Of tough guys, thieves and Wildcats

When we recruited, we were realistic. We knew it was difficult for us to get blue-chip players. We had five McDonald’s All-Americas in my 19 seasons at UNLV.

Duke has five or six every year. North Carolina has nine or 10 every year. UCLA had five or six every year; Kentucky, seven or eight.

We knew we couldn’t beat UCLA on a kid. The only time we did was when we got Ed O’Bannon and Shon Tarver, after we had been televising games in Los Angeles.

Then we lost them. We released them when we knew we wouldn’t be back. We knew we couldn’t compete against those programs.

I’m friends with Joe B. Hall, who coached Kentucky. I found out about recruiting against Kentucky when I was in Pittsburgh. Irwin Molasky, of Lorimar Productions, hired me to be a technical advisor for The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh for three weeks.

One Sunday morning, I’m eating breakfast and I read a big article about Sam Bowie, a 7-foot high school player from Lebanon, Pa., and he lists UNLV as a school he’s considering.

I didn’t even know who he was. I call his coach and tell him I’m happy Sam is interested in us. What got him interested?

He wanted four things – pretty girls, warm weather, he wanted to start and he wanted to study hotel management. I got really excited and drove five or six hours to Lebanon. I met with him and his family.

I know this is in my latest book, but it’s too funny. That season, I caught red-eye flights four times to see him. I thought we had a great shot at the kid, but I had never recruited against Kentucky.

I stayed at the only hotel in Lebanon, a Rodeway Inn. Every time I checked in, Kentucky assistant Leonard Hamilton was there, too. I always called him, but he never answered.

It’s the middle of January, and we heard Sam’s mother was in the hospital. I had assistant George McQuarn fly out there.

He calls me and says, “Coach, you’ll never believe this. I’m here in the hospital with Sam Bowie, his family and the whole Kentucky staff.” They had flown in on a private plane.

Then someone called and said Sam is driving a four-year-old Cadillac. I knew it was all over then and there. That spring I saw Leonard and told him he was never in the Rodeway Inn when I was there, yet he was registered.

He said, “Coach, we kept it all year. Whenever we wanted to fly in we wanted to make sure we had a room.” I believed that story. Later, I learned that that room was Sam’s playpen all year.

I never recruited against Kentucky again. I spoke at Joe B’s clinic once in Lexington. Any time there was a kid in that area I liked, I’d call Joe B and ask if they’re interested. If they were, we backed off.

We actually spent less on recruiting than any coach who came after me at UNLV. We did not spend a lot on recruiting.

We always tried to get the great athlete, guys who could run and jump and were quick. Tim Grgurich, my assistant, was amazing. He’d come back from a trip and I’d ask him, how’d you like the kid?

He’d say, “Aw coach, we have to get him!” What did you like? “He took three charges, dove on the floor four times and knocked two guys on their butts.”

Yeah, but could he shoot? “Yeah, I think he can.” Tim liked the tough kids, the tougher the better.

When we went to talk to a kid and he bad-mouthed his high school coach or bad-mouthed another program, I got turned off. I don’t like disloyal people. To me, the greatest ingredient in anyone is loyalty.

I’d much rather take a thief than a disloyal guy. You can talk a thief out of stealing. It’s hard to turn a disloyal guy around.

Our players did most of our recruiting. They took recruits around and did a great job. Our players had a lot of pride in the program.

Other programs, like Arizona, would rip us behind our backs, telling recruits’ mothers that hookers would get her son or the mob would get them.

Mothers would call me and I’d have to fly back a second time to talk with her.

I’d tell parents, if a coach comes in and bad-mouths another program, I’d eliminate that coach right away. If your son gets hurt, you and your son will be bad-mouthed.

Once, the father of a kid in San Diego asked me what I thought of Arizona. I said, they have a good program. The dad pounds a folder on his coffee table. Coach, let me show you what they said.

The folder was filled with every bad article ever written about UNLV. Arizona had sent it to the father.

I said, send him to San Diego State. You wouldn’t ever have to miss a practice. He can stay at home with you. The kid wound up at Long Beach State.

Editor's Note: Legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian is sharing his thoughts exclusively with the Las Vegas Sun through the course of the college basketball season in the form of columns, podcasts and television interviews, about what he’s up to in his life, what games he’s attending and his general musings of the sports world.

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