Because of the proximity between UNLV and Arizona — only about 400 miles apart — those programs share a bond the Wildcats do not have with some other programs within their own conference.
The Running Rebels host the Wildcats tonight (8 p.m., Tucson time) at Thomas & Mack in Las Vegas in a renewal of one of the most storied rivalries of the Southwest. The intense competition of the rivalry dates to more than 40 years ago when Jerry Tarkanian coached against Fred Snowden. It intensified when Tarkanian battled against Lute Olson for supremacy in the West.
Some of the notable ties between the two schools:
UNLV president Len Jessup earned his PhD in Management and Organizational Behavior at Arizona. He was also the dean of Arizona’s Eller College of Management from 2011 until his hire at UNLV in January 2015.
In April, Jessup signed off on the hire of former Arizona law school graduate Desiree Reed-Francois as UNLV’s new athletic director, agreeing to a five-year deal that pays $350,000 annually.
Reed-Francois, 44, became the first female Hispanic athletic director at the Football Bowl Subdivision level when she began June 1. Her contract runs through June 30, 2022.
Reed-Francois hired former Arizona All-American shortstop Kristie Fox in July to lead the Rebels’ softball program. Fox played for the Wildcats from 2004 to 2007, helping Arizona win national titles during her junior and senior seasons. Fox has two players from Tucson on her roster — former Ironwood Ridge outfielder Reina Bondi and former Desert View infielder Lesly Cazares.
Two former CDO baseball players — first baseman Nick Ames and outfielder Max Smith — play for UNLV.
Another Dorado athlete — forward Tianna Carter — recently committed to play at UNLV.
Former Arizona football assistant David Lockwood, part of Rich Rodriguez’s original staff with the Wildcats from 2012 to 2015, is the Rebels’ cornerbacks coach.
Arizona has a good number of athletes from Las Vegas:
— Chase Jeter, a transfer from Duke who becomes eligible next season, hails from powerhouse program Bishop Gorman High School.
— Nick Quintana, infielder with the baseball team.
— Tony Fields, freshman linebacker standout with the Wildcats, along with cornerbacks Tony Wallace and Malik Hausman, and offensive lineman Edgar Burrola.
— Women’s soccer goalie Lainey Burdett and forward Charlotte Brascia.
— Sprinter Zakee Washington and hurdler Tiana Bonds with the track and field teams.
In terms of the UNLV-Arizona basketball rivalry, it is one of the richest in Wildcat lore.
Between 1972 and 1990, the two programs met 13 times, with UNLV holding a 9-4 edge in the series.
The height of the rivalry came in the late 1980s, when Olson and the late Tarkanian were involved in very heated battles. Olson pulled the plug on Arizona facing UNLV in the regular season after the Wildcats lost 95-87 in Las Vegas in 1990.
Following that game, Olson commented that UNLV guard Anderson Hunt cursed at him and his staff after diving for a loose ball near the Arizona bench. Hunt denied cursing at Olson and claimed it was Olson who swore at him as he walked back to the court.
“This is the last year of the series,” Olson told reporters. “It is not in the plans to play them again. I just don’t think it’s a series we’ll continue. I don’t have to indicate what my reasons are.”
Tarkanian dubbed Olson “Midnight Lute” after the legendary Arizona coach managed to sign Tom Tolbert out of junior college in 1986 after Tolbert reportedly verbally committed to UNLV.
Lute Olson’s feud with UNLV and Jerry Tarkanian made headlines nationally, including this one in the Prescott Courier
Tarkanian was on the offensive against Olson and Olson’s former Arizona assistants in 2010 despite not having coached against the Wildcats for 20 years.
“People said a lot at our expense,” Tarkanian told Sports Illustrated in a 2010 interview. “The Arizona assistants, they were always telling the parents of our recruits that the mob is going to get your sons or the hookers are going to get your sons if they go to UNLV. We heard it all.”
In March of 2010, Tarkanian blogged about silencing Arizona’s fans at McKale Center with a win over Georgetown in the 1991 NCAA tournament there.
“Our fans who traveled to the game said they were treated so badly,” Tarkanian wrote. “They would go into restaurants and have a hard time being served. To this day, John Thompson will tell you that was the only time Georgetown got cheered on the road.
“They were always considered the villains because they were a pretty rough and physical team. But when they took the court against us in Arizona, they received a standing ovation. You could say we got the last laugh. We beat Georgetown and advanced to the Final Four. And our players left a gift for Arizona’s players. We were assigned the Arizona locker room, which had this big basketball decoration inside it in with Arizona’s logos and colors. Well, our guys shouldn’t have done this, but they each autographed the ball after we won.”
Tarkanian wrote in another blog that UNLV would have defeated Duke for the 1990-91 national title if it had former UA guard Matt Othick, a Las Vegas resident who attended Bishop Gorman. Olson managed to snag Othick.
Tarkanian’s lead paragraph of the blog: “Matt Othick would have played much better for us at UNLV than he did for Arizona.”
In December 2008, Tarkanian wrote a couple of blogs titled, “Beating Arizona, Part I” and “Beating Arizona, Part II”. In the first blog, he writes that beating Arizona and Sean Elliott in the 1989 Sweet 16 was one of the greatest victories he enjoyed. An excerpt:
“I was so happy. It was one of my favorite victories, because it was Arizona. We wanted to beat Arizona bad because of earlier in the year, the way they celebrated on that floor (after beating UNLV 86-75 in Tucson). Our players went nuts in the locker room. We went back to the hotel and celebrated all night. A bunch of our boosters went to the airport the next day to see Arizona go home. People were drinking and yelling, Arizona go home! Arizona go home!”
The coaches made amends before Tarkanian’s passing two years ago. They were pictured smiling together at a function preceding the 2014 Final Four in Dallas.
“He had a radio show, and I’d go on the radio show and we’d talk,” Olson told Seth Davis in a televised interview. “During the summer sometimes I’d go to Coronado (Island) and go up to Del Mar (Calif.). Tark liked the ponies so I had a chance to visit him up there.”
The Snowden-Tarkanian saga dates to 1972 when the Tucson Citizen reported upon Snowden’s hire at Arizona on March 20, 1972, that Tarkanian was a candidate for the coaching vacancy following Bruce Larson’s resignation. Tarkanian, Snowden and Northern Illinois’ Tom Jorgensen were contacted by athletic director Dave Strack for the job.
From when Arizona beat UNLV in the 1976 Sweet 16 in a 114-109 overtime thriller in Los Angeles …
Tark beat Ben Lindsey’s lone UA team in 1982. He was 4-1 against Olson’s teams.
The Top Five games involving Tarkanian’s UNLV program and Arizona:
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The series thankfully resumed in 2006 when Lon Kruger coached UNLV. Sean Miller has kept it alive since his hire in 2009. In the last 11 years, the Running Rebels and Wildcats have met seven times with Arizona holding a slight 4-3 edge. The Wildcats are 1-2 in Las Vegas in this stretch, including a 71-67 loss in 2014 when Arizona was ranked No. 3 in the nation.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.