Jerry Tarkanian, as the story goes, started chewing towels way back in 1956 while coaching a high school basketball game in a suffocating gym in Southern California. Simply put, his mouth was dry, and the towel was used to alleviate and/or prevent that issue.

Most folks would, you know, just drink water from a cup to relieve dry-mouth.

So Tark's way was a rather unique way, for sure.

But who cares?

It was Tark's way.

And it, over many decades, became the defining image of one of the most successful and controversial figures college basketball has ever known, a man full of fights and one-liners but few more memorable than the one that's still somewhat accepted as true today.

"Nine out of 10 schools are cheating," Tarkanian once said. "The other one is in last place."


Jerry Tarkanian died Wednesday morning at a Las Vegas hospital.

He was 84 years old.

The Hall of Fame coach had been battling health problems longer than he'd been in the Hall of Fame, which is shameful given that he retired from college coaching in 2002. Regardless, Tarkanian was finally inducted in 2013 and, later that year, UNLV erected a statue of him. Better late than never, I guess. But it's still regretful that, less than two years after receiving the types of honors his career demanded, Tark the Shark is gone, and that he died only five days after fellow Hall of Famer Dean Smith is a sad coincidence.

I'm 38 years old.

So I was 13 when Tarkanian won the 1990 national title, 14 when he led UNLV to the Final Four the following March. Those were the years when I really became a college basketball fan, and there was nothing more enjoyable for a middle-schooler living in the central time zone than staying up late to watch the Runnin' Rebels demolish dudes on national TV.

Man, I loved those teams.

So much fun.

So much swag.

At this point, I've attended a dozen Final Fours, filed columns from them, sat on the front row, done all the things people with a job like my job do, and, honestly, those dozen are kind of a blur. I remember Hakim Warrick blocking a shot, Roy Williams climbing a ladder, Gordon Hayward missing a buzzer-beater and Mario Chalmers making one. They've all been great, in their own ways. But perhaps more than any I've actually witnessed in person, the Final Four that stands out most in my mind is the 1991 Final Four I watched on TV.

I remember watching it with my father.

We were at his friend's house.

His friend's name was Bernie.

UNLV entered the game undefeated and as a heavy favorite over Duke, and what happened that Saturday remains one of the two biggest sports memories from my childhood, at least in terms of pure shock delivered via television. One is Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson in 1990. The other is Duke beating UNLV in that 1991 Final Four. Those are two of the craziest outcomes in sports history, and they happened within 14 months of each other, the first when I was 13 years old, the second when I was 14 years old.

Later in life, I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Tarkanian.

I interviewed him multiple times.

I talked on the phone with him some.

His reputation as a great storyteller is well-deserved, and his disgust with the NCAA is well-documented, and you're going to read a lot about those things over the next few days. But what I hope doesn't get lost in the tales of towel-chewing and establishment-fighting is that Tarkanian was, more than anything else, just a helluva basketball coach, among the best of all-time, and the man responsible for creating one the most fascinating programs in history.

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Tark chewed towles and fought the NCAA, but don't forget he was a great coach. (Getty Images)
Tark chewed towles and fought the NCAA, but don't forget he was a great coach. (Getty Images)