Where were you 50 years ago when Jerry Tarkanian, the balding, droopy-eyed, towel-chewing basketball coach from junior college fame, introduced Cal State University Long Beach to its first NCAA Tournament, at a time when the Big Dance wasn’t even a thing yet?
Today, April 6, 2020, would have been the national championship game of the three-week sports/gambling/shared-cultural-touchstone now known as March Madness. But, spin it back to 1970. The fresh-new champions of the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference posted a 92-73 win over Big Sky Conference winner Weber State in the first round of the Western Regionals in Provo, Utah.
In the arena and unable to sit on the bench was Ed Ratleff, a versatile 6-foot-6 freshman who watched because NCAA rules made all first-year players ineligible. He was still trying to figure out the landscape, acclimating to the new city after spending his high school days starring in Columbus, Ohio.
“I thought I’d be playing for Hugh Durham at Florida State, but this guy calls me from a place I never heard of and I couldn’t even pronounce his name so I didn’t even call him back the first time,” said Ratleff, who turns 70 in a few weeks and continues to work as an insurance agent in Long Beach.
He would end up as the most decorated, All-American player in school history, including a spot on the 1972 U.S. Olympic roster, and still holds the school career scoring average mark with 21.4 points a game without the benefit of a 3-point shot.
Sam Robinson, a 6-foot-8 forward wrapping up his final year of college basketball eligibility, would put up 10 points and grab a team-best 14 rebounds in that 19-point triumph over Weber State. Playing the season with a hairline fracture in his hand and a bad ankle sprain, he would be the first Long Beach State player ever to be drafted by a professional team.
“I loved getting those rebounds,” the soon-to-be 72-year-old said from his North Long Beach home. “I look at pictures of that championship team, think of the things we went through, all the stories, it was such a great experience. Tark knew how to get everything out of you. We sure did surprise a lot of people.”
Then there was Danny Tarkanian with a front-row seat to it all on the bench as an 8-year-old ballboy. The perks of being the coach’s son.
“My mother and father both have the greatest memories during their time in Long Beach,” Danny said from his home in the Las Vegas area, where he went onto become a lawyer and run for public office. “At Long Beach, like everywhere, my dad was about creating relationships with families. He would go to the inner city games to watch games. They’d appreciate him coming as sometimes the only white face in the crowd.”
During that 1969-70 season, where home games landed at Cal State Long Beach’s tiny, loud, humid Phys Ed gym dubbed The Gold Mine, and seated less than 2,400, Tark’s team produced a 24-5 overall regular season record which seemed improbable after losing three of their first four games, one by just seven points at No. 19 Houston.
What followed was a 19-game win streak, which remains a school record, and included a 10-0 run in the PCAA.
At a time when the NCAA only took conference champions, and the bracket held a modest 25 teams, CSULB became the first to qualify for the national tournament its initial year of Division I-level eligibility. It took nearly 40 years later, with a field more than double in size, that North Dakota State repeated the accomplishment in 2009.
After the win against Weber State, CSULB butted heads with Pac 8 champion and national powerhouse UCLA, in the midst of winning seven consecutive national titles, absorbing an 88-65 loss in the Western Regional semifinals on March 12 in Seattle.
One last loss two days later, 89-86, came against WCAC champion Santa Clara in what was then played as the regional’s third-place game. Tark’s team ended the season included in The Associated Press’ Top 25 ranking for the first time, at No. 19.
And in that magical moment a half-century ago, a foundation was laid for the legend that would be Tarkanian, the Pied Piper of pre-Pyramid CSULB, finally inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013, two years before his death.
From 1968 through 1973, he amassed a 122-20 record—not accounting for six wins taken away from three teams because of some NCAA violations after he left for UNLV, where he had a 509-105 mark from ’73 to ’92, which included the 1990 national championship and four Final Four appearances, one of which was a devastating loss to Duke in the ’91 final that ended the Rebels’ chance at a perfect 35-0 season. He came back with a 153-80 mark from ’95 to 2002 at Fresno State with two more NCAA Tournament appearances, giving him 15 total with the three schools.
Tark’s marks at UNLV were the stuff of legends, but he once said late in his career: “If I was half the coach at Long Beach that I am now, I would have won two national championships. It was a lot easier to recruit to Long Beach than UNLV.”
