How Jerry Tarkanian Changed My Life
A great man is one who leaves others at a loss after he is gone. — Paul Valery
Usually, when you make decisions in life, close friends and family have influences on where your path might lead. That’s the usual way and so true many times in our lives.
Yet, there are such great men or women that inspire us from afar to be part of something greater than ourselves. They give us a glimpse of what could be and sometimes kindle in us a fire that soon lights a new path. A path perhaps not found out of purpose, but sometimes in a joyful accident of sorts.
This was my path to college and to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. A path I must share with you on the day when we lost one of the truly great men ever known to a sport and to a city. Today, we say goodbye to Hall of Fame basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian. Perhaps one of the greatest fighters the world has ever seen, Tarkanian finally passed on to undoubtedly teach Saints and sinners a like the amoeba defense behind the pearly gates.
As a high school student, to say I was an underachiever was being an optimist. More interested in fun, girls and hanging out with friends, I wasn’t very academic. In fact, I was downright awful. But I caught my wind, matured out of self-determination, and made it out alive. Still, I was immature and it would take me a few stops and more on-the-job life learning to find my way.
Part of that journey included watching UNLV basketball under Coach Tark. When I was in Las Vegas visiting, or watching their historic runs in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s on television, the program, the city and the university all called to me. It called to me because it wasn’t perfect. It called to me because Coach Tark was a fighter and he had a quality many other people didn’t have: he believed in people. He believed in them even if they had made mistakes or had taken a wrong turn. I was one of those people — granted not on the basketball court but in life.
UNLV called to me because Jerry Tarkanian made it so. He exposed the university in the gambling capital of the world to so many who would have never known it existed. Yes, a university is about an education and a university’s mission is to educate and enrich its community. Yet, without Tark UNLV would never be where it is today. Historians, scholars and even academics may disagree, but those of us called to the school know it’s true. It just is.
For me, personally, this is such a big loss. People think I’m exaggerating when I say this, but it’s true: without Coach Tark and UNLV Runnin’ Rebels basketball, I would have never come to UNLV or Las Vegas, and I would have never met my wife. That’s fact and I owe him a debt of gratitude I can only begin to repay with some written words and a heavy heart.
In 2013, on a whim, I worked closely with his daughter Jodie to help lobby to have Coach Tark inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame. It was an honor long overdue and something I spent time and money on because how could I not?
Thankfully, it happened while Coach Tark was still with us. I know it was a day of pride for him and his family. I wasn’t there but it was emotional for me to just see it on television. It was a day where I felt like I was on the dais with him. He also valued the respect of the basketball community and other coaches like him who sacrificed so much to lead young men and teach them the game he loved.
I hadn’t seen Coach Tark in several years. Once I moved back to Las Vegas last summer, I had hoped I’d get to see him and talk to him about UNLV basketball, the Hall of Fame and glean perhaps one more story or anecdote that would continue to help me on my journey. Sadly, that didn’t happen.
But over the years I did get to spend time with Coach Tark and I will never, ever forget those moments. They’re like millions of dollars to me — cherished memories that will not fade and those I’ll share with friends and family for years to come.
There were hundreds and perhaps thousands of people who knew Coach Tark better than I did. Yet, when with him, you felt as though you were his son, grandson or nephew. That’s what a big personality and giving man he was. That’s why today is hard and emotional for many of us connected to UNLV in one way or another.
Too many words can be gratuitous when someone of this magnitude leaves us. So I’ll be short in my ending: Thank you Jerry Tarkanian. Thank you for changing the course of my life and for all you did for UNLV, college basketball and the City of Las Vegas.
Scott Gulbransen is a veteran of the digital marketing world. Having managed public relations, social media and digital engagement at brands like Intuit,Applebee’s and H&R Block, and in college athletics at his alma mater UNLV, he’s now the Global Head of Digital Content at Haymon Boxing in Las Vegas.