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Friday, March 15, 2002
Don't cry for Tark or Fresno State

By Adrian Wojnarowski
Special to ESPN.com

His eyes darted overhead, clutching a memory out of a time long, long ago.

Jerry Tarkanian
Jerry Tarkanian retired as Fresno State's coach Friday, but he didn't go quietly.
It was his first trip back to The Strip as Fresno State's coach, and Jerry Tarkanian walked courtside at the Thomas & Mack Center, counting the hours until tipoff. Suddenly, he turned wistful. What there had moved Tark, you wondered. What had triggered the melancholy washing over him?

It had to be the national championship banner, right? Perhaps Larry Johnson's retired No. 2 jersey? Maybe Tark heard the distant sounds of one of those brilliant victories: The band blasting the shark song, a sellout crowd serenading him with the chants of "Re-bels, Re-bels."

As it turned out, that would be asking too much of the man. Far too much.

Back in the winter of the 1995-96 season, Tarkanian lifted the shade into his soul. He pointed to a luxury box, a suite school officials apparently gave him as part of his package and which he sub-leased.

"They gave us a box for $20,000 a year, and we used to lease it out to the rodeo," he told me. "And we'd make something like $24,000 -- or $26,000? -- on the rodeo people."

"Yeah," Tarkanian sighed, "this place is really special."

And that is the essence of the man they finally pushed out of Fresno State on Friday. That's Tarkanian: All about money, all about himself. Fresno officials had been trying to dump him for a few years now, but they found out: He digs in and deep, and it's near impossible to excavate him.

Nevertheless, Fresno State deserved to be stuck with him on this mercenary mission longer than the school originally intended. They deserved the grand jury testimony on possible point shaving, the arrests, the NCAA investigations, the academic suspensions, the drug suspensions. All of it. They deserved the constant embarrassment without the benefit of the basketball glory.

At the end of his seven seasons, Tarkanian had hung more NIT banners than NCAA. Even seven Final Fours wouldn't have been worth the price the school paid, but all of this heartache for one NCAA Tournament victory? Just one?

Fresno State president John Welty sold his school's soul and deserved to suffer the consequences: Tarkanian and his insufferable posse of sycophants clinging on to the bitter end, when finally he wouldn't leave until they cut him a $240,000 "consulting" fee for the next two years. Tark had no time left on his contract; no settlement was needed to buy him out. This was just "please go away" money.

For his fee, Tark can play his Sgt. Schultz I-know-nothing act on the NCAA's investigation into rules violations that started with the Fresno Bee's probe into a booster/restaurant owner providing athletes with free and discounted meals. That was just the beginning of the trail, so who knows where it ends?

"You all know the past three years the NCAA has been looking at us because of the investigation," Tarkanian said after his final game, an NIT loss to Temple on Wednesday night. "I can guarantee everyone there will not be a major violation, because we've run the cleanest operation."

Let's see Tark back that guarantee with his $240,000, or better yet, with the ridiculous $2.5 million court settlement he won against the NCAA. The cleanest operation, huh? He's a classic.

Despite Tark's worthless assurances, university officials reportedly are bracing themselves. History says that probation promises to punctuate his stay, just as it did on his way out of Long Beach State and UNLV.

Respected former Fresno State athletics director Gary Cunningham warned his administration about hiring Tark and quickly made his way out of town when they didn't heed his advice. No, no, said other administrators and boosters, Fresno State is Tarkanian's alma mater. He wouldn't embarrass it. Never.

Fresno State learned the hard way. They learned it over and over again. Now the university needs to reconstruct credibility. Football coach Pat Hill has proved the school can win with integrity. It can be done the right way.

This is the reason new AD Scott Johnson -- who had the guts to hold his ground on insisting Tark retire -- should waste no time hiring UCLA assistant Jim Saia. He wants this job the way Hill did when he left his job as a Fresno asssistant in order to get the experience necessary to return someday and run the program.

Like Hill, Saia is prepared. He has a terrific résumé as a junior college head coach and a big-time assistant. And Fresno State would be wise to hire a coach with relationships in the community, with the resolve to clean up the mess and win the right way.

It won't be easy. As immense a mess as Tark traditionally makes, history shows that he leaves a larger one in his wake.

Besides giving Tark $240,000, Fresno State is considering naming the floor of its new basketball arena for him. Just wait until they bring him back for the ceremony and he stares longingly toward those NIT banners in the rafters. Once again, Tark will remember how much money he made on these people. Once more, he'll get the last laugh.

Don't dare shed a tear of sympathy for Fresno State. They didn't just ask for this, they deserved it.

Adrian Wojnarowski, a sports columnist for The Record (Northern N.J.), is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.