Bartow Didn’t Have a Prayer : The Man Who Replaced Wooden Admits That He Wasn’t Up to Task


Gene Bartow has a simple message for those who maintain that he was the wrong man to replace the legendary John Wooden as UCLA’s basketball coach:

Maybe you were right.

“There are certain people out there who might have adjusted and reacted a little better than I did,” said Bartow, suggesting that J. D. Morgan, the late Bruin athletic director, might have been better served by a stronger, more assertive coach. “J.D., I’m sure, probably studied things pretty carefully. Why he tabbed me, I’ll never know.”

Bartow was rarely happy in his two years in Westwood, resigning after the 1976-77 season, he said, because the pressure was too great.


Hired to start a program at Alabama Birmingham, he has had almost nothing to do with UCLA in 13 years, but on Sunday Bartow and the Bruins were thrown together again by the NCAA tournament selection committee.

Alabama Birmingham (22-8) will play UCLA (20-10) at the Omni tonight in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The matchup has rekindled not-so-fond memories for Bartow, who once said of his time at UCLA: “There is no doubt I became paranoid. I wasn’t even worried about getting fired. Now assassinated, that’s a different thing.”

But as he sat Wednesday in his spacious office in the two-year-old UAB Arena in Birmingham, Bartow said that some of his comments were made in jest.

“I received no threats while I was there,” he said.

But neither, he said, was he encouraged to stick around.

Bartow took the Bruins to the Final Four in 1976 and was 52-9 at UCLA--Wooden was 54-7 in his last two seasons in Westwood--but was unfairly criticized, he said, for not living up to the standards set by Wooden, whose teams won 10 NCAA championships in his last 12 seasons.

He decried the “kook element” in Los Angeles, including the letter writers whose barbs appeared in The Times.

After his second season, Bartow met with Bill Shirley, former sports editor of The Times, and asked why the newspaper continued to publish letters criticizing Bartow after the season had ended.


Said Bartow: “I asked, ‘You having fun with this controversy?’ ”

Criticized on the air as he took calls on a radio talk show, Bartow snapped at a caller, “Hogwash!” and stormed out of the studio.

His players saw the strain.

As the Bruins flew home from Utah after a stunning loss to Idaho State in the West Regional semifinals in 1977, Bartow occasionally stared out a window. When someone said he hoped that Bartow wouldn’t ask for a parachute, forward Chris Lippert said: “He might jump without it.”

Said Ralph Drollinger, who played on the 1976 team: “He would often say to us, ‘How you holding up?’ And he’d say it with such a whine that it was almost like he was asking himself. And the answer was, ‘Not too good.’ ”

Bartow’s clothes seemed to hang on him as he lost weight.

“You felt sorry that it was happening to him,” guard Roy Hamilton said. “It was tough seeing someone go through that.”

Admittedly, Bartow had rabbit ears.

“Some people said I was thin-skinned and perhaps as I reflect on it now, I was more thin-skinned than I should have been,” he said. “There was a stress and a strain in that job like I’d never experienced before and I haven’t had since. For me at that time, it was a high-pressure, highly stressful job, especially that second season.

“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).


“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.”

Sometimes, though, it wasn’t too difficult to differentiate.

“I never felt that the alumni, as such, was attacking me,” Bartow said. “But there is no doubt that there was one prominent man around that program who didn’t want me hired and while I was there, he was pretty loud.”

His reference was to the late Sam Gilbert, a wealthy businessman and Bruin booster whose role in UCLA athletics was not limited to rapping coaches. Gilbert was later named as the central figure in an NCAA investigation that resulted in sanctions against the Bruins.

“There were things going on in that program that I wasn’t able to get a handle on like I wanted to and would have preferred to--some things that I’ve never talked about and really wouldn’t talk about for the record,” Bartow said. “Maybe in 10 years, I might. I had no fear of Sam, but I didn’t like the dealings with him. I didn’t agree with what he was doing with players in that program.”

Bartow, known as Clean Gene because of his strait-laced lifestyle, was perhaps ill-suited for the limelight at UCLA. Son of a livestock dealer from Browning, Mo., he seems more at ease outside the big-city glare.

But he caught Morgan’s eye, apparently, by compiling an 82-32 record in four seasons at Memphis State and taking the Tigers to the Final Four in 1973, when they lost in the championship game to UCLA.


