Gene Bartow, the man who had perhaps the most unenviable coaching task in college basketball history – succeeding John Wooden as UCLA basketball coach – passed away of stomach cancer last night in Birmingham, AL. He was 81.
“Everyone in the Bruin family is saddened by the loss of Gene Bartow,” current Bruin coach Ben Howland said. “He was a wonderful person and an outstanding family man and will be dearly missed.”
In his two years in Westwood after being chosen to succeed Wooden after the Bruins won their 10th national championship in 12 years in 1975, Bartow had a record of 52-9 and won the conference championship both times, with star forward Marques Johnson winning the first John R. Wooden Award as college basketball player of the year in 1977 under him.
Bartow also reached the Final Four in 1976, but he was the victim of an age-old rule in sports coaching:
Never follow a legend.
Bartow, who led Memphis State to the NCAA championship game in 1973, losing to Wooden’s Bruins and Bill Walton’s 44 points before coming to Westwood two years later, was most unfairly savaged by UCLA fans when his teams didn’t win the title, which left him so stressed out that when an opportunity to start a basketball program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and become that school’s athletic director arose, he didn’t think twice about it, leaving UCLA after the 1976-77 season and not looking back.
UAB became his niche, as he coached there for nearly 20 years and retired as athletic director there in 2000.