HBO Sports has another first-rate documentary premiering Saturday — just in time for the NCAA Tournament — with “Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV,” a look at Jerry Tarkanian’s rule-flouting run as the team’s head coach, which became “one of the longest running and most successful shows on the strip” and caused the coach to go to war with the NCAA.
There are several hilarious moments in the hour-long project, including a story about Frank Sinatra making a recruiting call on Tark the Shark’s behalf (as the coach was called) to a disbelieving mother; and the scandal in which players were photographed in a hot tub with a notorious gambler.
In interviews, Tarkanian is also fairly unabashed about the fact that he really didn’t care about things like graduation rates as long as his players were given the opportunity to attend college and, not incidentally, help lift his team to championship levels.
As usual, the producers talk to all the right people — former players, other coaches, sportswriters who covered the team — in putting together a loving but tough portrait of UNLV’s rebel spirit under Tarkanian, which seems more timely than ever in light of the sanctions recently levied against Ohio State in football and Connecticut in basketball.
Mostly, it’s a reminder that NCAA rules about amateurism and not paying players are built on a mountain of hypocrisy, just as the organization gets ready to reap the benefits of their sweat under its new multibillion-dollar contract to carry the NCAA tournament — a showcase shared this year, not incidentally, by HBO’s sister Time Warner cable entity, Turner Networks.