And when Morgan called to offer the job, Bartow jumped.

“It was like a small-town mayor that suddenly was asked to be governor,” he said later. “Here I was, a small-town guy, being asked to coach at the best basketball university in America.

“If I didn’t take the job, I always would have wondered.”

The Bruins and Wooden’s successor seemed a good match.

“It’s like St. Peter replacing the Lord,” said George Raveling, who was Washington State’s coach at the time. “Gene is like John--a mid-America kind of guy, personable, down to earth, honest, the kind of guy you’d like to have living next to you.”

Raveling also said of Bartow: “If he wins the next four national championships, he’ll still be six down.”

Such thoughts, apparently, never crossed Bartow’s mind. “I probably didn’t weigh the down side very carefully,” he said. “I looked at the up side--the fact you were going to have great players and a building full of people, a chance to win national championships--and it looked tremendous.”

It didn’t look quite so good after his opening game.

Indiana, with all five starters back from a team that had been 31-1 in 1974-75, crushed the Bruins in a made-for-television game at St. Louis, 84-64. Though the Hoosiers would end the season unbeaten and came to be regarded as one of the great teams in college basketball history, the “kook” letters poured into Bartow’s office.

“The hate mail you get in that position can really play on your mind,” said Drollinger, who received similar letters, he said, as the successor to Bill Walton. “A lot of people were ready to eat Bartow’s lunch. People had escaped reality at Pauley Pavilion for a good 12 years and when Bartow came in and let them down, it was a big letdown because the fans had a fickle, fake perception of reality.”


Players started to doubt the coach, too, Drollinger said.

“Richard Washington used to make smirks a lot, especially when we played Indiana again in the semifinals,” Drollinger said. “He said, ‘I can’t believe the pep talk he made before the game.’ It was pretty much a concession of the game. He pretty much said, ‘Handle the loss graciously.’ ”

UCLA fell, 65-51, and Washington opted for professional basketball, skipping his senior year of eligibility.

But if the first season under Bartow was difficult for the demanding Bruin fans to accept, the next was almost intolerable.

After reaching the Final Four in 10 consecutive seasons, the Bruins lost to Idaho State, of all teams, in the West Regional.

As word of his dissatisfaction spread, Bartow was approached by other schools, but “that spring, I didn’t give a thought to making a move,” he said. “Deep down, I thought we might be able to win the national championship that third year and I kind of wanted to battle on through it.

“But I kept thinking, ‘Even if we do, even if we go undefeated and win the national championship, would it really change some of the things that were ingrained?’ ”


Hired as a consultant to UAB, which planned to start a basketball program in the 1978-79 season, Bartow was intrigued when Blazer officials asked if he would be interested in a job as coach and athletic director.

When they met again, Bartow accepted the offer.

A happier, more relaxed Bartow has prospered in Birmingham, which was described by the U.S. Conference of Mayors last year as “the most livable city in America.”

Only once in the 11 seasons that they have been eligible have the Blazers failed to attract a postseason bid. They have won the Sun Belt Conference championship three times, the conference tournament four times and have reached the NCAA tournament eight times in the past 10 seasons.

Several schools have tried to lure Bartow from Birmingham, among them Kansas, Arizona, USC and Kentucky.

Kentucky? Its program may be more closely scrutinized than UCLA’s.

“I really believe that if I’d gone into Kentucky, I’d have been able to handle the negative elements better,” Bartow said.

But at UCLA?

“I really didn’t understand it,” Bartow said. “Had we had a .500 season the first year or the second year and hadn’t recruited well, then I would have been able to accept it and understand it.”


But the Bruins, under Bartow, were 28-4 and 24-5, won two consecutive conference titles and attracted eight players who turned out to be NBA draft choices.

“Any college in America would give its teeth to have a coach that would take them 52-9 in two years,” Drollinger said of Bartow’s record in Westwood. “That wasn’t good enough at UCLA.”

And thin-skinned, hypersensitive Gene Bartow couldn’t handle that. “My 28 years in coaching have all been pretty comfortable and relaxed, with the exception of those two years,” he said. “Had I been No. 3 or 4 (in line after Wooden), I might have developed a lot of friends and it might have been a wonderful place, but being No. 1 . . .”

Clearly, he was glad to have the experience behind him.