After a 52-9 record in two seasons at UCLA, Gene Bartow left to become the head coach of the upstart UAB Blazers. Forty-two years later, his son Murry is following in his father’s footsteps
Bartow is nicknamed Clean Gene. He doesn’t smoke, doesn’t swear, leaves the vodka out of his screwdrivers, goes home to his wife and three kids at night, goes to church every Sunday, gets his hair cut regularly, shaves every morning and insists that his players put their dirty towels in the laundry bin to make the team manager’s job easier.
– Sports Illustrated writer Sam Moses
Gene Bartow was walking around like he’d caught the UCLA flu. It was winter 1976-77, and the head coach of the greatest basketball program in the world found little to smile about. His team stood at 10-2 after dropping a close game at Pauley Pavilion against unranked Oregon on January 7, and as he circulated the athletic complex, he could not shut off the voices of critics, indicting him for the crime of not being John Wooden.
Almost two years earlier, Bartow and his assistant at the University of Illinois, Lee Hunt, were on a recruiting trip somewhere on the long, flat highway between Champaign and Chicago when Bartow said, “UCLA called.” Hunt nearly swerved off the road.
“He told me that [Athletic Director] J.D. Morgan had called him and he was going to go for an interview at UCLA,” Hunt said. “I was so excited.”
Hunt had been a friend since Bartow’s days at Central Missouri State, and their coaching partnership began in 1970 when Bartow hired him as an assistant at Memphis State. Three years later, the arrow of fate split through Gene Bartow’s life when the Tigers met UCLA in the national finals at the Checkerdome in St. Louis. The 87-66 final margin in favor of the Bruins belied a game that was tied at the half. It was UCLA’s seventh national title in a row and 75th win in a row—which was remarkable enough in itself—but the game was even more memorable because 6-foot-11 forward Bill Walton hit on 21 of 22 shots for 44 points and an NCAA finals record.
Bartow might have lost the game that night, but he won a fan: UCLA Athletic Director J.D. Morgan.
Perhaps there was something about Bartow’s demeanor that reminded Morgan of his coach at UCLA, the great John Wooden. The clean-livin’ Bartow shared Wooden’s folksy Midwestern values, carried himself with ease and ran a class program. Morgan liked that. Understanding that the aging Wooden would not coach forever, Morgan placed that thought in his back pocket as a reminder for when—God help him—the vacancy did arrive.
For a while, Bartow was like a god in Grind City. If anyone loved Gene Bartow, it was the city of Memphis and the Memphis State fans. Unfortunately for them, the Memphis State administration was unwilling to extend Bartow a desirable contract, even after leading the team to its first title game. And when the University of Illinois showed interest, Bartow bolted.
“It wasn’t about the money,” remembers Lee Hunt. “Bartow wanted the contract.”
Unfazed at his second rebuilding job in a row (at Memphis, he had been tasked with resurrecting a program that had been reduced to rubble under coach Moe Iba) Bartow replaced Harv Schmidt, a former Illini player whose team had gone in the tank in ‘73-’74, winning only five games against 18 losses. In Bartow’s first season he found modest improvement, posting an 8-18 record his first year in Champaign.
Half a world away, John Wooden was making a place for him.
Bartow and Wooden
After UCLA’s national semifinal game against Louisville in 1974-75, Wooden, affectionately known as the “Wizard of Westwood,” who had been the head coach at UCLA since 1948, told his players he was hanging it up—for good.
“The announcement was met with a dead silence,” Bruin guard Jimmy Spillane said.
Only 64 at the time, Wooden was publicly a bit vague in his reasoning, but cited health issues as a contributing factor in his retirement.
Now Morgan was faced with the unenviable task of replacing the greatest coach in college basketball history. Who would it be? Probably the likeliest of candidates was Denny Crum, the head coach at Louisville, who had a long history with UCLA. As a player, Crum had starred for Wooden from 1956-58. As a coach, he led the UCLA freshmen in ’58-’59, and was an assistant under Wooden from 1963-71.
But as Morgan was inventorying potential candidates, his mind jogged back to that championship game of ‘73, and to Bartow. Because Morgan enjoyed virtually carte blanche to handpick a successor, he did not have to clear the same human resources hurdles that might exist at other schools. Morgan was essentially a committee of one, and Gene Bartow was his man. So Morgan extended to Bartow a $34,000 contract and installed him in the immediate hot seat in L.A.
