Joe Nocera is the new sports business columnist for The New York Times. You can read more of his columns here.
This weekend, The New York Times Magazine will publish its annual “The Lives They Lived” issue, which recalls notable people who died in 2015. In my bailiwick, two of the more notable deaths were those of Jerry Tarkanian, the former basketball coach at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, who died in February at age 84, and Walter Byers, the former head of the N.C.A.A., who died in May. He was 93.
Tarkanian, who was known as Tark the Shark and who coached for 31 years, has the seventh-highest winning percentage in men’s Division I history. Although his Runnin’ Rebels were best known for their fast-paced offense, no less an authority than Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski has described Tarkanian as “arguably the best defensive coach in college basketball history.”
Byers, who became the executive director of the N.C.A.A. in 1951 — a position he held for the next 37 years — transformed a toothless association into a powerful force that mirrored his own personality: secretive, despotic, stubborn and ruthless. He helped turn the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament into the financial windfall we now know as March Madness. He created the N.C.A.A.’s enforcement division, along with a culture that enforced its myriad rules (many of them absurdly petty) with a Javert-like zealotry. He even invented the phrase “student-athlete,” a propaganda stroke that helped universities avoid paying workers compensation to injured athletes.
Byers ultimately turned against his creation, though by then the damage had been done.
Tarkanian and Byers were mortal enemies, engaged for years in legal combat. They loathed each other. After Byers bumped into Tarkanian in an elevator, he likened the experience to “Eliot Ness meeting Al Capone,” according to notes I obtained a few years ago that had been compiled for his 1995 memoir.
Tarkanian’s legal war with the N.C.A.A., which began when he was coaching at Long Beach State in the early 1970s, did not end until 1998, when the association agreed to pay him a $2.5 million settlement. But the real import of their battle had taken place a decade earlier. In 1988, the same year Byers retired, the Supreme Court issued an important ruling against Tarkanian. In a 5-4 decision, the court said that the N.C.A.A. was not required to give due process to the athletes and coaches it investigated.
The ruling meant that the association could destroy athletic careers on a whim, with “evidence” that would be laughed out of any court. Players and coaches could face charges without ever having the chance to question their accuser, or even know who was making the accusations.
The ruling meant the N.C.A.A. could serve as investigator, prosecutor and judge — something it does to this day.
When I first started writing about the N.C.A.A. four years ago, I was stunned that an American institution could act with such callous impunity when people’s careers were at stake — and when many of the accused were still teenagers. Eventually, I discovered the answer. It was N.C.A.A. v. Tarkanian.
Challenging the N.C.A.A.
Weakened by missteps and other events, the N.C.A.A. is not the force it once was. But in Walter Byers’s heyday, there was no more powerful or arrogant institution in America. Nor was there a more vindictive institution, as Tarkanian learned to his chagrin.
His problems began because he goaded the N.C.A.A. at a time when that was a dangerous thing to do. In the early 1970s, he wrote two columns for a Long Beach publication expressing his belief that the N.C.A.A. went after smaller institutions while letting the likes of Kentucky and Ohio State off the hook. (This was one of Tarkanian’s long-running themes, and led to his most famous quip: “The N.C.A.A. is so mad at Kentucky, it’s going to give Cleveland State two more years of probation.”)
As Tarkanian would later discover, thanks to his lawsuit, the N.C.A.A. reacted to his columns by opening an investigation into Long Beach State. When Tarkanian was lured to U.N.L.V. in 1973, the N.C.A.A. decided immediately to reopen a long dormant inquiry into his new employer. Tarkanian had not even arrived on the U.N.L.V. campus and he was being investigated by the N.C.A.A.
Four years later, the N.C.A.A.’s Committee on Infractions — which rules on allegations brought by the enforcement staff — determined that U.N.L.V. had committed 38 N.C.A.A. violations, 10 of which were laid at Tarkanian’s feet. It ordered U.N.L.V. to suspend its basketball coach for two years, an unusually draconian punishment.
The university felt strongly that its coach was being railroaded. But it also felt it had no choice; defying the N.C.A.A. was out of the question. To prevent the suspension, Tarkanian sued. A Nevada court quickly issued a stay, allowing Tarkanian to continue coaching at U.N.L.V., which he did for another 15 years, getting to the Final Four three times, and winning the national championship in 1990 with that great Larry Johnson-Stacey Augmon-Greg Anthony team, which beat Duke, 103-73, in the most lopsided championship game in N.C.A.A. history.
To answer the obvious question, yes, Tarkanian almost surely violated some N.C.A.A. rules; it is the rare Division I coach who hasn’t. But the dirtiest college program of that era was not U.N.L.V. but rather the U.C.L.A. dynasty under the sainted John Wooden. Sam Gilbert, a fixer with reputed mob ties, saw to it that the players had everything they needed; from cash to fancy clothes and cars to abortions for players’ girlfriends, according to a 1981 investigation by The Los Angeles Times.
But U.C.L.A. was so important to the N.C.A.A.’s annual basketball championship, which had not yet become the event it is today, that it was off limits to the enforcement staff. (It did not hurt that J.D. Morgan, the U.C.L.A. athletic director, was a friend of Byers.) Gilbert was exposed — and U.C.L.A. was punished by the N.C.A.A. — only after Wooden retired. (It is unknown whether Wooden was aware of what Gilbert was doing.)
