Posted: Feb. 11, 2015 | Update: Feb. 13, 2015 | Written by James H. Williams
Hall of Fame basketball coach Jerry “the Shark” Tarkanian died Feb. 11 in Las Vegas, days after
he was hospitalized due to complications with breathing.
He found success at nearly every level of coaching in his 43-year career from 1959 to 2002, including his time with the Riverside City College Tigers.
Tarkanian coached the RCC men’s basketball team from 1961-66. During his tenure at RCC, he won three consecutive state basketball championships from 1964-1966, a first for any sport at the college.
Men’s track coach Jim McCarron and baseball coach Dennis Rodgers would join Tarkanian as the only coaches to reach three consecutive state titles.
“It is really cool history and I am very proud to be apart of that,” McCarron said. “Those are two guys that worked hard and know their trade and to be apart of that is very unique.”
McCarron stated he had never had the chance to meet Tarkanian until the RCC Hall of Fame Ceremony in 2007.
“I heard stories about him while he was at RCC and the success he had here,” McCarron said. “Listening to him at the Hall of Fame Ceremony, he had a great rapport with his student-athletes and that was fun to watch.”
The name Tarkanian can still be found on plaques and awards on the RCC campus. He was inducted into the Riverside Sports Hall of Fame in 2006 and the RCC Athletics Hall of Fame in 2007.
Tarkanian’s legacy is still remembered to this day on the campus of RCC.
“I have known coach Tarkanian since I was a high school junior when he used to let us in the games for free to harass opposing coaches when he coached here,” said RCC men’s basketball coach Phil Matthews. “That is when I started my relationship with him.”
“He would let us in the gym late at night to practice when nobody else would,” Matthews said. “We were just high school students but he would tell the janitor ‘when those guys come down here, let them in the gym.’”
Matthews also stated that he just missed the opportunity to play for Tarkanian, who left RCC to coach at Pasadena City College.
“I didn’t get a chance to play for him because he left in 1966 to go to Pasadena,” he said. “But throughout my career he remembered me and crossed paths and always helped me anytime I needed a recommendation. He would write it for me knowing we were both from Riverside. That was our bond.”
Tarkanian has the highest winning percentage of any junior college basketball coach because of his success at RCC, from 1961-1966 and Pasadena City College, from 1966-1968, where he combined for an overall record of 210-26.
He was 67-4 during his time at PCC and went 145-22 with the Tigers. Along with his three titles at RCC, he won a fourth state title with PCC in 1967.
Matthews recalled a time when Tarkanian sat behind one of the teams coached by Matthews when he coached against his son, who was the coach at Chaffey College.
“He told me I hope you do well but I hope you lose, because I would be playing against his son,” Matthews said with a smile.
Among the players on the roster for two of RCC’s championship seasons under Tarkanian at RCC was Lucky Smith, who is the father of former RCC coach John Smith.
“My father told me so many stories about him while playing for him at RCC that it made my transition at UNLV real easy. I loved that man like I loved my father,” Smith said. “People don’t realize who he truly was because of the way he helped people who others had written off. He understood the power of his position and used it in a positive way to help kids become successful citizens.”
Following his stint at PCC, he coached at UNLV, leading the Rebels to a NCAA Title in 1990.
“He has probably been one of the best coaches in NCAA men’s basketball history,” said RCC athletic director Derrick Johnson. “I can remember going to a UNLV game years ago, I think I was still in high school when he was coaching, and went to the game just because he was coaching.”
Johnson explained how the game’s environment changed during the time Tarkanian was at UNLV.
“He really set the trend for game environment in NCAA athletics because back then he actually had a row of celebrities at the game,” he said. “I remember seeing Magic Johnson and movie stars sitting court side, because they were a very entertainment-filled team from the pregame on.”
Matthews believes the man that Tarkanian was on and off the court is he will be remembered by those who knew him.
“He was a great man and a great coach. He had just as much impact on the game as Dean Smith and I feel that you will start to hear the accolades come in from his former players that he gave a chance to that nobody else would.”
Some may remember Tarkanian for his battles with the NCAA, which lead to a $2.5 million settlement, while others will recall his habit of biting a towel during games.