It would have been much the same as trying to follow Marlin Brando as Don Corleone.
Much of L.A. was befuddled at Morgan’s selection, but no one was more surprised than Bartow himself. “It was like a small-town mayor that suddenly was asked to be governor,” Bartow later remembered. “Here I was, a small-town guy, being asked to coach at the best basketball university in America.”
Once Bartow accepted the job and moved into Wooden’s old office, he was tasked with finding capable assistants. Bringing along the seasoned Hunt, who’d been with him at Memphis State and Illinois, was a no-brainer, but he also kept Larry Farmer, a Wooden holdover and former Bruin player. Bartow would soon dispatch both of these men on the recruiting trail, which, given Wooden’s propensity to find players all across the continental U.S., ended up being much shorter than one would think. L.A. offered players aplenty, a proverbial cornucopia of talent, and one would do well by roping off the metro area and persuading the blue chippers to remain at home. From time to time, Hunt would pilfer Arizona, Oregon, and in some instances (as in the case of his recruitment of Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who ended up at Michigan State) places like Michigan. No matter the geography, the barometer used for judging a kid was always the same: “Can he help us win a national championship?”
As it turned out, Wooden’s influence on his successor was probably minimal; this is despite his hanging around the UCLA athletic complex for months after his retirement. In the mornings, he would walk five miles on the track, breakfast, and retire to his small office for several hours of letter writing. The program had conveniently furnished him a small office in the same athletic building beside Pauley Pavilion so he could conduct his correspondence and answer the deluge of mail pouring in. From time to time he would golf or dine at one of L.A.’s eateries, and on several occasions Hunt joined him.
Coach Wooden understood that he should not linger around in perpetuity, and that the new coach needed space. “I’d like to be gone by October 15 when practice starts,” Wooden told the papers. “I don’t want to be watching over anybody’s shoulder.” But what has remained in somewhat obscurity is Wooden’s interaction with Bartow during this time. Without question, Wooden gave Bartow access to his basketball-filled mind and the UCLA experience. But to what extent? In the book Hardwood Glory: A Life of John Wooden, writer Barbara Olenyik Marrow quotes Bartow in saying, “Several times we sat down and worked the blackboard, actually using Xs and Os.”
This seemed as if the pair of hardwood aficionados were like two heady mathematicians discussing the life and work of Carl Gauss. One can easily imagine Wooden slipping naturally into the role of teacher and Bartow, enthralled at the splendor of it, soaking it up like a sponge.
But Hunt doesn’t remember such exercises. Forty-two years removed from his time at UCLA, Hunt is retired and living in Kansas City. “I don’t remember anything where they did Xs and Os on a blackboard,” Hunt said. “I don’t recall that happening at all.”
Although Hunt describes Wooden’s relationship with Bartow as “cordial,” he cautions any attempt to concoct drama or controversy between the two men. “[The media] tried to play that up and there was never any bitterness there at all,” Hunt said. “Coach Wooden was a wonderful guy. He had retired. Lord, he’d won 10 national championships. And he wasn’t that type of person to cause problems.”
Hunt sums up Wooden’s relationship with Bartow thusly: “They got along OK.”
The offseason concluded that October when over 7,000 wellwishers threw Wooden a ritzy send-off at Pauley Pavilion, where “Auld Lang Syne” was played and comedian Bob Hope addressed the crowd. Bartow, present for the festivities, witnessed the collective L.A. gush, the pure untrammeled extent of adoration for the man whose space he now occupied. One can picture Bartow now, scanning the blue-and-yellow crowd, thinking to himself, what in the world have I gotten myself into?
Perhaps the UCLA mystique led to two big miscalculations on Bartow’s part. The first was that the press would be as favorable as it had been at Bartow’s stops along the coaching circuit. Indeed, Bartow had always worked well with the press, enjoyed the press, and received very little criticism from the press. That did not turn out to be the case in Los Angeles, with a big city paper and big city writers who simply held a different attitude than those “rubes” back in the hard corners of America, places like Warrensburg, Missouri, or Valparaiso, Indiana.
