Augmon, who played high school ball in Pasadena, CA, jokes he may not have attended UNLV if he knew practices would be sweaty, disciplined workouts. But intense practices may have been UNLV’s brilliant secret. While its exterior sparkled with Vegas hype, the team’s interior was comprised of fierce loyalty, a Puritan work ethic and a coaching staff that knew how to extract the most production from each individual. That’s where assistant coach Tim Grgurich emerges as a vital figure in the team’s success. Without him, the Rebels lose their structure.
“Coach Grgurich held us all together,” says Hunt, who started in the backcourt with Anthony. “During timeouts, people would sit down and look at Coach Grgurich. Coach Tarkanian was more of the media guy. As far as keeping us out of trouble, it was Coach Grgurich.”
You want trouble? Walk 100 yards from the Vegas campus and you’ve entered the mecca of mischief. Gambling. Liquor. Drugs. Prostitution. All on one five-mile stretch of pavement. Average college dudes have enough problems avoiding vice in sleepy university towns. Try and imagine how a 20-something male—particularly a star athlete—avoids the Strip’s allure.
Says Hunt: “I only have one regret—it wasn’t a Chapel Hill or a Bloomington or an Ann Arbor. There was a lot of temptation. Las Vegas is not a college town. That’s what I really missed.”
If Grgurich was the one steering the Rebels clear of trouble off the court, he was also the one providing much of the leadership on it. According to Hunt, Grgurich (now a Trail Blazers assistant, he doesn’t speak to the media) was the hands-on micro-manager. Tarkanian was the macro-manager, concerning himself with the big picture.
“He was an X’s and O’s guy strictly on defense,” Johnson says of Tark. “On offense he let your natural talent take over.”
Tarkanian’s genius was in dealing with relationships. The guy is revered by his players, and it’s pretty much impossible to find an ex-player who badmouths Tark. The reason seems logical: He’s a father figure. He understands where these kids come from, what situations they faced before arriving in his locker room. From there, he gives them a lifetime supply of second chances. And love.
“He was more than just a coach on the floor. He was a guy you could talk to,” Johnson says. “Not only the number one [guy] but the two, three, four, five guys. Anybody on our team could go and talk to Coach Tarkanian. That was the unique thing about it.”
Tark also dispensed confidence. For instance, he took a timid Stacey Augmon and helped shape him into a force. Known as Plastic Man for his long, flexible frame, Augmon arrived at UNLV apprehensive.
“He’s really a personal guy, he’s a motivational guy,” Augmon says. “He makes you believe in yourself. He would say, ‘Stacey, you’re a scorer, you can do it.’ I didn’t believe it at first. But he cares a lot about us.”
Tark also got his team to believe a championship was a realistic goal. “We thought we had as good a chance as anybody,” the coach says. Don’t let that ho-hum attitude fool you. Behind closed doors, he outlined a title route a year in advance.
Tark knew his team’s motivation to get to Denver started in Denver. In the spring of ’89, UNLV played P.J. Carlesimo’s Seton Hall Pirates at McNichols Arena in the Mile High City. The winner earned a trip to the Final Four in Seattle. Despite the presence of LJ, Augmon, Hunt and Anthony, the Rebs were beaten soundly. Tark told his players to use the loss for motivation. Hunt recalls leaving Denver with the attitude of: “We’ll be back in one year.”
Entering the fall of ’89, Tark was looking for the right combinations. He let Anthony, who went around telling people he was a young Republican, handle the ball and run his mouth from the tip-off until the final horn. And nobody talked more than Greg Anthony. “After he broke his jaw, he still led the team in technicals,” Hunt laughs. “That was after he got his jaw wired up.”
Meanwhile, LJ spoke more with his team-leading 20.6 points and 11.4 rebounds a game. Though still a starter for the Knicks, Johnson finds himself on the downslope of a long NBA career. Winning a pro ring may never happen. But one thing is certain. Larry Johnson has always kept himself in phenomenal shape—just like at UNLV.
“Before the season started, we were playing in a pickup game,” Hunt recalls. “Me and Larry were on different teams. I went up for a rebound, and I thought I had it, but he came right over me and bumped me out of the way. My shoulder hurt for two weeks after that. He was one of those guys where his body is like four percent body fat. It’s cut up. It’s like a Greek god.”
Assisting Johnson was the cagey Augmon, who averaged 14.2 points and 6.9 boards. In addition, an unheralded individual on the title team was David Butler, a 6-10 senior center who, last anyone heard, was playing ball in Cyprus. Butler’s 15.8 points and 7.4 boards were crucial. Meanwhile, Hunt became the Rebels’ second-leading scorer thanks to his speed on the break and silky three-point stroke.