Gene Bartow died of stomach cancer at 81 earlier this week, and his passing calls to mind slices of Pac-12 basketball history that are at once substantial and astonishing and — in Eugene, at least — raucous.
In Pac-12/10/8 terms, Bartow is best known as the guy who most embodied the greatest challenge known to a coach of any sport in conference history, and probably in collegiate history — replacing John Wooden. The Wizard announced his retirement on the eve of the national-title game in 1975, and iconic UCLA athletic director J.D. Morgan sought out Bartow from Illinois.
In 1973, Bartow had coached Memphis State (as it was then known) into the NCAA final, and it was his team’s distinction to allow UCLA’s Bill Walton to score 44 points — on 21-of-22 shooting — for the championship.
What Bartow was, was pretty much the epitome of a Southern gentleman, even though he was a native Missourian. And he was thin-skinned, which was an unfortunate attribute for a guy who would be scrutinized like nobody before him. In his two years at UCLA (1976-77), he coached the Bruins to a 52-9 record and a Final Four. Of course, his problem was, he wasn’t John Wooden.
“He was a sensitive person,” ex-Bruin Marques Johnson told the LA Times. “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 . . . but he was a wonderful human being, a super nice guy and a great coach.”
I was at Pauley Pavilion on the night in 1976 when Oregon broke UCLA’s 98-game home-court win streak, a game that no doubt heaped more abuse on Bartow. Oregon led 30-14 at the half and won 65-45.
That was on the watch of coach Dick Harter at Oregon, and it came during a manic period of Oregon basketball, when Harter’s philosophy of recruiting hard, coaching hard and playing hard engulfed the Ducks’ fans, who turned McArthur Court into the Pit. After a typically frantic game at Mac Court, Bartow referred to the fans as “deranged idiots,” a description that only heightened the passion. Large white and green lapel buttons with the advisory, “I’M A DERANGED IDIOT” began to sprout up around Eugene.
Helping to add to Bartow’s unease was notorious UCLA booster Sam Gilbert, who was later tied to NCAA violations in the program. Google Bartow and Gilbert, and you’ll find a 1993 LA Times story detailing that Bartow once wrote to NCAA enforcement executive David Berst, thanking him “for possibly saving my life.” The gist of the 1991 letter, obtained then by the LA Times, is that Bartow believed the NCAA backed off an investigation of the UCLA program, and that if it had carried through with it, Gilbert might have believed he was turned in by Bartow.
“I believe Sam Gilbert was Mafia-related and capable of hurting people,” Bartow wrote in the letter. “Sam was a most unusual person, and he violated many rules knowingly. Without question, he put out some front-end money (to recruits) in a few cases, and I think that could have been proven.”
Gilbert died in 1987, just before a Florida grand jury handed down indictments against him of conspiracy, racketeering and money-laundering.
So it wasn’t merely Wooden’s ghost that Bartow was chasing. If his letter is to be believed, he may have also been dodging the Mafia.
Bartow departed Westwood to start a fledging program at Alabama-Birmingham, and he later became president of a company that owned the Memphis Grizzlies and FedEx Forum there.
The Bruins? They became known for coaches who put in short, frazzled tenures trying to keep the faithful happy — Gary Cunningham for two years, Larry Brown for two more, Larry Farmer for three, Walt Hazzard for four. All of them, especially Gene Bartow, came to realize that while you could replace Wooden, you really couldn’t.