The second was that the Wooden-worship would fade. “I figure this nostalgia for Coach Wooden will pass in about a year, as long as UCLA keeps winning. But they love him here, don’t they?” Bartow was quoted in a Sports Illustrated article.
It didn’t. It hasn’t.
Bartow respected his predecessor, but how he truly felt about Wooden’s lingering presence on campus will probably never be fully understood or revealed. At the very least, Wooden perceived uneasiness from Bartow—“I should have realized my presence made him uncomfortable,” Wooden was quoted in Marrow’s book—and retrospectively Bartow probably wished he would have asked the older sage more questions.
From time to time Wooden would attend ball games at Pauley Pavilion and install himself in a seat about 15 rows from the floor. On occasion, he provided the color commentating for games and he also ran a summer camp. But no matter how much he detached himself from the program, the shadow remained.
The Bartow Era
The truth was, Bartow had more to worry about than how Wooden felt about him, and vice-versa. Doom was arriving Game One in the form of Bobby Knight and his strapping Indiana team.
The game itself, held on November 29, 1975, was billed as the greatest opener in the history of college basketball. Simply uttering the words “UCLA versus Indiana” was enough to evoke adrenaline and euphoria. Bartow even told Sports Illustrated that he’d had dreams of that night: “I see us winning,” he admitted.
But Bartow probably had that confused with a nightmare, as the Bruins were swept up by the red angry pestilence that arrived in the foursome of May, Benson, Buckner and Wilkerson. To make matters worse, the trouncing occurred in Bartow’s old stomping grounds, the Checkerdome in St. Louis, where he’d once lost to UCLA.
At Knight’s mouth-foaming behest, the Hoosiers put on a defensive clinic despite the hardwood floor becoming slippery due to the cold breath of the ice skating rink housed beneath it (the arena was also home to the St. Louis Blues of the National Hockey League). Indiana held a 26-point lead at one point in the second half and cruised to an 84-64 victory.
Bartow and the Bruins recovered and won the next 15 straight before dropping a road contest to Notre Dame at the Athletic & Convocation Center in South Bend, Indiana. UCLA was now 15-2, an essential mirror of Wooden’s last season, but because a championship psyche had seized L.A. and losses were catastrophic, every loss continued to be scrutinized. Fans and the media were spoiled, and as a result, Bartow was roiled. (Even Wooden had not been immune to criticism. After winning his tenth national title, a fan stopped him after the game and supposedly said, “this makes up for letting us down last year,” referencing Wooden’s failure to win the title in 1973-74.)
UCLA swept through the Pac-8 slate that year with only one demerit–but a big one at that–a 20-point loss to Oregon at home on February 21. Unfortunately for Bartow, this was during a time when UCLA just didn’t lose at home. To underscore how rare an occurrence this was, the Oregon loss was UCLA’s only the third home loss since 1965.
Whether actual or contrived, Bartow began to sense the criticism and the whispers of, “if Coach Wooden were still here, we would have won.” The thinking was so palpable and real that poor Bartow even began believing it himself (“I think Wooden would have found a way to beat Indiana. I just think John was so good at his job, that he might have,” he was later quoted in the Los Angeles Times).
By tournament time, the Bruins stood at 24-3. They struggled with San Diego State in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Tempe, then knocked off Pepperdine and Arizona in succession before facing the dreaded Hoosiers again, now prancing into the Spectrum in Philadelphia in their candy-striped warm-ups and an undefeated record. Again, Knight’s defensemen put the clamp on UCLA’s offensive stars, particularly the brazen 6’11” forward, Richard Washington, who’d made it clear in the papers he felt Round 1 was a fluke.
“Richard liked to run his mouth, and we heard him,” Quinn Buckner was quoted in SI.
Indiana went on to win the game 65-51 and the national championship, while UCLA settled for third place after defeating Rutgers in the consolation game.
Season 1 of the Bartow era was in the books. Unfortunately, coaches were graded on a strict Bruin curve, and anything less than an A++ received a failing grade. This is not to say that Bartow had done a bad job. Most programs would have committed at the very least petty theft to reach the NCAA semis and post a 24-win season. But the baseline of Bartow’s coaching philosophy was that coaching was supposed to be fun, and by the time he’d finished the next season, he was no longer laughing.
