(Reuters) - Jerry Tarkanian, a colorful, towel-chomping Hall of Fame basketball coach who transformed once-obscure University of Nevada-Las Vegas into a national powerhouse and won an NCAA title, died on Wednesday at age 84.
”Coach Tark, my father, the greatest man I have ever known, passed today, to take his place in heaven, Danny Tarkanian said on Twitter. “I will miss him every day of my life.”
Tarkanian, known as “Tark the Shark” and for his penchant to gnaw on white towels during games, had been hospitalized in Las Vegas after suffering breathing difficulties and an infection on Monday.
“He made Runnin’ Rebel basketball a brand name during his 19 years on campus, inspiring our community and creating a legacy that endures to this day,” UNLV President Len Jessup said in a statement.
“He will be deeply missed, though fondly remembered as a college basketball icon and as one of the greats in our university’s history.”
Tarkanian, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013, often looked anguished on the sidelines and regularly chewed on a towel at courtside. A statue of him with a towel in his mouth was installed outside the UNLV arena.
Amid his success, Tarkanian had many well-publicized battles with the National Collegiate Athletic Association over everything from recruiting violations to what he claimed was personal harassment.
Tarkanian’s teams were known for a fast-paced style that often led to blowouts, like when UNLV’s Runnin’ Rebels defeated Duke, 103-73, in the 1990 NCAA title game. He had a 509-105 record at UNLV and was 784-202 overall at Division 1 schools.
“No one in Nevada history has been able to entertain crowds like Jerry Tarkanian and his legendary Runnin’ Rebels; this includes renowned Vegas entertainers like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Cher and Celine Dion,” said U.S. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Tarkanian coached UNLV from 1973-92, resigning when the program ran into trouble with the NCAA after a local newspaper published a picture showing three of his players in a hot tub with a well-known gambler who had been convicted of sports bribery.
Among his biggest spats with the NCAA was Tarkanian’s belief that the large schools received favorable treatment when it came to following the rules.
“The NCAA is so upset at UCLA they’ll put Northridge on two years’ probation,” he once said.
Tarkanian coached the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs for the first 20 games of the 1992 season before being fired. He finished his career coaching the Fresno State University from 1995 to 2002.
Tarkanian began his coaching career in southern California, working at community colleges in the 1960s before becoming the coach at Long Beach state in 1968.
Reporting by Steve Ginsburg in Washington; Additional reporting by Eric Kelsey in Los Angeles; Editing by G Crosse and Bill Trott