The Las Vegas Strip goes dark on Earth Day, 2009. Reuters/Steve Marcus

The tradition has marked the passing of such luminaries as J.F.K., Sinatra, and Elvis. Now, it's Jerry Tarkanian's turn.

Since the shimmering Las Vegas Strip first went dark following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, only seven people have been honored in this fashion. All have been major figures in American culture, on a short list that includes Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Dean Martin. The lights dimmed to mark Elvis Presley's death in 1977 as well as the 2004 passing of President Reagan—the last person to be honored in this way. (Earth Day was commemorated in this way in 2009.)

The bright lights of the Las Vegas Strip shut down for Earth Day, 2009. (Reuters/Richard Brian)

Tonight at 10:30 p.m., Sin City will again become uncharacteristically somber. Hotels along the Strip, including the MGM Grand and Caesar's Palace, will dim their lights. And it will be to honor a man many people have likely never heard of: Jerry Tarkanian, who passed away last week.

Few people outside the insular world of of college basketball will recognize that name. Jerry Tarkanian didn't produce timeless music like Sinatra. His bald head and droopy eyes reminded nobody of Elvis. But Tarkanian was a revolutionary during his time coaching the University of Las Vegas-Nevada basketball program from 1973 until 1992. The Runnin' Rebels earned four trips to the coveted Final Four, and even brought the national championship home to Vegas in 1990. Adam Hill, a reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, wrote recently that "Tarkanian put the city on the sports map."

Jerry Tarkanian's route to success was not an ordinary one. His coaching style epitomized Vegas' "go big or go home," attitude—the likely reason he's being commemorated in a way hitherto reserved for pop stars and presidents.

(AP Photo/Ed Reinke)

Tarkanian would famously walk up and down the court sidelines chewing a towel, looking like a nervous poker player risking it all. And, in true Vegas spirit, Tarkanian rebelled against the establishment: He was one of the first coaches to recruit junior college athletes, according to Sports Illustrated. He became known for welcoming risky players into his program, some accused of being involved with drugs. "Tarkanian will be recalled ... colorfully, as someone who turned tradition inside out," a recent New York Times obituary notes, adding that only six of his players at UNLV had graduated during his first decade at the helm.

What "Tark the Shark" (as he was called) was doing was gambling—on student athletes with scuffed-up pasts and on a city not known for building thriving sports programs. But his bets were well-placed, earning him over 700 wins and a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Tonight, the Vegas Strip will dim to honor one of the most successful gamblers the city has ever seen.

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