An act of courage
It was 1967, right after Tarkanian won another state junior college championship at Pasadena City College, when Long Beach athletic director Fred Miller lured him to this budding program. A year earlier, Tarkanian was passed over for the job at USC.
For this gig, Miller also got the 38-year-old Tarkanian to take a $5,000 pay cut. Miller called it “an act of courage.” The entire Long Beach State athletic budget was $3,000 and only had eight scholarships to give.
Tarkanian’s wife, Lois, never knew about that, as Danny Tarkanian writes in his new book about his father, “Rebel With A Cause: The True Story of Jerry Tarkanian” (Champion Press, 370 pages, $29.99). Lois saw the first month’s paycheck at their new home in Huntington Beach and thought he was being paid twice a month.
“It just shows my father wasn’t motivated by money, and this was a shot to achieve something great,” Danny said. “He was willing to go to a place that at the time had nothing. My dad said most athletic departments would spend more on stamps than they could do with their entire budget.”
Jerry Tarkanian once said his 49ers would get 72 pairs of basketball shoes from the athletic department; they’d keep 48 and sell the other 24 so they had money for a scouting budget.
As the school was in the final years of being called California State College at Long Beach, Tarkanian, with the help of a 20-something assistant named Ivan Duncan who often worked for free, somehow amassed a 23-3 mark with a schedule as an independent in the NCAA University Division. The team was built with as many JC transfers as Tark could talk into coming over, and ignoring an unwritten rule that at least one of his five starting players had to be white. This was just two seasons removed from Don Haskins winning the NCAA title at Texas Western with a lineup of five black players against all-white Kentucky.
But with this move to Division I and joining the seven-team PCAA, Tark’s CSULB squad would post a 30-0 conference mark in its first three seasons, win four straight regular-season titles and make four NCAA Tournament trips. Tarkanian never lost a game at home, including when they moved to the Long Beach Sports Arena to accommodate the larger crowds.
Of all those invites to the post-season, the most memorable were the battles against UCLA, at a time when geographic regions were kept in place for conference winning teams.
Many of the players competed against each other in L.A. high schools and played in pickup games during the summer.
Robinson said he didn’t need to be recruited by Tarkanian out of Jefferson High in L.A. His other brother, Charles, recommended he find the coach, stay closer to home and help his mom, Esther, who had become fond of Tarkanian. Robinson, a two-time L.A. City Player of the Year, also played against Sidney Wicks at Hamilton High and Curtis Rowe at Freemont High.
“UCLA never intimidated us,” said Robinson. “I won my high school championship game against Wicks. With Tark, all the work came in practice. Still, we’d win some games by 30 and 40 points, and he’d still find something we didn’t do right.”
Nothing stung Tark, and the team, as much as a 57-55 loss to Bruins in the 1971 Western Regional final, which would have pushed Long Beach State to the Final Four.
With Ratleff, George Trapp and Chuck Terry, Long Beach put up a 12-point halftime lead on a UCLA team with Wicks, Rowe and Henry Bibby. The 49ers’ 1-2-2 amoeba zone defense was working.
Ratleff, a sophomore now eligible put up a team-best 18 points before he unceremoniously fouled out of the game, a rare occurrence. Ratleff’s replacement, Dwight Taylor, missed the last shot that could have tied the game in the final seconds.
“My father thought that could have been the greatest upset in the history of college basketball, which I’m sure it would have been,” said Danny Tarkanian. “Ed had never fouled out his entire career. It was a horrible call. We eventually found a tape of that game and my father and I watched it. That foul called on Ed was even worse than what we remembered.”
A true winner
When Sports Illustrated’s March 1972 issue previewed that tournament, it came under the headline “The UCLA Invitational,” at a time when the Bruins were in the middle of reeling off seven straight national titles from 1967 to 1973, including an 88-game win streak under coach John Wooden. Yet Wooden would never schedule a game against Long Beach.
A photo of Ratleff was on that SI cover story and writer Curry Kirkpatrick called him “the most complete college player in the country and the one man able to control a game against the Bruins.”
In that 1972 matchup in the West Regional final, No. 5 Long Beach dropped a 73-57 decision to No. 1 UCLA in Provo, Utah. Ratleff was the only Long Beach player in double figures with 17 points. Sophomore Bill Walton had 19 and Bibby had 23 for the Bruins, who went onto another title.
