For John Wooden, the realization struck March 29, 1975, amid the bedlam of an NCAA tournament semifinal victory over a team coached by his dear friend, Denny Crum.
For Steve Lavin, it was Dec. 9, 2002, the morning new Athletic Director Dan Guerrero fired football coach Bob Toledo.
In between, six other UCLA basketball coaches also experienced moments when they recognized their tenure was over.
The first four who followed Wooden resigned. The next two were fired.
All led UCLA to the NCAA tournament and left with winning records. One won a championship.
Yet all felt burdened by the expectations created by the success of Wooden, who led the Bruins to 10 NCAA titles in the last 12 of his 27 seasons.
Connecting the dots from coach to coach, from crisis moment to crisis moment, outlines what the next Bruin coach can expect.
And offers a hint of what he might feel the moment he knows it's over.
Blinded by the Light
Gene Bartow (1975-77, 52-9)
UCLA was shocked by Idaho State in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Bartow's last game, but the high-strung coach realized much earlier that escaping Wooden's shadow would be impossible.
"I really didn't adjust to the criticism very well," said Bartow, a Memphis Grizzly scout. "It was unexpected. I hadn't ever been criticized in coaching, and in my mind we were winning big and recruiting well."
The constant harping of UCLA fans took a toll. Bruin center Brett Vroman transferred to Nevada Las Vegas. Wooden, who kept an office at UCLA, publicly chided Bartow for being thin-skinned.
Bartow pressed forward, agreeing to go on a radio talk show after the loss to Idaho State. When callers criticized his coaching, he stormed out of the studio muttering, "Hogwash, hogwash."
Soon after, the coach began quietly negotiating with Alabama Birmingham, a school so low-profile it didn't even have an athletic program. He would start one, and coach the fledgling basketball team to an average of 20 victories over the next 18 years.
"I decided to leave UCLA the moment UAB offered to triple my salary," he said.
Postscript: Bartow eventually made the same mistake as Wooden, giving the appearance of peering over the shoulder of the next coach at Alabama Birmingham.
The twist was that the next coach was Bartow's son, Murray, who came under intense criticism and resigned in 2002 after six seasons. Bartow regrets staying as the school's athletic director when his son became coach.
"Murray would have had a better job had his dad not been his boss," he said. "I should have gotten out.
I Can't Tell You Why
Gary Cunningham (1977-79, 50-8)
The former Bruin player and longtime assistant under Wooden earned a doctoral degree in educational administration. But it didn't take a doctorate for him to realize that succeeding Wooden's successor would be easier than succeeding Wooden.
So he took a job in the alumni office until Bartow resigned, then became the obvious and accepted choice.
After two seasons, Cunningham remained popular, seemingly pleasing everyone except himself. He loved practice and games, but constant 16-hour days and year-round recruiting took a toll.
Cunningham was still in his 30s. But when he planned on spending a rare Sunday off with his wife and two young daughters, he fell asleep on the couch, exhausted.
A few days after the Bruins had dropped a regional final to DePaul in 1979, he called assistants Larry Farmer and Jim Harrick into his office and stunned them by saying he would resign.
Cunningham wore a broad smile at his farewell news conference. He was asked whether a college coach was able to lead a normal life.
"I don't know how to answer that question," he said. "I'm not sure I know what a normal life is right now."
Postscript: The eight Bruin losses under Cunningham were by a total of only 21 points, yet he never coached again. After leaving UCLA he became athletic director at Westen Oregon State, then athletic director at Wyoming, Fresno State and UC Santa Barbara.
Cunningham, who has been at UC Santa Barbara since 1995, was considered for the athletic director opening at UCLA when Pete Dalis retired a year ago, but was not one of three finalists.
Should I Stay Or Should I Go
Larry Brown (1979-81, 42-17)
Brown loved UCLA -- especially after he took an undersized team with four freshmen playing prominent roles to the NCAA final in his first season.
Nearly everyone at UCLA loved Brown -- despite an immature streak that exasperated athletic director Bob Fischer.
But a return to the NBA tugged at the coach and money finally tipped the scales. UCLA paid him only $50,000, and he earned another $50,000 in sportswear fees.
Late in the 1980-81 season, Brown went to Fischer and said the New Jersey Nets were offering him $800,000 over four years. He was uncertain what to do. Fischer, weary of the coach's demands for everything from office amenities to first-class seats on flights, told him the offer was too good to pass up.
An incident during Brown's second season set the tone for his departure. Freshman Kenny Fields was disciplined by the coach and left the team. Fields later wanted to return but Brown took a firm stance, telling Fischer that if Fields returned, he would resign.
Fischer's position was that young players deserved a second chance and Fields was allowed back. Brown stayed -- but only until the Nets called.
