Former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian died Wednesday at the age of 84. KU Alumni Association staff member David Johnston recalls an encounter with the famous coach on a day most Jayhawk fans will remember.
It was April 4, 1988.
We had scored seats to the NCAA championship game from disgruntled Duke fans on their way out of town following their loss to KU in the semifinal. The final horn sounded as Danny Manning snatched the ball out of the air and raised his fist in the air. The celebration began.
KU had just won the national championship.
My brother and I took in the scene from our seats until it was about time to bring out the ladders and award the trophy. While the fans all stayed in their seats, we made a run for it to reunite with our parents, who were seated in another part of Kemper Arena.
The concourse was completely empty—perfect for a couple of euphoric teenagers racing with abandon, eager to join the Jayhawks’ celebration, …when, without warning, I ran into “Tark the Shark”.
Somehow, I barely missed running smack into the famous coach of the UNLV “Runnin’ Rebels,” who, like us, was looking to make a quick getaway. With a trademark towel held to his mouth as he scurried toward the exit, he was as disinterested in watching the celebration as we were excited to see it.
For me, it was a rare brush with celebrity, but I was much more interested in the excitement inside the arena than my run-in with the future Hall of Fame coach in the hallway. A quick “sorry!” over my shoulder and a wave of his towel in response, and we were off in separate directions.
In hindsight, the epic first-half of that fast-paced championship game between the Sooners and the Jayhawks surely inspired Tarkanian. No doubt he’d seen enough, and he could see the future–his future. Just two years later, Tark the Shark would be back at the Final Four, celebrating his own NCAA title in 1990 with the Runnin’ Rebels.
Rest in peace, Coach (and sorry I almost ran you over).