For years the University of Nevada-Las Vegas basketball program has carried an outlaw image - an image fostered by Coach Jerry Tarkanian's frequent run-ins with the NCAA and the mess he left behind at Long Beach State (NCAA probation), not to mention the team's non-stop success. Nevertheless, few if any rivals have ever challenged the Rebels publicly - until this week.
Kohn Smith, a former Bobby Knight assistant in his first year as head coach at Utah State, attacked the UNLV program with positively Knight-like honesty. After warming up with a few rather innocuous comments on Monday, Smith hit his stride on Wednesday. Speaking with two Las Vegas reporters just 41/2 hours before his team would meet the 13th-ranked Rebels, Smith charged the Rebels on every front."Let's get them on a polygraph test," he said. "Let's go through their academic background, their class attendance, their grades, where they've been, what they're doing now. We can look at their summer jobs compared to ours. We can get out the tax statement, if you want. Let's see what kind of cars they're driving; let's see how they were recruited, if anything was given to them illegal."
And what did Tarkanian have to say about all this? "I have nothing to say," he said, but he did. "If he has anything specific, tell him to let me know so we can look it up. I think he's really frustrated with a potential (league) championship team that has dropped into the second division."
As it turned out, Tark had perhaps the last laugh - and the final word, as he and Smith were walking off the court Wednesday night (see game story on D1). The Rebels won again, this time by 26 points.
If Smith, the rookie coach, was supposed to be intimidated by the rout and the kingpin Tarkanian - the coach of the Big West dynasty - he never let on. After the game, without hesitation, he resumed his discussion of UNLV. "I'm glad it happened before the game, and not after, then people would have said it was just sour grapes," he said. Referring to the controversy, Smith said, "That's their media. They brought it up, and I just said exactly what I think. I'm really for having a good clean program and having student athletes and having college basketball the way it should be. That's what we're trying to build here.
"I talk to all the coaches around the league, and they say the same things. I just hope we'll get something done. I want our conference officials to say what we stand for . . . I wasn't saying all this to affect the game. They asked me and I responded."
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Spectrum, Tark was having his say. "His (Smith's) comments are so ridiculous, so uncalled for, so unprofessional. I don't know who he thinks he is."
The whole War of Words actually began innocently enough a couple of days earlier. On Monday, Smith criticized UNLV while speaking to a small gathering of five media members - comments that were so sandwiched by the usual jock talk that one reporter confessed that he didn't even use most of the UNLV quotes. Among other things Smith said, "I'm not real big on their whole operation." He also criticized the Rebels' rough-and-tumble full-court press - which forced the Aggies to commit 25 turnovers during a 22-point loss last week in Las Vegas - and applauded the Rebels' TV loss to Louisville on Sunday in which their play was stymied by foul trouble. "That's the way the game should be called, if that's the way they're going to play defensively, and that hasn't been the case in the Big West (Conference)," said Smith.
When reporters from Las Vegas saw those quotes in Tuesday's Deseret News, they sought out Smith for further clarification. Smith, rookie or not, never backed down. Among other things, he said that the Big West is letting UNLV run the league because of the $1 million-plus in revenues that the Rebels bring the conference via TV and post-season apperances.
"Do we have one set of rules for UNLV and one set for everybody else?" he asked.
Pressed to be more specific, Smith said that following last Thursday's game in Las Vegas, he saw one Rebel player wearing alligator shoes and he saw Stacey Augmon getting into a car with "gold-rimmed tire covers," and another Rebel getting into a "fancy car with a real nice stereo system."
"Where do kids from their backgrounds get the money to pay for these things?" he asked.
That comment, in particular, galled Tarkanian, who said, "What really disappoints me is his statement about where our players come from. That has racial overtones."
Coming to UNLV's defense, Mark Warkentien, UNLV's assistant athletic director, said the school keeps close tabs on players' cars and that nothing was improper. "I would have brought (the documentation) along, but I didn't know he (Smith) was the assistant commissioner," said Warkentien, who said the players' cars include an '82 Toyota, a '79 Oldsmobile, a '66 Mustang, a '70 Cadillac (Augmon's) and a moped.
Tarkanian said only four Rebels held down summer jobs in Las Vegas last summer - all for hourly wages.
Tarkanian, who might not have the last laugh now that the NCAA has beaten him on another court - the U.S. Supreme Court - had a number of unkind words for Smith after the game. He and other Rebels questioned Smith's motives, but Smith is sincere. What he lacks is substantiation of his charges, if there is any.
In the meantime, a feud rages. "We've had a real good relationship with USU and (former coach) Rod Tueller, but that obviously won't continue with Kohn Smith," said Tark.