Leading up to the end
UCLA’s complexion changed dramatically in 1976. Bartow, still dealing with the culture shock of becoming the head coach of the mighty Bruins, now had to deal with Trial by Graduation. By fall, Washington, Ralph Drollinger, and Andre McCarter were gone, and suddenly, Bartow had a fairly young team. He would rely on 6-foot-7 Marques Johnson to pick up the scoring baton and a trio of sophomores—David Greenwood, Roy Hamilton, and Brad Holland—would be expected to mature quickly.
This time, there would be no “Game of the Century” to begin the year, just little ol’ San Diego State, who was crushed by the big Bruin hand, 74-64. Old foe Notre Dame gave UCLA its first loss on December 11, but the Bruins rattled off the next seven before a revenge game with Oregon on January 7 at Pauley Pavilion.
But the Ducks squeaked by once again, capturing a 61-60 victory in front of a disappointed Bruin crowd. Even the assistant coaches couldn’t seem to catch a break. Hunt remembers that night fondly, because when he returned home, he discovered he’d been robbed. Thieves took his brand-spanking new television set he had received for Christmas and some petty cash. They’d even ransacked his son’s room.
After the Oregon debacle, UCLA won nine in a row and avenged the loss to the Fighting Irish in the process. After dropping a game to conference foe Washington in Seattle, the Bruins traveled to the equivalent of stir—McArthur Court on the campus of the University of Oregon.
Hunt remembers that before the game Bartow had given the Oregon fans bulletin board material by describing them as “deranged idiots.” In response, the fans had buttons made with that descriptor printed on them. Hunt says that by far, Oregon was the toughest place to play in the Pac-8 during that time.
“Those fans were wild in there,” he said.
Once again, UCLA lost, 64-55. It was the Bruins third straight loss to the Ducks.
UCLA rolled off the last three regular-season games before facing Louisville in the first round of the NCAA tournament on March 12. Crum’s Cardinals featured a pair of 6’5” scorers in Wesley Cox and Rick Wilson, but also Darrell Griffith, also known as “Dr. Dunkenstein.” But the Bruins brushed them aside 87-79 to face Idaho State out of the Big Sky Conference in the second round of the West Regional. It was a game that would turn out to be one of the greatest upsets in tournament history.
Three big factors contributed to UCLA’s early round demise. Leading up to the game, Johnson, who had essentially carried the Bruins offensively throughout the second half of the season, was having trouble with an impacted wisdom tooth—“you can’t imagine the agony involved” he told The Washington Post. Johnson couldn’t have surgery and couldn’t take painkillers, so he essentially had to grin and bear it. Although Johnson scored 21 against Idaho State, he wasn’t himself. “He didn’t play up to standards he normally played at because he was in real pain,” Hunt recalled. The second was Idaho State’s zone defense, which perplexed the Bruins and led to an off-shooting night. Lastly was the play of Bengals 7’0” center Steve Hayes, who pumped in 27 points on 11-for-20 shooting.
“We were looking ahead,” Johnson later said. “Idaho State? We didn’t know a whole lot about them. They were never on TV.”
After Idaho State’s stunning 76-75 victory, the L.A. Times read in bold letters, “Big Sky falls on Bruins.”
The UCLA blues, and a New Start
Around that time, the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) was in the process of starting a basketball program and asked if Bartow might be a consultant to help the new team get off the ground. Perhaps he could help the program to raise money and find a suitable coach. Bartow agreed.
Soon UAB realized that the man they wanted to lead their new team was none other than Bartow himself.
On its face, it made no sense for Bartow to leave a prestigious job like UCLA and the sexy L.A. life to move to, of all places, Birmingham, Alabama, to coach a program that didn’t even exist. Besides, even after the godawful loss to Idaho State, J.D. Morgan had expressed his confidence in his coach by extending Bartow a new three-year contract. But when UAB offered him a higher salary, Bartow became very interested.
In review, Bartow was 52-9 in two seasons at UCLA. He was the coach of the biggest college basketball program in the nation and had most of his starters back. Who would want to leave?
But in two years, he had become disenchanted with the talk shows, the criticism, the heightened expectations, the nitpicky press. One writer had even chastised Bartow for wearing a red tie, a shade that was supposed to be worn by crosstown rival USC, not by a Bruin.
