This weekend, The New York Times Magazine will publish its annual “The Lives They Lived” issue, which recalls notable people who died in 2015. In my bailiwick, two of the more notable deaths were those of Jerry Tarkanian, the former basketball coach at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, who died in February at age 84, and Walter Byers, the former head of the N.C.A.A., who died in May. He was 93.
Tarkanian, who was known as Tark the Shark and who coached for 31 years, has the seventh-highest winning percentage in men’s Division I history. Although his Runnin’ Rebels were best known for their fast-paced offense, no less an authority than Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski has described Tarkanian as “arguably the best defensive coach in college basketball history.”
Byers, who became the executive director of the N.C.A.A. in 1951 — a position he held for the next 37 years — transformed a toothless association into a powerful force that mirrored his own personality: secretive, despotic, stubborn and ruthless. He helped turn the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament into the financial windfall we now know as March Madness. He created the N.C.A.A.’s enforcement division, along with a culture that enforced its myriad rules (many of them absurdly petty) with a Javert-like zealotry. He even invented the phrase “student-athlete,” a propaganda stroke that helped universities avoid paying workers’ compensation to injured athletes.
Byers ultimately turned against his creation, though by then the damage had been done.
Tarkanian and Byers were mortal enemies, engaged for years in legal combat. They loathed each other. After Byers bumped into Tarkanian in an elevator, he likened the experience to “Eliot Ness meeting Al Capone,” according to notes I obtained a few years ago that had been compiled for his 1995 memoir.
Tarkanian’s legal war with the N.C.A.A., which began when he was coaching at Long Beach State in the early 1970s, did not end until 1998, when the association agreed to pay him a $2.5 million settlement. But the real import of their battle had taken place a decade earlier. In 1988, the same year Byers retired, the Supreme Court issued an important ruling against Tarkanian. In a 5-4 decision, the court said that the N.C.A.A. was not required to give due process to the athletes and coaches it investigated.
The ruling meant that the association could destroy athletic careers on a whim, with “evidence” that would be laughed out of any court. Players and coaches could face charges without ever having the chance to question their accuser, or even know who was making the accusations.
It paved the way for the N.C.A.A. to serve as investigator, prosecutor and judge — something it does to this day.
When I first started writing about the N.C.A.A. four years ago, I was stunned that an American institution could act with such callous impunity when people’s careers were at stake — and when many of the accused were still teenagers. Eventually, I discovered the answer. It was N.C.A.A. v. Tarkanian.
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