Wednesday, January 31, 2001
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Posted on: Wednesday, January 31, 2001

Tarkanian finds peace in winning

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Staff Writer

We are told Jerry Tarkanian has actually been seen smiling again — something largely unreported since the last time a judge smacked around the NCAA on his behalf.

Rumor has it the Fresno State basketball coach doesn’t gnaw his trademark towel as much anymore and that when he does take a chomp, it is more from force of habit than a release of pent-up tension.

It is even said the coach who was a Maalox ad waiting to happen is showing signs of leaning back, putting his feet up and enjoying this season.

After five seasons that have both tested his patience and a Fresno grand jury’s budget, you could even say 70-year-old Tark the Shark has been rejuvenated. And a lot of people are.

The reasons go beyond the 17-2 record and a No. 19 national ranking his Bulldogs bring to town tomorrow night to play the University of Hawaii, although those aren’t bad for starters. A 13-game winning streak would add spring to anybody’s step.

The thing is Tarkanian finally has the kind of outfit he thought he was coming back from retirement to build at his alma mater. He finally has a unit that has shown flashes of his Long Beach State and Nevada-Las Vegas teams — one that has more than a nodding acquaintance with defense.

And the key word here is "team." For the Bulldogs, in the past a collection of transients, miscreants and gunners, too often have been a team in name only. Tarkanian has never lacked for talent at Fresno State and doesn’t this year. But for maybe the first time, it is focused and pulling in the same direction for weeks at a time.

Not since the embarrassment of a double-overtime loss at San Francisco in early December have they dropped a game. Only twice since then has any opponent gotten within 10 points.

It is a team that is making its headlines on the court, not off. The team that used to keep the bail-bond industry busy and once even brought along a former California prison guard to Hawaii as a special assistant, has slashed its way through the competition without need of a samurai sword.

As they come to the Stan Sheriff Center, a place where their predecessors have been given fits, these Bulldogs have far and away been the pacesetters in the Western Athletic Conference and the only ones playing like they deserve a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

This, the beginning of a stretch in which they play five times on the road in seven games, will either validate the Bulldogs’ standing as the class of the WAC or call into question the caliber of the schedule it has played.

Along the way, there is growing speculation that this could be Tarkanian’s last season. If it turns out that way, this is the team that might send him out with a smile.

Ferd Lewis has been reporting on sports in Hawaii since 1973.

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