Leaving Las Vegas? Raiders QB Derek Carr is simply loving Las Vegas

HENDERSON, Nev. -- It was the opportunity of a professional lifetime, and Jerry Tarkanian had some convincing to do.

"Lois," the not-yet-internationally-famous and Hall of Fame college basketball coach pleaded his wife in the searing Las Vegas summer heat of 1973, "this is going to be like a college town.

"She said, 'Are you kidding? You're crazy. How could Vegas be a college town?'"

The Tarkanians recounted their coming to Las Vegas-from-Long Beach tale on a 2011 HBO documentary on the UNLV Runnin' Rebels basketball team, the longest running and most impactful sports saga in southern Nevada. Until the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights landed in 2017 and, then, even more improbably, the Las Vegas Raiders this year.

"So, he took me down the Strip and, doggone it, wouldn't you know, there's cars going by, 'Hey, Tark!'" Lois recalled. "When we first came, we didn't have a home or anything, so we lived in a room in a casino. So, that wasn't very good."

Some 47 years later, Derek Carr saw a similar sports landscape in the desert. Even if the town looks nothing now like it did back then.

But while Tarkanian lorded over old Vegas, Carr is simply trying to carve out his own niche in new Vegas.

"It reminds me a lot of when I played at Fresno State -- very college-like atmosphere," the franchise quarterback said to raised eyebrows at the team's renaming ceremony in January, before the COVID-19 shutdown.

"Everywhere we go in town, dinner and all these kinds of things, people are waiting at tables, just waiting to say hi. Just telling us how excited they are to have us. It's a fresh start for everybody. It's exciting."

And the breath of fresh air Carr said he needed when the franchise's Oakland era came to an end.

Now, it being 2020 and the populace ravaged by a worldwide pandemic, these are not normal times. Far from it for a city whose lifeblood is tourism. Carr is not out and about, mixing with the unwashed Sin City masses (aside from the Darren Waller Foundation event in nearby Henderson, right?) and becoming this century's Tark the Shark as the biggest headliner on the Strip.

That's a big hill to climb. One that no one here has really been able to since Tarkanian coached his last game at the Thomas & Mack Center on March 3, 1992 ... when Carr was 25 days shy of his first birthday.

Plus, Tarkanian's Rebels went to four Final Fours, winning the 1990 national title. Carr's Raiders are 6-3 in their inaugural Las Vegas season, with the biggest game of their short tenure upcoming Sunday night against the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC), whose lone loss in the last calendar year came to Carr's Raiders.

Carr isn't trying to become the face of Las Vegas so much as embrace it. Yeah, as a Fresno State legend who abhorred UNLV, even with the obvious Fresno-Tarkanian connections ... until moving to Las Vegas.

Tarkanian was on Fresno State's campus coaching the Bulldogs basketball team from 1995 through 2002, a sweet spot for the Carr family as Derek's older brother David was the school's QB and Heisman Trophy candidate in 2001.

Win games and you'll win the crowd, as they said in ancient Rome. Or maybe that was at Caesars Palace?

Yeah, there were questions about how the deeply religious Carr would adapt to living in the Dionysian Den that is Sin City. And now images of Lois Tarkanian clutching her rosary beads in the stands during deep Rebels runs in the Big Dance juxtaposed with Carr preaching his gospel in big tent revivals are dancing through your head.

Leaving Las Vegas? Carr is Loving Las Vegas. Like, a lot.

"I love the people ... like, it's such a community, like everybody knows everybody," Carr said. "Like every business guy I've ever met, they're like, 'I know so and so.' And all the pastors I meet are like, 'Oh, yeah. I know that guy.' They all know each other and it's like this big connection where everyone kind of knows each other, goes to the same events.

"We joke around about certain events that some of our players have been at, but like, I see two of my neighbors there. It's pretty crazy how close it is."

Almost like an island, in the middle of the desert, filled with neon and glitz and glamour.

And it's all been a perfect backdrop for a Carr's second act. Or have you forgotten how quickly the most polarizing player in franchise history was going to be replaced by Marcus Mariota?

Carr, playing in the same system for the third straight season for the first time in his seven-year career, is putting up impressive numbers. Numbers that might actually be setting him up for another payday, less than four years after he signed that five-year, $125 million contract extension that made him the highest-paid player in the game's history, for nine weeks.

Consider: Carr is on pace for 3,832 passing yards with 28 TDs and 4 INTs while completing 69.3% of his throws and registering career highs in passer rating (107.4) and Total QBR (76.4). He is also on pace for a career-high 210 rushing yards. And that's with his production ticking down slightly during the team's current three-game winning streak.

Oh, and the Raiders, who have only been to the playoffs once and have had one winning record since 2002, are currently sitting as the AFC's No. 5 seed.

Raiders coach Jon Gruden sees Carr settling into Las Vegas nicely, thank you very much.

"It's great, he's also my neighbor, so I do get to see him pulling in and out of his driveway," Gruden said of his upscale Southern Highlands compatriot.

"He's all business. He's on a mission right now to prove that he can be one of the top, if not the best, in football. That's what he's after. Whether you agree or disagree, that's not my problem, but he really is on a mission to be great. ... If you could see him here every day in these circumstances, you'd all be impressed with what he represents. I couldn't be happier having him as my quarterback."

Tarkanian got UNLV to the Final Four in his fourth season. Carr is hoping to get the Raiders to Super Bowl-contender status sooner to win over Las Vegas.

Besides, he's already taken a page from the late Jerry Tarkanian, who passed away in 2015, in convincing his most important ally in that department.

"I joke with my wife all the time like, 'I could live here forever,'" Carr said of conversations with his wife, Heather. "Like, I love this place. I tell her, 'Maybe I'll run for office someday here.' Who knows? We'll see."

Hey, Lois Tarkanian, a former Las Vegas city councilwoman, just won another election, this one for a seat on the Nevada Board of Regents.

"I absolutely love Las Vegas, and I hope that they are loving our team," Carr continued. "I hope that they like what we've been able to do. Hopefully, we can do some more to give them some more great memories here in the future. But I love this place and I tell you what, man, especially the way my wife's talking, I don't think we're going to be going anywhere anytime soon."