Did the pressure at UCLA wear on him? “No doubt it did,” Hunt said. “It bothered him.”
Listen to Bartow as he tells his side of the UCLA story:
“It’s not enjoyable to win big and feel you’re recruiting well and then pick up the newspaper and, instead of 28-4, it looks like you were 4-28. And instead of winning the conference, it looks like you finished eighth. It was just a little unusual in my mind. We were Pac-8 champions two years in a row, but it wasn’t reflected in the media (coverage).” – Los Angeles Times
“There’s no question I withdrew. Instead of walking to lunch and visiting with friends, I’d go out and get a hamburger, come back into the office and close the door. I wasn’t sure who my friends and enemies were.” – Los Angeles Times
“I had the feeling that if we were undefeated national champions, it still might not have been good enough. The positive was UCLA was a great place and a wonderful area. The negative was there were great expectations to win, and you were constantly under a microscope. I guess anytime you follow a legend — whether it was a situation like me, or Ray Perkins replacing Bear Bryant, or the quarterback replacing [Dan] Marino — there’s so much media hype.” – South Florida Sun Sentinel
In his mind, UAB made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. And like that, he was gone.
Bartow quickly built UAB into a winner. After one season as an independent, UAB joined the Sun Belt Conference and by Year 4, Bartow took the Blazers to the Elite Eight. Across 18 seasons as UAB’s head coach, Bartow won 366 games, appeared in the NCAA tournament nine times, and won three conference regular-season championships.
The city of Birmingham loved him and embraced him, even more than Memphis did. An 8,500-seat arena at the intersection of 6th Avenue South and 13th Street South in downtown Birmingham that bears his name is a testament to the kind of impact Gene Bartow had on UAB athletics.
Hunt, who also forsook the glamour of southern California to move to Birmingham with Bartow, described him this way: “He was a unique guy. He could charm a bird out of a tree. When you met him, you immediately liked him. He just had that great knack of being able to relate to people. And I don’t think any other coach could have come close to doing what he did at UAB.”
Like Father, Like Son
Slim and none. That’s how Hunt describes the chances of father and son both coaching at the same school, UCLA, four decades apart. But on December 30, 2018, when Steve Alford was terminated by UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero, Murry Bartow, Gene’s son, was named interim head coach of the Bruins.
“Who would have known this would have happened?” Hunt said. “It’s kind of unreal that this has taken place, when you think about it.”
“It will be like following Nick Saban with Alabama football,” said Murry Bartow after taking over.
Since the disappearance of Alford, Murry has led the Bruins to a 5-4 record. In only his third game, he upended his father’s old nemesis, Oregon, when the Bruins claimed an 87-84 OT thriller in Eugene. His team is talented but streaky, athletic but willowy. Connoisseurs of basketball fundamentals his players are not, a shortcoming Alford once used to rail against them.
Murry’s coaching philosophy essentially mimics that of his dad, employing an up-tempo style offense and a stringent defense. Unfortunately, Murry does not have the luxury of superior talent that his father enjoyed in his two seasons at the helm. In fact, few have.
Since Gene left, UCLA has had nine head coaches, and the average stay has been 4.7 years, and only Jim Harrick was able to bring a national title back to L.A. Steve Lavin, who coached UCLA from 1996 to 2003, once noted: “The mythology and pathology of UCLA basketball isn’t going to change.”
But in many ways it has. The same expectations do not exist that were prevalent with Wooden. And these days, you better believe UCLA would love to have a 52-9 record over two seasons.
In the end, don’t expect Bartow’s stint in Los Angeles to be any longer than his father’s. His is very much an interim tag, as names like Billy Donovan, Tony Bennett, and Fred Hoiberg have already been tossed around as Alford’s successor.
And he still has to deal with the same unrelenting press.
Not that Murry should view UCLA as the end-all, be-all. Perhaps he could go somewhere else and start his own program from scratch. Perhaps his name could be raised on the side of an arena that has yet to be built. Perhaps his name would go down as a citywide legend. Just like his dad did, deep in the heart of Alabama.
For if there were a Mount Rushmore of Birmingham sports, no doubt Gene Bartow’s countenance would be etched on it. H&A