UCLA lost in the first round of the 1981 NCAA tournament to Brigham Young, 78-55, in Providence, R.I. Walking on the skyway from the arena to the hotel afterward, Brown inadvertently divulged his intentions to Bruin guard Michael Holton.
"He started talking about what I needed to work on and getting the guys positive," Holton said. "It had such a finality. I thought, 'Wow, this might be it.' "
Postscript: Brown, now coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, is one of the nation's most successful coaches. He took Kansas to the 1988 NCAA title and the 76ers to the 2001 NBA Finals. But he has often expressed regret that he left UCLA and is said to be interested in returning.
UCLA tried to rehire him once, after Walt Hazzard was fired in 1988. Days after Kansas had won the national title, he met with UCLA Chancellor Charles Young and agreed to return.
But during festivities in Lawrence, Kan., honoring the Jayhawk champions, Brown shocked UCLA by announcing he was staying. UCLA hired Harrick and within a few weeks Brown left Kansas to coach the San Antonio Spurs.
"I had three choices when I left [Kansas]," Brown said several years ago. "UCLA, staying at Kansas or the Spurs. I may have picked the worst one."
When Doves Cry
Larry Farmer (1981-84, 61-23)
A popular player under Wooden and an assistant under Bartow, Cunningham and Brown, Farmer, 30, was embraced as the long-term solution.
"This is Day 1 of what I hope won't be a two-year stint," he said the day he was hired.
His hopes were met -- he lasted three seasons.
But the last one was not pleasant. The team went 17-11, with fewer victories and more defeats than any Bruin team since 1959-60.
And Farmer retreated from the rigors of the job, becoming less accessible and more sensitive to criticism. Administrators pressured him to replace his assistants with former Bruin players Hazzard and Jack Hirsch.
Still, Farmer accepted a two-year extension during a March 1984 meeting with Young, even though he had a resignation letter tucked in his pocket. Then he disappeared over the weekend to consult with his family.
Four days later, he quit.
"[Resigning] had been on my mind that entire third year," said Farmer, now the coach at Loyola Chicago. "I don't know if it was physical burnout or emotional burnout. I was very young. Having had such a love affair with that school and program, I wondered if I could do the job at the level it had to be done.
"I had three championship rings [as a Bruin player]. I didn't want to leave and be bitter and not be able to look back at the good times."
Postscript: Farmer was coach at Weber State for three years and a Golden State Warrior assistant before becoming coach of the Kuwait national team after the Gulf War in 1992.
Farmer also found that pressure is inherent in any coaching situation, even at a Middle East outpost.
"One of the crazy things is that ... the Kuwait government would only give one-year contracts to coaches," he said. "There was no job security. The scrutiny was different [than at UCLA], but the pressure was the same."
Things Ain't What They Used To Be
Walt Hazzard (1984-88, 77-47)
UCLA went from one former star under Wooden to another, hiring Hazzard the day Farmer resigned.
Hazzard had a solid playing pedigree -- he'd played nine seasons in the NBA after helping the Bruins to their first NCAA title in 1964 and being selected national player of the year. He had compiled a 96-23 record in two seasons at Compton College and two at Chapman College, and was set to join Farmer's staff as an assistant.
Wooden had grown to love the spirited Hazzard as a player, despite having characterized his style early on as "too fancy." And Bruin fans grew to appreciate Hazzard's combative coaching style when UCLA posted a 25-7 record and won the Pac-10 title in 1986-87.
But the Bruins lost to Wyoming in the second round of the 1987 NCAA tournament. The next season, 7-foot center Greg Foster transferred to Texas El Paso and it took four consecutive victories for the team to get over .500 and qualify for the Pac-10 tournament.
UCLA lost in the first round to Washington State, and Dalis convinced Chancellor Young over breakfast the next morning that although two years remained on the coach's contract, it was time for a change.
The uncertainty dragged on nearly three weeks. Finally, Hazzard became the first UCLA coach to be fired, a decision that surprised and disappointed him.
Postscript: Hazzard, 60, had a debilitating stroke seven years ago, days before he was scheduled to coach an all-star team in Australia.
He had open-heart surgery two weeks after the stroke and is unable to speak. He lives in Los Angeles with his family and continues rehabilitation.
Jim Harrick (1988-96, 192-62)
The messiest departure of a UCLA coach involved Harrick, who achieved the greatest triumph since Wooden and endured the most humiliation.
Harrick, now coaching at Georgia, clearly remembers the day Young and Dalis fired him, only one season removed from UCLA's winning the 1995 NCAA championship.
"Nov. 6, they called me off the practice floor and into the athletic director's office," he said. "They had never talked to me, just done this so-called investigation.
