Monday, Nov. 9, 2009 | 2:15 a.m.
Did 20 years really fly by that quickly? Jerry Tarkanian has been pondering that very question lately as this season marks the 20th since he directed UNLV to its greatest sporting achievement.
In 1990, the Rebels belted Duke, 103-73, for the national basketball championship. The margin is the widest in a college hoops title game.
That special UNLV team will be recognized today in the first of two days of celebrations.
There’s a gala dinner tonight at the Green Valley Ranch, a golf tournament Tuesday at DragonRidge Country Club and a halftime ceremony at Tuesday night’s exhibition game against Washburn at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“It’s amazing,” said Tarkanian, 79. “It sure went fast.”
How about the memories of that season?
“Yeah, sure,” he said. “Absolutely. I remember it a lot better than the next one. That was painful because that was our best team, the best one I’ve ever been around. That team dominated all year long and got beat. That’s something I didn’t expect.”
In 1990, UNLV capped a 35-5 season with that wipeout of Duke in the finale in Denver.
The Rebels were 34-0 the following season when they were upended by the Blue Devils, 79-77, in a national semifinal game in Indianapolis.
Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony, Anderson Hunt and most of the title-winning Rebels were on the squad that lost to Duke a year later.
Tarkanian frequently talks with and sees Johnson, who spoke to this season’s team before its FirstLook scrimmage at the Mack a few weeks ago.
“It was great to hear how much it meant to him,” said sixth-year UNLV coach Lon Kruger. “He follows (the players) and cheers for them and wants to see them do well. That ties you to the task a little. It opens your eyes. Wow, what we do affects a lot of people.
“I don’t think players always think about that a lot. And when they hear a coach, or a parent, talk day after day … sometimes when someone else says it, talking about representing one another and representing the program, it hits home or reinforces it a little.”
Johnson had been in New York on business, but he was scheduled to fly to Las Vegas on Sunday night to participate in all of the 20-year anniversary festivities.
Augmon, an assistant coach with the Denver Nuggets who will be in Chicago on Tuesday night, is about the only player from that golden era not expected to attend any of the celebrations.
Tarkanian is trying to get David Bulter and George Ackles back into UNLV to complete course requirements and earn their degrees.
Tarkanian and his wife, Lois, will attend a function at Tarkanian Middle School today and shoot a video for the Mountain West Conference, but they’ll be at the gala GVR dinner tonight.
It’s been a rough few months for the legendary Rebels boss, whose summertime spills resulted in several surgeries in La Jolla, Calif.
At lunch last week with his daughter, Pam, he compounded his rehabilitation challenges when a chair slipped underneath him at a restaurant and he banged his right side against the chair.
He broke two ribs on that side in a Jacuzzi fall this summer.
“A little setback,” Tarkanian said. “I fell out, but not very far and I wasn’t very high. It was really painful all week, but it’s better now.”
He has been grateful how Kruger has embraced him, that special UNLV team and all past Rebels. That hasn’t been the case with many coaches and administrative regimes that followed Tarkanian.
It’s second nature for Kruger, he said, to recognize the Rebels’ rich tradition.
“To create a climate in which they feel good about coming back is pretty easy to do,” Kruger said.
But it’s not easy. At first, Kruger said, he encountered some hesitation when reaching out to some of those players.
“They’re kind of, maybe, off-balanced about it, like ‘What’s going on? Do you want something?’ ” Kruger said. “Then they realize we really don’t, we just want them to feel a part of it and feel comfortable, feel welcomed.
“Of course, we benefit greatly. They come back and talk to our players. That helps a lot.”
When UNLV won it all in 1989-90, Kruger was coaching his fourth and final season at Kansas State, his alma mater. The next season, which ended with the Rebels’ defeat to Duke, Kruger started coaching Florida.
Three years later, he guided the Gators to a Final Four.
Returning to that grand stage would mean plenty to UNLV, Rebels fans and Kruger and his wife, Barb.
“Our greatest joy would be watching everyone, players and fans, enjoy that,” Kruger said. “It would mean a lot. People enjoy seeing progress and good results, but the Final Four is so ridiculously hard to get to.
“There are so many outstanding teams that don’t get to a Final Four, let alone a Sweet 16 or Elite Eight.”
For perfect inspiration, the Rebels need only pay close attention to the small parade of former Rebels with which they will come in contact over the next two days.