UCLA knew it had a challenger with Tarkanian and Long Beach, and rumors that Tarkanian’s recruiting of players was leading to a “renegade” program with academically-challenged students started to surface. UCLA athletic director J.D. Morgan once complained to the NCAA that Long Beach had allowed an ineligible player, Roscoe Pondexter, to practice with the team and sit on its bench.
“My dad didn’t even know that was a violation,” said Danny Tarkanian, who went onto law school and helped defend him when Tarkanian started his legal battles against the NCAA, including suing them in 1998. They reached an out-of-court settlement for $2.5 million, which Tark saw as vindication.
Along the way, Tarkanian once nearly talked future Basketball Hall of Famer George Gervin into attending Long Beach. Eventual UCLA star Marques Johnson, out of Crenshaw High, once told him he was seriously considering coming to Long Beach in the mid-‘70s but when Tarkanian left for UNLV, Johnson said he thought that school was “just a place off in the desert and he wasn’t going to get noticed.”
For the record, Tarkanian’s four straight trips to the NCAA Tournament with Long Beach from 1969-70 to 1972-73 have not been matched in school history. The only other Long Beach State trips to the tournament came in 1976-77 with Dwight Jones, 1992-93 and 1994-95 with Seth Greenberg, 2006-07 with Larry Reynolds and 2011-12 with Dan Monson. They lost in the first round each time. The last time Long Beach State was nationally ranked was at No. 25 in January of 1993.
At the end of his life, Tarkanian came back to Long Beach for the school’s Hall of Fame induction and other celebrations. In January 2014 he came back for one last hurrah, joined by many of his former players at a gathering at John Morris’ Boathouse on the Bay restaurant.
Tarkanian died a year later at age 84. The Long Beach team honored him with a uniform patch, a black circle with TARK in yellow letters, as coach Don Monson proclaimed that Tarkanian “put us on the map.”
Ratleff said he could still see the look on Tarkanian’s face when he showed up for his first recruiting visit in 1969, a “skinny kid who had no money and wearing clothes that weren’t the best. I knew I could have played at UCLA, but I didn’t want to. They already had a lot of great players. I wanted somewhere different, where I could move to.
“Looking back, moving he changed me. When I became an All-American and became known, it worked both ways. I did it for Tark, because Tark did it for me. He took care of those who needed his help. He understood life. He was a true winner.”
Robinson came from a family with eight brothers and sisters and a single mom. Tarkanian was like a surrogate father to him and his brother.
Robinson was drafted by the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics out of college but passed and played a couple of years in the dysfunctional American Basketball Association at the urging of his agent, and made the All-Rookie team. He lived in Las Vegas awhile, but returned to the area as an assistant coach at Long Beach Poly and Jordan for nearly 20 years. he then retired to focus on his grandson, Poly guard Anthony Robinson.
Robinson recalls Tarkanian as “an excellent coach. It was all about team ball. You don’t win championships with just one or two players. He told us about making goals and reaching them. When you think you’ve reached one level, then go to the next one.
“When we played UCLA, he told us that if we wanted respect, we’d have to earn it on the floor, and we thought about that, and knew we were putting Long Beach State on the map.”
Danny Tarkanian says the picture he used on the back cover his book—Danny in a Cal State Long Beach sweatshirt, his dad’s right arm around his neck while they sit on the bench watching the final moments of a win over Weber State in the 1971 tournament—is there for a reason.
“It’s the favorite picture I’ve ever had taken with my father,” said Danny, who said he idolized Long Beach State guard Rick Aberegg (the team’s assist leader in ’73 and ’74) and patterned his game after him when he would be the point guard on his dad’s UNLV teams in the mid-1980s.
“That’s the photo that means the most. And it just shows the love we had for each other and basketball being such a big part of each of our lives.”
Jerry Tarkanian once said that if UNLV is where he had most of his wins, Long Beach is where he had the most fun. He didn’t want to leave, but administration pressure in the wake of NCAA probes became worrisome.
“We always talked about what kind of success he would have had if he stayed at Long Beach, but the NCAA kept hitting up for minor violations and would ignore UCLA. It would have been different if he had been treated fairly,” Danny said. “My parents believe what they did at Long Beach was my dad’s greatest achievement, much more so that winning a title at UNLV, where they had far more resources. They thought the greatest part of his resume was the years at Long Beach.”