How Jerry Tarkanian kept Florida State from winning the national title

The 60s were a wild time in college basketball recruiting. There were essentially no rules and little enforcement. This is when the NCAA earned the reputation for only going after the little guy, as schools like UCLA and Kentucky had boosters who openly paid recruits and players. Jerry Tarkanian said that the "NCAA is so mad at Kentucky, it's going to give Cleveland State two more years' probation."

There were no binding agreements between programs and recruits, so players didn't belong to a school until they were enrolled in class. Some schools would try and get recruits on campus a couple of weeks early, and then they'd stash them in a remote cabin in the woods so that no one would have access.

This was supposed to change with letters of intent. In 1969 Florida State's Hugh Durham got a player named Ed Ratleff to sign one. Ratleff, from Columbus, Ohio, was considered by many to be the best high school player in the nation. With the new LOI's, Durham thought he had him.

Many schools, especially in the south, had unwritten rules about the number of blacks allowed on the team. But Hugh Durham embraced black players, and this had helped to sway Ratleff. Of course the student body wasn't as open minded, and when Ratleff heard a number of racist comments at a party in Tallahassee, it had him reevaluating the LOI that he'd signed with Florida State.

That's when Tarkanian – the head coach at little known Long Beach State – swooped in. He got Ratleff on campus. Once there, he found out that Ratleff wanted to play college baseball as well. So Tarkanian took him to Blair Field, a beautiful city stadium and told Ratleff that that was where LB State played their games. He didn't mention that they only played a couple times each season at Blair Field, and the rest of their games were played on campus in a ratty stadium. To Ratleff, Blair Stadium was their home. He also told him he could quit the freshman basketball team at any time in order to focus on baseball.

After that, he just had his players take Ratleff out and show him what parties were like in Southern California.

Once he had Ratleff on board, Tarkanian flew to Ohio to work on his family and coaches. He ended up promising his coach that he would find JUCO scholarships for two of his less talented seniors, and that sealed the deal.

Tarkanian and Ratleff just ignored the LOI that he had signed with FSU, and Ratleff enrolled at Long Beach State. The NCAA did nothing.

Ratleff was a 2-time 1st Team All American at Long Beach State, and then was taken with the 6th pick in the NBA draft. 

Meanwhile, FSU – led by Ron King and Reggie Royals – had a fantastic team. In Ratleff's junior season (his 1st as a 1st Team AA), FSU advanced to the National Title game where they faced John Wooden's UCLA team. UCLA was undefeated, and featured Bill Walton, who was perhaps the best college basketball player of all time. They'd also won the previous five titles.

FSU had a 21-14 lead when they lost a key player to foul trouble. From there they just didn't have the depth to hang with UCLA, and in the end the Bruins pulled out an 81-76 win.

But imagine how different things could have been if that LOI with Ratleff had been binding. Ratleff was arguably the 2nd best player in the game behind Walton, and he would have paired with Ron King to give the Seminoles two 1st Team All Americans. Would that have been enough to get FSU over the top? We'll never know. Instead Ratleff led Long Beach State (a nobody in college basketball at the time) to back-to-back Elite 8s, and helped launch Tarkanian on to a Hall of Fame career.