"I said, 'You're kidding.' It took me totally by surprise."
Despite a souring relationship with Dalis, Harrick believed that as long as his teams won, he was insulated against getting fired.
He had survived an odorous episode involving a car Harrick's son sold to the sister of top recruit Baron Davis. But within days of being exonerated, there was another investigation, this time involving an expense report of more than $1,000 for a dinner for recruits.
According to published reports, Harrick asked Holton, one of his assistants, to lie to Dalis about who was at the dinner to avoid a potential NCAA violation.
Holton, after initially standing by Harrick's version, told Dalis the truth. Two days later, Harrick was fired and Lavin, another assistant, was chosen interim coach.
Postscript: Harrick says he believes that had he remained, UCLA would have reached heights unseen since Wooden's heyday.
He believes that Dalis pursued a personal vendetta against him.
And he believes his reputation was restored through successful coaching stints at Rhode Island and Georgia.
Yet, embarrassing incidents involving recruiting and player conduct have dogged both schools, validating the belief of some that he and UCLA were simply incompatible.
Terms of departure will be the last topic on the mind of the next coach, who is bound to come in confident that he can restore UCLA's former glory.
Eventually, though, the moment of farewell will come. Which of his predecessors serves as the best model?
Only Wooden left totally on his own terms. As he walked to meet with the media after a 75-74 victory over Louisville in an NCAA semifinal in 1975, he experienced burnout and responded immediately, taking a detour into the locker room and informing the team that the final would be his last game.
The Bruins beat Kentucky for his 10th championship and he walked away.
Lavin's drawn-out departure is the most excruciating. He has lasted seven stormy seasons by repeatedly rallying the Bruins to spirited NCAA tournament runs, but was relegated to lame-duck status in December when the rationale Guerrero used to explain Toledo's firing applied to him as well.
And as losses mount, Lavin has become increasingly bold in predicting he will be fired, even naming potential successors. He has no advice for the next guy, though.
Neither does Wooden, at least publicly. He has ceased weighing in about his successors.
But words he wrote decades ago might serve the next Bruin coach well:
Remember this your lifetime through,
Tomorrow there will be more to do.
And failure waits for all who stay
With some success made yesterday.
Tomorrow you must try once more,
And even harder than before.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Coaching in the Wooden Shadow
John Wooden's coaching record in 27 seasons at UCLA, and those of the seven coaches who followed him over the next 28 seasons:
Coach: John Wooden
Overall: W-L: 620-147; Pct: .808
Conference: W-L: 300-67; Pct: .817; 1st: 16
NCAA: W-L: 48-9; Pct: .842; App: 16; R16: 13; FF: 12; Chp: 10
Overall: W-L: 616-243; Pct: .717
Conference: W-L: 340-140; Pct: .708; 1st: 10
NCAA: W-L: 38-21; Pct: .637; App:22; R16: 13; FF: 3; Chp: 1
Coach: Gene Barlow
Overall: W-L: 52-9; Pct: .852
Conference: W-L: 24-4; Pct: .857; 1st: 2
NCAA: W-L: 5-2; Pct: .714; App: 2; R16: 2; FF: 1; Chp: 0
Coach: Gary Cunningham
Overall: W-L: 50-8; Pct: .862
Conference: W-L: 29-3; Pct: .906; 1st: 2
NCAA: W-L: 3-2; Pct: .600; App: 2; R16: 2; FF: 0; Chp: 0
Coach: Larry Brown
Overall: W-L: 42-17; Pct: .712
Conference: W-L: 25-11; Pct: .694; 1st: 0
NCAA: W-L: 5-2; Pct: .714; App: 2; R16: 1; FF: 1; Chp: 0
Coach: Larry Farmer
Overall: W-L: 61-23 Pct: .726
Conference: W-L: 39-15; Pct: .722; 1st: 1
NCAA: W-L: 0-1; Pct: .000 App: 0; R16: 0; FF: 0; Chp: 0
Coach: Walt Hazzard
Overall: W-L: 77-47; Pct: .621
Conference: W-L: 47-25; Pct: .653; 1st: 1
NCAA: W-L: 1-1; Pct: .500; App: 1; R16: 0; FF: 0; Chp: 0
Coach: Jim Harrick
Overall: W-L: 192-62; Pct: .756
Conference: W-L: 108-36; Pct: .750; 1st: 3
NCAA: W-L: 13-7; Pct: .632; App: 8; R16: 3; FF: 1; Chp: 1
Coach: Steve Lavin
Overall: W-L: 142-77; Pct: .648
Conference: W-L: 78-46; Pct: .629; 1st: 1
NCAA: W-L: 11-6; Pct: .647; App: 6; R16: 5; FF: 0; Chp: 0