Movie Review: Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV

by Cris Jones

In the 1980’s, college football had “The U,” and men’s collegiate basketball had UNLV.

Between 1973-1992, the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels plowed through the competition, all while embodying the bravado and swagger of Las Vegas. The upcoming HBO Sports documentary entitled Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV chronicles the time from the rise of the school once known as “Tumbleweed Tech,” to the ugly departure of head coach Jerry Tarkanian — or “Tark the Shark”– in 1992.

Upon viewing the film, it is easy to see that aside from Michigan’s famed “Fab Five,” there has yet to be a college basketball team or program that has exuded similar audaciousness and boldness to Tarkanian’s UNLV program. However, UNLV was not always a feared opponent. Before Tarkanian’s arrival, UNLV was only a Division-I basketball program for three years, toiling in obscurity. But with Tark’s newly acquired uptempo, pressure, in-your-face brand of basketball the Runnin’ Rebels reached their first Final Four in just four seasons under The Shark. ‘Tark’s motto was: We’re gonna play 40 minutes of nonstop pressure basketball. “We scored 110 points a game with no three-point line,” said former UNLV star Reggie Theus.

Pretty amazing.

Behind the leadership of Jerry Tarkanian the Runnin’ Rebels reached four Final Fours (’77, ’87, ’90, ’91) and won the 1990 National Championship. Tarkanian turned the Runnin’ Rebels into a powerhouse nationally and a darling in the city of Vegas. For a while, UNLV was the biggest draw in a city known for 24-hour entertainment. According to the film, even Frank Sinatra attempted use his celebrity status and Vegas ties to recruit players for the UNLV basketball program. Even though Ol’ Blue Eyes’ recommendations went unheeded, it just shows how deep the love for the Rebels ran in Las Vegas.

Things weren’t totally sweet in the Nevada desert during Tarkanian’s tenure, though. Although the Rebels were beloved by Vegas, outsiders (read: the NCAA) did not share the same sentiment. The documentary puts Tarkanian’s numerous brush ups with the NCAA on full display.

Though Tarkanian appeared to be a savior of sorts for impoverished  and troubled high school athletes, many college basketball insiders believed that Tarkanian’s main goal was to win — and win by any means necessary. These means included recruiting players like Lloyd Daniels — a rare 6-7, New York City talent, with a third-grade reading level, who bounced from high school to high school. Daniels never actually made it to UNLV to play, as he was arrested on a cocaine bust. Instances such as these ultimately led to Tarkanian’s exodus from UNLV.

But contrary to popular belief, Tarkanian’s players weren’t all they were portrayed to be. “They thought we were all thugs, and idiots, and dumb kids who were athletes, not even student athletes, that didn’t even deserve to be in school,” said former UNLV point guard Greg Anthony. The film does an excellent job of showing how the NCAA seemed to get some kind of enjoyment out of suspending UNLV players for such minute things.

The culmination of Tarkanian’s work at UNLV came during the 1989-90 season when the Rebels’ reached the pinnacle of college basketball. With the likes of Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon, and Larry Johnson leading the Rebels’ 1989-90 squad, UNLV was virtually unbeatable. And 1990 NCAA title game proved this to be true. UNLV won its first  and only NCAA tournament in a 30 point drubbing of Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke Blue Devils.

Luckily, Tark won that elusive championship because his forced resignation came soon thereafter, amidst accusations from the NCAA, along with pressure from the UNLV President Robert C. Maxson.

After years of what seemed to be harassment from the NCAA, Tarkanian eventually settled out of court and received a $2.5 million settlement in 1998. A small win in the battle Tarkanian fought against the NCAA for most of his coaching career, dating back to his days at Long Beach State University.

The documentary does a wonderful job of illustrating the impact the Rebels had on college basketball — especially for the young basketball fan like myself that weren’t old enough to marvel at the Rebels’ run.

Insight is sprinkled throughout the film from from former UNLV players and boosters, talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, journalists Armen Keteyian, Steve Carp, USC Professor Dr. Todd Boyd and many more.

The Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV is truly a must-see for anyone that enjoys the game, because it gives a behind the scenes look on what really hoisted the program into stardom, and what ultimately brought it back down to mediocrity.

The documentary premieres on HBO Saturday, March 12 (9:30-10:30 p.m. ET/PT).