What’s more, U.N.L.V. had investigated the work of the N.C.A.A.’s enforcement staff and had discovered that many of the charges against Tarkanian were, quite simply, bogus. It had affidavits from people interviewed by the N.C.A.A., including university professors, who flatly denied what the enforcement staff was alleging — and in some cases denied being interviewed at all. N.C.A.A. investigators had expressed extraordinary venom toward Tarkanian during interviews. “We’re out to hang him,” one investigator told the person he was interviewing.
The lead investigator, David Berst, who retired from the N.C.A.A. this year, was later forced to acknowledge under oath that he had once described Tarkanian, whose mother had escaped the Armenian genocide, as a “rug merchant.”
What the N.C.A.A. — and Byers — really held against Tarkanian was the kind of basketball players he recruited: black, disadvantaged, urban youths who played a joyously flamboyant style of basketball. Byers believed that such players should not be playing college basketball. In speaking years later to the co-writer of his memoir, he made this abundantly clear.
“Tark’s black players play a fast city-lot basketball without much style,” he said, according to those notes I obtained. “Grab ball and run like hell, not lots of passing to set up the shots.” He argued that “old-time fans” did not like the way that they played.
Elsewhere, he described U.N.L.V.’s style as “ghetto run-and-shoot basketball” with little concern for defense. He added that Tarkanian won games in the regular season but that “in tournaments, facing well coached and disciplined teams he gets beaten.” Besides being demonstrably wrong, Byers’s remarks have the unmistakable whiff of racism.
Not that it mattered. Byers’s view of Tarkanian as a rogue coach became conventional wisdom. And Tark the Shark could sometimes be his own worst enemy. In 1991, after a photograph emerged showing several of his players in a hot tub with a well-known gambler, Tarkanian announced that he would resign after the 1991-92 season.
It was not until 2013 that Tarkanian finally got his due, when he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He was old and sick, using a wheelchair, but it was one of the happiest moments of his life. When his name was announced during the induction ceremony, the cheers were the loudest of the day.
The year before, I visited Tarkanian at his home in Las Vegas. He could barely speak, and his wife, Lois, a Las Vegas city councilwoman, along with his son Danny — who played for his father at U.N.L.V. — and daughter Jodie Diamant, did most of the talking. They reflected not only on how difficult the ordeal had been for their father, but also on how hard it had been for the entire family, especially when Danny and Jodie were kids. Their enduring frustration was that the voluminous evidence of N.C.A.A. wrongdoing uncovered over the years — from the U.N.L.V. investigation, the Tarkanian lawsuit and even a series of congressional hearings in the late 1970s — had made no difference in how Tarkanian was perceived. His reputation had been destroyed by the N.C.A.A.
One night during my visit, Lois Tarkanian took me to her daughter’s house. There was a small barnlike structure in the back yard. Using a flashlight to unlock the door, she opened it and turned on the light. Everywhere I looked I saw boxes of documents, piled six and seven feet high, each one stuffed with dusty deposition transcripts, legal filings and newspaper clips. Lois had saved every piece of paper from her husband’s 25-year war with the N.C.A.A. Here was the proof that her husband had been wronged, and she was never going to throw it away.
As for Byers, by the end of his time as executive director he came to believe that the N.C.A.A. was badly in need of reform. In 1984, he gave a short interview to Jack McCallum at Sports Illustrated, in which he said, “We’re in a situation where we, the colleges, say it’s improper for athletes to get, for example, a new car. Well, is that morally wrong? Or is it wrong because we say it’s wrong?”
By 1995, when his book, “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes” was published, he had gone all-in on reform. Although the book is poorly organized, if you can get through it you are likely to be jolted by its message. Long before the emergence of the current college sports reform movement, Byers called for players to have rights, and for college athletes to be paid. He even used the word “plantation” to describe the treatment of athletes, a word that the historian Taylor Branch would use to great effect 16 years later, in his important Atlantic article, “The Shame of College Sports.”
Through intermediaries, I tried on a number of occasions to interview Byers. He was by then living a fairly lonely existence, passing his days on his ranch in rural Kansas. Still, he turned me down every time. At one point, I sent a message through his son Fritz, a Toledo lawyer, with just one question: What caused him to turn against the institution he had built? When I followed up with Fritz a few weeks later, he said that his father had decided not to answer the question.
Jerry Tarkanian found redemption at the end of life. But Walter Byers was incapable of even asking for it.
This just in:
In the two months since I’ve joined the Sports desk, I’ve written twice about Andy Zlotnick, the fan who sued the New York Yankees after being seriously injured by a foul ball in 2011 during a game at Yankee Stadium. Last Friday, Lizbeth Gonzalez, a State Supreme Court judge in the Bronx, ruled that baseball’s “assumption of risk” doctrine trumped Zlotnick’s contention that the open umbrellas preventing him from seeing the ball created a risk no fan could be expected to assume. While it was “unfortunate that he was so badly injured,” she wrote, referring to Zlotnick, she nonetheless threw the case out of court.
Zlotnick plans to appeal.