There was a time, not that long ago, when the NCAA only looked at Las Vegas when UNLV was accused of breaking the rules. It saw the illuminated Strip with its casinos and sports books as the uncontrollable Wild, Wild West, where anything goes 24/7, and it wanted no part of it.

The idea of hosting neutral-site basketball games in southern Nevada for teams other than UNLV was seen as longer than a long shot and staging the NCAA Tournament’s coveted Final Four in the gamblers mecca forged by organized crime — fuhgeddaboudit!

Times have changed.

These days, nearly every hotel-casino that has room to roll out a basketball floor is hosting a tournament. More than 20 teams, including BYU and Utah State, staged neutral-site games in Las Vegas during November and December. The West Coast, Pac-12, Mountain West, WAC and Big West will again return in March to stage their respective conference tournaments.

The NCAA announced that Las Vegas will host the men’s 2023 NCAA West Regional and the 2028 Final Four with the College Football Playoff expected to bring its championship game to Allegiant Stadium in 2027.

Money — and the quest to get it — has always driven sports. But now it’s not just the kings and princes getting rich, it’s all the members of the court.

The NCAA now allows student-athletes to receive compensation through an unbridled name, image and likeness program and enter a penalty-free transfer portal that has kids leaping from school to school faster than passengers arriving and departing from Harry Reid International Airport.

Talk about the Wild, Wild West. The NCAA has not only allowed the chaos, but it has encouraged it by its lack of oversight. In fact, the governing body of college sports has become the very Las Vegas that it feared all those years ago — where anything goes, 24/7.

Hypocrisy isn’t a strong enough word to describe what’s happened, but the Jerry Tarkanian story is laced with irony and if he is rolling in his grave, no one would be surprised.

The NCAA hounded Tarkanian over dozens of alleged rules violations during his time at Long Beach State (1969-73), UNLV (1973-92) and Fresno State (1995-02), with most coming from his days in the desert where he turned a dormant basketball program into a thriving oasis.

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Along the successful journey came the accusations, and after years of squabbling back and forth, the NCAA put UNLV on two years’ probation and ordered Tarkanian’s suspension.

The coach appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court and won an injunction. The case moved to the United States Supreme Court in 1988 where former Solicitor General and future BYU President Rex E. Lee argued on behalf of the NCAA and beat the coach in a 5-4 decision.

Despite the legal defeat, Tarkanian was never suspended, and the team’s probation was put off a year to allow for the Rebels to defend their 1990 national championship. But he knew he was done on the morning a picture surfaced on the front page of the Las Vegas Review Journal showing three UNLV basketball players hot tubbing with a convicted sports fixer.

Tarkanian left UNLV in 1992. Shortly after, he filed a civil lawsuit against the NCAA claiming the association manufactured evidence and used it against him. Six years later, while Tarkanian was coaching at Fresno State, the NCAA settled the case and paid him $2.5 million — or “2.5 million apologies” according to Tarkanian’s Las Vegas attorney.

Tarkanian’s legacy was built on winning and losing. His 761 victories, four Final Fours and the national championship elevated him to greatness on the court. But leaving all three of his basketball programs destined for probation did little to win him any public sympathy (outside of Long Beach, Las Vegas and Fresno).

One wonders how his tenure might be judged today in the wake of the NCAA’s acceptance of Las Vegas and its casual way of orchestrating its NIL program and the transfer portal.

As a young sports TV anchor in Las Vegas, who missed the Tarkanian era by one season, I heard all the jokes — including “UNLV basketball players don’t leave early for the NBA because they can’t afford the pay cut.”

Such an allegation back then was incriminating, but now it’s something that is justly considered. BYU quarterback Jaren Hall had to decide whether to forgo his senior year of eligibility and lucrative NIL deal for the uncertainty of the NFL draft. (According to On3.com, which tracks NIL deals, Hall’s agreement was in the neighborhood of $300,000.)

It wasn’t an easy choice.

NCAA investigators came after Tarkanian’s programs for a variety of issues, mostly centering around improper benefits including entertainment, financial aid, lodging and transportation, providing meals and institutional control.

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His Runnin’ Rebels were accused of receiving money and cars from friends outside the basketball program. The coach didn’t walk around with a bag of cash, but it’s easy to believe that he had supporters who did.

Today’s NIL works in a similar way. Outside entities, away from university control, can legally provide athletes with unlimited amounts of money so long as they play for the program the NIL collective supports.  

If former Rebels star Anderson Hunt received any money for hanging out at the Sahara pool in 1990, it would have been an NCAA violation. But today, any athlete can get paid to wear a certain shirt or hat around Provo or Salt Lake City.

Last February, Alabama football coach Nick Saban said Texas A&M “bought their entire 2022 recruiting class through NIL deals.” Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher threw his arms up and said “We never bought anybody. No rules were broken. Nothing was done wrong.” Was he wrong? Rules that don’t exist can’t be broken and rules that are so vague can hardly be enforced.

Whether or not Tarkanian paid Sidney Green, Armon Gilliam or Larry Johnson to play for him at UNLV will forever be debated. However, Pro Football Network reported in August that Alabama quarterback Bryce Young had an NIL deal worth $3.2 million and Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud had a deal worth $2.5 million.

Bleacher Report cites Miami, Florida, recruit Jaden Rashada as receiving $9.5 million to play for the Hurricanes, with reports that he turned down $11 million from two other schools. That’s $9.5 million for a kid straight out of high school to play college football. It’s also three times the amount Jamaal Williams is earning this year with the Detroit Lions.

Some of what Tarkanian was accused of might be true, but much of what the NCAA investigated back then wouldn’t even get a callback today.

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“It is a little ironic that things, not just with Jerry, but all around the world of sports, the things that were so inappropriate 30 years ago are now part of mainstream college athletics,” said former BYU and Fresno State head coach Steve Cleveland. “I’m all for it. Whether it’s support for academics, nutrition, travel or taking care of their health, I’m happy about the changes for the student-athletes. It’s just ironic that most of those things were inappropriate and illegal back then.”

Cleveland left BYU for the same job at Fresno State in 2005. The Bulldogs asked him to clean up the program amid NCAA trouble from the two previous staffs, including Tarkanian’s group. Cleveland cleaned it up, but he was fired for not winning enough while he was doing it.

Talk about irony.

Despite the uproar over how he did it and his legal fights, Tarkanian’s resume earned him a place in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013. Purists will always call him a cheater, but realists might see him as a pioneer who, while infamously sucking on his towel, introduced the original NIL to college sports by allegedly allowing his players to benefit from their success. Alas, contrary to the popular ad campaign, what happened in Vegas, didn’t stay in Vegas.

By 2023 NIL standards, Tarkanian wasn’t in the wrong in many cases. He was just early. As for the NCAA, it has become the Las Vegas it once feared — a place where anything goes — and now it has a gambling problem to go with it. The organization is betting that NIL and the transfer portal will keep the NCAA in the game while it seems to be doing just the opposite.

In the epitome of irony, the NCAA has allowed the Wild, Wild West to spread coast to coast and just like a trip to the blackjack table, no one has any idea if long-term success is in the cards.

In this June 19, 1991, UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Commerce Committee on reform of intercollegiate athletics. | Marcy Nighswander, Associated Press

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.