some spare time, compare the rosters and you’ll see.

It was at that time I realized how much that game meant to the Fresno community. And now they were getting another chance. They had played since, when SC was #1 in the nation and Fresno State gave them their best competition, up to that date, losing 50-42 (a game that since has been wiped from the books as part of the Reggie Bush penalties). This year just might have been a repeat of ’92. Carr was the nation’s statistical leader, his numbers dwarfing those of SC’s QB (also from Bakersfield), Cody Kessler. Bulldog fans were feeling pretty good about this match up since the Trojans seemed in turmoil. Their coach at the beginning of the season, Lane Kiffin (ironically, a former backup QB at Fresno State), had been dismissed in midseason, replaced by defensive coordinator, Ed Orgeron, who rallied the troops, going 6-2 down the stretch. He abruptly quit when he was passed over for the head coaching position. So the team was going to be led by still another coach (with next year’s head man as a spectator at practices and the game).

As an aside, the two games the interim coach lost were to Notre Dame and UCLA. USC feelings toward them are infinitely worse than Fresno State’s feeling toward USC (except they play them every year).

Back to the Las Vegas Bowl. Everything was pointing to a Fresno State victory. A friend of mine who is not at all knowledgeable when it comes to college football asked me, “If you had an extra thousand to bet on the game, who would you bet to double your money?” My answer to any betting question is always the same, “The best way to double your money is to fold it in half and put it back in your pocket.” Since he’d heard the line before, he said, “OK, funny man, what’s your answer?”

I handicapped the game as I saw it. “Fresno’s defense is its weakness but SC’s offense has been its weakness. SC’s really good defensively but Fresno State scores in bunches and Carr gets rid of the ball so quickly they ought to be able to score. Plus, SC only plays 12-13 guys on defense and Fresno State runs a no-huddle offense so they ought to be able to wear them down.”

The morning of the game, my wife and I drove to Monterey so we could watch the game on TV before taking in our son’s basketball game that night. On the drive there, we tuned into the Fresno State pregame broadcast. We heard what I told my buddy, except even more emphatically. “Our offense will definitely score 30 and I don’t know if their offense is capable of putting up that many” was the gist of one of the radio guys’ comments. “The Fresno State defense was suspect but it looked like they got that fixed against Utah State in the Mountain West championship game” was another point made.

One talking head complained that the network commentators for the game were a couple of former BCS players who had been bashing the ‘Dogs all season, saying they had played too soft a schedule, they couldn’t be taken seriously and how Fresno State was not worthy of a BCS spot, that bigger schools with one, or even, two losses were more deserving.

Well, the game started and USC scored on their first drive. The Bulldogs matched it but that was it. Even the PAT was blocked. It was a massacre. Throughout the game, viewers were reminded of the differences between the two schools. Perhaps the biggest was that, while USC was limited to only 50 scholarship athletes, about 40 of them were 4 and 5 star players – to Fresno State’s one (Carr, a four-star recruit).  One argument that’s always bugged me was the one about “the schedule.” Sure, Fresno State had been 10-0, the critics said, but they hadn’t played anybody. Hey, you can only beat the teams you play. Football schedules are made years, even decades in advance. Fresno State didn’t know Rutgers was going to be 6-6 this year when the game was scheduled. Colorado certainly was better when the contract was signed. In this case of this season, a constant dose of lesser teams came to bite the Bulldogs when they finally faced an opponent the quality of USC. The commentators who had been crucifying the Bulldogs turned out to be right all along. They were people just trying to do their jobs, sharing opinions based on research. Sure, they were biased against teams from lesser conferences but anyone would have to admit their views were validated after this game.

The only factor that worried me about the outcome of the game was the betting line. USC was a six point favorite. Guys who make a living setting lines want an equal amount of money bet on each side. They don’t usually make mistakes. How could all those guys not see all the advantages Fresno State had?

If there’s anything to be learned from this year’s Las Vegas Bowl it’s this:

“Don’t mess with the wise guys.”

Tark Had Some Clout as a Recruiter

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

If people didn’t know who Chris Herren was as a player, ESPN’s 30 for 30 – highlighting his post-basketball career – made certain they know him, and his story, now. The documentary was so intense, people from all walks of life have contacted Herren since watching – in utter shock – the travails the charismatic kid from Fall River, MA experienced.

What some don’t know is that, as Chris once told me (in 1995 when he and I got to Fresno State, he as a sophomore transfer and I as director of basketball operations), there were more bars per capita in Fall River than any other city in the country and that many in the quaint town would wake up, go to work, get off and then hit the pubs, maybe not knowing whom they were going to fight, but knowing there would definitely be a brawl before last call. Fall River claims as its three most famous natives Chris, Emeril Lagasse and Lizzy Borden. Quite a diverse trio.

With all the drama that accompanied Chris’ journey, there is a humorous anecdote about his making it to Fresno State after being told he wouldn’t be allowed to return to his original college choice, Boston College. It was 1995 and Jerry Tarkanian had just been named as the head coach at Fresno State, trying to revive a once proud basketball program that had lost its winning ways. Tark is, without question, one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all-time (while his being inducted into the Hall of Fame this past September was a wonderful event, it was hardly necessary to validate his coaching prowess). That being said, Tark would be the first to tell you that no coach wins without talent.

The stories he’d heard regarding the dearth of ballers at FSU were enough to frighten the 65-year old coach who was returning to the college game he’d dominated just a few years prior. Although he’d been gone from the college game, kids as young as 15 were only too familiar with the Runnin’ Rebels of Coach Jerry Tarkanian and when Tark would get a player on the phone, the youngster, no matter how great he’d been told he was, would be thrilled to talk to the legendary coach.

So it was when Coach Tark got the recently departed Herren on the phone. Although not verbatim, the conversation went something like this. “Hey, Chris, this is Coach Tark.”

“Hey, Coach, h’wah you?” Chris replied in his heavy Boston accent.

“Great, Chris. I just got the Fresno State job and I need some great ones to get this program goin’. I know you’re a great one.” Tark was never one for a lot of small talk when important issues were at hand. “Chris, I know you’ve had a tough time. I need you to come out and join me at Fresno State.”

“Shaw, Coach, dat sounds great,” Chris said.

“OK, Chris that’s wonderful. Do you have any questions?”

“Yeah, Coach. Just one,” Chris, not one for much chit-chat either.

“Wheh’s Fresno?”