Bartow recalls life as Wooden's successor

June 9, 2010

Gene Bartow faced the kind of huge coaching challenge few ever experience: Replacing John Wooden at UCLA, and even briefly sharing an office with the storied coach.

Bartow only stuck around Los Angeles for 28 months and went to a Final Four before going to startup UAB for a hefty raise - and considerably less pressure and scrutiny.

``At UCLA, every time you lost it was a major catastrophe, so that was different than what I had at Memphis State or anywhere I'd been,'' Bartow, who lives in suburban Birmingham, said in a phone interview Wednesday.

One person who didn't make the job more difficult: Wooden.


Bartow said the larger-than-life figure was a humble, gracious presence who visited with recruits when asked and ate lunch with his successor once or twice a month. The two shared Wooden's spacious former office for a couple of weeks after Bartow's hiring in 1975.

They talked politics and the Los Angeles Dodgers over lunch more so than UCLA basketball, though.

``If I had those months to do over I'd probably seek his advice more often than I did, but he was there ready to give us his thoughts,'' Bartow said.

He was successful in his brief tenure at UCLA. Bartow's two teams were a combined 52-9 with a trip to the NCAA Final Four in 1976. But Wooden left huge shoes to fill (presumably along with instructions on how to put them on).

The Wizard of Westwood won 10 national championships - seven in a row from 1967 to 1973. The streak included a victory over Bartow's 1973 Memphis team in the title game.

Wooden died Friday at age 99.

Bartow lives in Alabama football coach Bear Bryant's backyard, but doesn't think Wooden's track record has been topped, regardless of the sport.

``I think he's No. 1 in any sport. Of course Coach Bryant had several national championships and Knute Rockne when he was at Notre Dame years ago had a lot of great, great teams,'' said Bartow, who also mentioned the Yankees' Casey Stengel and Celtics' Red Auerbach.

``I think you'd have to say 10 championships, 12 years would probably be the most unusual sports feat.''

Bartow left to be head coach and athletic director for UAB's new program in the summer of 1977 ``for quite a lot more'' money than the $33,000 he recalls making at UCLA.

That position gave him a view of Ray Perkins succeeding Bryant at Alabama.

``They're different kinds of jobs when you go into those places like Alabama football or UCLA basketball,'' Bartow said.

Bartow went on to lead the Blazers to the NIT in their second year, followed by seven straight berths in the NCAA tournament, including a trip to the round of eight in 1982. His 647 wins over 34 seasons were even 27 more than Wooden logged, albeit in seven fewer seasons.

Bartow, president of the company that owns the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies, turns 80 in August and has had his own health battles. Bartow started treatment for stomach cancer last spring.

``I'm a lot better than I was six or eight months ago,'' he said. ``I'm a lot better but I've still got those tumors.''