The Runnin’ Rebels: How One Coach Changed Lives In Sin City

At the age of 12 years old, I saw UNLV absolutely dismantle the Duke Blue Devils in the 1990 national championship game. It was a blowout I would never forget, as was the upset Duke pulled on UNLV the following March in the 1991 national semifinal. Runnin’ Rebels Of UNLV, which debuted this past Saturday evening on HBO, reminds us how Coach Jerry Tarkanian and a university and town never known for basketball, became both a national power and target of the NCAA between the early 1970s until 1992.

What Coach Tarkanian was able to accomplish – from both building a program and being a father figure to so many young men – is nothing short of admirable. He obviously did not see things the way the rigid NCAA did, and then later the president of UNLV, Dr. Robert C. Maxson – who wanted to rid himself of Tarkanian and even went so far as to attempt to sabotage the program through the filming of “questionable” preseason workouts.

Runnin’ Rebels Of UNLV takes us on a journey that changed with each decade. The ’70s represented their fight to temporarily rid themselves of the NCAA microscope before finally being eligible for the postseason again in 1983. In the ’80s, ESPN was just beginning to build towards becoming a broadcasting superpower, so the masses were not watching the likes of Sidney Green or Armon Gilliam until tournament time. Those teams and players set the table for what became one of the most infamous basketball teams we’ve ever seen.

Tarkanian had a great eye for both talent and young men that needed inspiration. Some risks, like Larry Johnson, were not risks at all. Others, like Lloyd Daniels, turned into dark clouds that hung over the program.

“Coach was a father figure to me and many others as he gave us hope,” Greg Anthony told me via telephone this morning. “Many of us didn’t have anyone in our lives to inspire us, but that is what coach did. Coach Tarkanian, along with my fourth grade teacher Mr. Edgeworth and my high school coach, Coach Allen, were the three most inspirational people in my life outside of my family.”

Anthony, as noted in the film, was the president of the Young Republicans on campus and represented who these young men at the time really were, not what they were perceived to be. The national audience, and most certainly the old guard of college basketball, was not yet ready for this brash group of African-American young men from a campus located smack in the middle of one of our country’s most controversial cities.

HBO has a way of mixing both highlights and history that keep you locked into whatever it is you are watching. The sequence that really peaked my interest is when Anthony had his legs taken out and broke his fall with his face against Fresno State. He broke his chin and jaw and needed surgery. Most thought he would be out for the year, but Anthony – who was a team leader – knew what getting back on the court would mean to his teammates. With the injury happening on a Monday, he was determined to play that Thursday. With his jaw wired shut, he showed up at practice with a helmet and face shield on.

“The guys were kind of in shock at first,” says Anthony. “It was not something that sparked laughter as it was a somber moment. Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon both asked me if I was changing sports.”

That commitment Anthony and his teammates made, is what made them great as players, teammates and ultimately national champions.

Many will remember those Runnin’ Rebels as a controversial group of talented athletes, playing in a program that was far from clean, for a coach who played by his own rules. Coach Tarkanian was a pioneer of sorts, as he refused to operate by the narrow-minded standards set before him. Instead of ignoring young men that had made some mistakes, he gave them new life – and for many changed their lives forever.

Academic standards and success should be, and are, a priority at the high school and college level, but what Tarkanian did for so many of his players is so much more important than a high GPA or a spot on the Dean’s List; he instilled hope and mentored many young men that without him never would have been given a chance by anyone in our society.

While the on-court highlights and controversy make up much of Runnin’ Rebels Of UNLV, learning what Coach Tarkanian gave to so many is what makes this a must-see. It’s another prime example of how both the game of basketball and coaches can change lives.

What do you think? What was your takeaway from the film? What do the Runnin’ Rebels mean to you?

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