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Jerry Tarkanian, Long Beach State Coach

February 11th, 2015 · No Comments · Basketball, Long Beach, NBA, Sports Journalism, UCLA

Jerry Tarkanian died today at the age of 84, and the volume of pieces written about him by sports journalists has been impressive.

Nearly all of it, however, focuses on his time at UNLV, which certainly was interesting, and lasted 19 seasons.

For me, however, he will always be the coach who put Long Beach State on the basketball map. Before he went to Las Vegas. But not before he was already in trouble with the NCAA.

“Tark” was the man whose 49ers took on John Wooden‘s UCLA Bruins for three straight years during their NCAA championship heyday.

For sports fans of my generation and from my hometown, Long Beach, UNLV is just what Tark did in the latter part of his career.

What he did at Long Beach State was perhaps more remarkable, and perhaps even more revolutionary, given that he had much more to work with, in Las Vegas.

Tark showed up for the 1968-69 season at Long Beach State, a school that played basketball but didn’t really care about it. He quickly changed that.

He came to Long Beach from Pasadena City College and, before that, from Riverside City College, and it was those seven years at the JC level that seemed to form him as a college coach.

Junior college basketball, then as now, was a little sketchy. Kids who couldn’t get into a four-year college went to the JCs. The rules were a little vague, classrooms were afterthoughts and “enforcement” was for four-year colleges.

Basically, Tark brought a JC program into the NCAA’s top division, at Long Beach. He brought with him some of his Pasadena CC guys, and then he tended to recruit more.

That gave Long Beach State basketball a bit of an unsavory feel to it. Student-athletes? No one was too worried about that at Long Beach State because Tark won like crazy right from the start — 23-3 that first year — and brought more attention to the school than it had ever known.

He followed that up with a 24-5 team, and the starting five were all JC transfers, who won the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference and qualified for the 1970 NCAA tournament, getting UCLA in the West Regional semifinals — and losing heavily, 88-65.

The next season, 1970-71, the 49ers were reinforced by a blue-chip recruit, Ed Ratleff, a smooth, 6-6 swing man (straight out of high school!), as well as even more JC recruits, and went 24-5, this time losing to UCLA 57-55 in the West finals in a game still remembered in Long Beach. The 49ers led by 11 in the first half and probably would have won if Ratleff hadn’t fouled out with five minutes to play.

They were that close to taking down UCLA.

Backing up for a moment, UCLA basketball was one of the biggest stories in Southern California sports for 12 years from 1964. The classy Bruins, coached by the scholarly Wizard of Westwood, the Pyramid of Success builder, John Wooden, was on his way to 10 NCAA titles in 12 years.

It was beyond belief that any team in the Bruins’ backyard could rise up and challenge them.

But there was Long Beach State, a commuter school with a no history, a fraction of the influence and reputation, causing serious consternation at Westwood. “How could this be happening?”

And they steadfastly refused to schedule the 49ers, even though it would have created enormous interest. The Bruins had too much to lose.

Tarkanian was on the cutting edge of getting bad students — but very good basketball players — into school and somehow keeping them eligible.

That was an alarming concept, for the Bruins and their fans, in 1970, 1971.

Tark apparently had George Gervin on campus for two weeks in 1970, but the future “Iceman” got homesick and left. Imagine.

Instead, he kept rounding up nasty and athletic interior players, and with Ratleff on the perimeter, he was in business.

I saw nothing of what went on behind the scenes, but I saw lots and lots of their home games, at the Long Beach Arena, which was about 10 minutes from the family home. And the 49ers never lost a home game with Tarkanian as coach. (He was 122-20 at Long Beach but none of those “20” happened at home.)

His fourth team was 25-4 but was overpowered by Bill Walton‘s UCLA, 73-57, again in the regional finals. (The Bruins had been slightly weaker the previous two seasons, when they were built around Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe, but won NCAA titles, nonetheless.)

By now, rumors of rules-breaking were common, around the Long Beach State program. Was what Tark was doing any worse than what other schools did? Did Tark do anything that some of the more … oh, let’s say, enthusiastic … UCLA fans were up to?

Anyway, the final Tark and Ratleff team got to the West semifinals but lost to San Francisco, who lost to UCLA in the regional final, so UCLA missed that 49ers team, which finished 26-3, including a home victory over No. 2-ranked Marquette before a monster crowd in the Arena.

Tark left in the offseason, a few months ahead of the NCAA enforcement posse, to be replaced by Lute Olson, who had been at Long Beach City College, and the 1973-74 team was probably the best of the bunch. Lute coached it, but it was mostly Tark’s guys.

However, NCAA sanctions came down in midseason, and Long Beach State was ruled out of the playoffs.

The 49ers finished 24-2 and ranked No 11 in the nation, and four of their starting five were taken in the first three rounds of the 1974 NBA draft: Clifton Pondexter, the 6-9 power forward (16th, Chicago); shooting guard Glenn McDonald (17th, Boston); center Leonard Gray (26th, Seattle); and small forward Roscoe Pondexter (53rd, Boston).

The sixth man on that team was Bob Gross, who in 1977 would be playing with Walton in Portland and winning an NBA title.

And the year before those four guys were taken, Ratleff went No. 6 to the Houston Rockets. Meaning Long Beach State had six guys taken by the NBA in a three-year period, all but one in the top 26 picks.

But Tark was now at UNLV, where he would do the things that would impress the rest of the college basketball nation, including an NCAA title and a lot of teams that entertained The Strip’s professional entertainers.

But what he did in Vegas, aside from the man-to-man defense (he preferred a 1-2-2 zone at Long Beach State), had been done in Long Beach the five years before.

Long Beach State basketball has never been the same. Every five or six years a team gets into the NCAAs, and goes out in the first round.

Tark went on to take on the NCAA, spending a lot of time in court. He is credited by some for bringing inner-city hoops to the forefront (even before the Fab Five at Michigan) and he did seven seasons at Fresno State, in his home town, after an ill-fated 19 games with the San Antonio Spurs.

A colorful life, the little guy with the bare head and a wet towel jammed between his teeth that he sucked on to keep his mouth moist, rattling cages, taking on the powers that be.

All of it through the lens of UNLV, as it is mostly described today. Those of us who saw his Long Beach State teams know where all that really began.


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