Gene Bartow dies at 81; former UCLA basketball coach

Gene Bartow, the successor to John Wooden as UCLA basketball coach who became the architect of a new and successful athletics program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, died Tuesday evening. He was 81.

Bartow, who was diagnosed with stomach cancer two years ago, died at his Birmingham home, according to a university spokesman.

Despite starting the athletics program at Alabama Birmingham and establishing the basketball program as nationally competitive, Bartow probably will be most remembered in Los Angeles as the man who replaced arguably the best coach in college basketball history and unarguably the most beloved and respected coach in this city’s sports history when in 1975 he took over UCLA’s program after Wooden’s retirement.

With the expectations that he would automatically take the Bruins to the same place Wooden had gone in 10 of his final 12 years — the national championship — Bartow lasted only two years as head coach despite a 52-9 record and a Final Four appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

In 1975-76, Bartow’s first season as Wooden’s successor, the Bruins went 28-4 and reached the Final Four. The next year the Bruins finished 24-5.


Marques Johnson, who played for both Wooden and Bartow, had a vivid memory of the pressure that Bartow faced.

“He was a sensitive person,” Johnson said Tuesday. “He was used to being totally embraced as a coach and a person and he was just not ready for the kind of vitriol thrown at him when he took Coach Wooden’s place. He never came to grips with it, and it bothered him more than anything.

“After two years, he was gaunt and pale and he refused to read the Los Angeles newspapers or listen to the radio because there was so much negativity.

“But he was a wonderful human being, a super nice guy and a great coach.”

Johnson said he still has a vivid memory of the end of Bartow’s UCLA career.

“He was under an enormous amount of pressure when my father and I and Coach Bartow were in New York City for a player-of-the-year award,” Johnson said, recalling his honor as 1977 college basketball player of the year.

“Coach Bartow knocked on our door at the Plaza Hotel about midnight and said he had the opportunity to start a program at UAB. My dad told him his health and family were No. 1 and if this UCLA thing was too much grief, he should do it.

“He was 52-9 at UCLA, won two league championships and that looks pretty good right now. I had a chance to talk to him about three weeks ago when it was apparent he wasn’t doing well and it still was apparent he never came to grips totally with what happened at UCLA and that bothered him. No one appreciated at the time the pressure he was under.”

Johnson said Bartow probably made the correct decision in leaving UCLA after the 1977 season to start the athletic program at UAB. He finished with a 647-353 record over a 34-season coaching career and was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.

“Everyone in the Bruin family is saddened by the loss of Gene Bartow,” UCLA Head Coach Ben Howland said in a statement. “We celebrate the life he lived, which he did so in exemplary fashion. He was a wonderful person and an outstanding coach and family man and will be dearly missed.”

Before arriving at UCLA, Bartow also had great coaching success at Memphis State, where he took the 1973 team to the NCAA national championship game, a contest Memphis State lost to Wooden’s UCLA team. Wooden died in 2010.

In a statement, Alabama Birmingham President Carol Garrison said, “To begin an athletic program from the ground up, UAB had to find a motivating force without parallel. Gene Bartow was certainly that person. He was a pioneer and passionate believer and leader in UAB athletics.”

On Saturday, Alabama Birmingham will host a basketball game with Memphis that raises money for the Coach Gene Bartow Fund for Cancer research.

Bartow was born on Aug. 8, 1930, in Browning, Mo., and was a college basketball coach at Central Missouri State, Valparaiso, Memphis and Illinois before replacing Wooden at UCLA in 1975. After leaving UCLA at the end of the 1977 season, he coached at Alabama Birmingham until 1996 and then became athletic director before retiring in 2000.

He later became president of the parent company of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies and their arena, FedEx Forum.

Bartow is survived by his wife of 59 years, Ruth; a daughter, Beth B. Long; two sons, Mark and Murry — the men’s basketball coach at East Tennessee State; a brother, Russell; and eight grandchildren.