He was a colorful, emotional coach, known for habitually chewing on a towel during games, and his public criticisms and clashes with the NCAA. He was head coach at three different colleges, and each of them was penalized by the NCAA. Tarkanian has asserted that he was not to blame for the violations, and that the programs of more favored coaches were not penalized. With a 990-228 career coaching record (81.3%) across all college divisions, Tarkanian currently has more collegiate wins than any coach in history; despite this, he remains an outsider to the Basketball Hall of Fame due primarily to the alleged corruption that occurred at each of his schools during his coaching tenures.
Tarkanian was born in Euclid, Ohio, United States, and attended Pasadena City College in California. He later transferred to Fresno State where he played basketball for the Bulldogs in 1954 and 1955. He graduated in 1955. Later, he earned a master's degree in educational management from the University of Redlands.
He began coaching high school basketball in California in 1956, and moved to college ball at Riverside City College from 1961-66 and Pasadena City College from 1966-68. His teams won three California junior college championships.
He moved to Division I basketball as coach at Long Beach State from 1968-1973, and became famous at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas from 1973-1992 where his teams were known for remarkable defense and an up tempo style. He took his UNLV teams to four Division I Final Fours. The first against North Carolina in 1977. The second against Indiana in 1987. In 1990 Tarkanian's UNLV Runnin' Rebels won the NCAA basketball championship, 103-73 against Duke while setting a record for margin of victory in a championship game. The following year Coach Tarkanian's undefeated team rematched with Duke in the semifinals and lost 72-70.
There had been numerous NCAA accusations against Tarkanian and the UNLV program, which he denied and claimed were motivated by his public criticism of the NCAA. The accusations resulted in substantial sanctions on the UNLV basketball team, and led to clashes with new UNLV president Robert Maxson, and he was forced to resign.
He coached the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA briefly in 1992, but was fired after only 20 games with a 9-11 record. He received a $1.3 million settlement, which he used to fund a lawsuit against the NCAA. Although the NCAA did not admit harassing Tarkanian, they settled out of court paying him $2.5 million in 1998.
He returned to college coaching at alma mater Fresno State from 1995-2002 and led them to six consecutive 20 win seasons. He retired from coaching in 2002 with 778 career Division I wins. Following his retirement, Fresno State was placed on probation by the NCAA for violations committed by its men's basketball team under Tarkanian's watch.
Tarkanian has the distinction of being one of few college coaches to lead three different schools to 20-win seasons. He accomplished this task at each school in his first year.
His colorful autobiography, "Runnin' Rebel: Shark Tales of "Extra Benefits", Frank Sinatra and Winning it All" was released in October 2005 and was a major national seller.
Jerry Tarkanian is married to Las Vegas city councilwoman Lois Tarkanian. They have four children and seven grandchildren. One of their sons, Danny Tarkanian, was an All-American college basketball player while playing for Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV.
Tarkanian is an Armenian-American.