John Wooden began his 66th year as he had begun every day since his heart attack three years ago—with a five-mile constitutional. His walks are usually uninterrupted, but on that smogless, crackling, red autumn dawn last month, the joggers scattered along the UCLA track stopped him. One by one, they wished him well. That evening nearly 7,000 more well-wishers paid formal tribute to Wooden at a birthday/retirement party in Pauley Pavilion, the arena where he had scored so many of the 620 victories in his 27-year career at UCLA.
Although the man being honored certainly deserved an occasion rich with sentiment, Wooden Night went beyond that. It was an affair that could only be described as schmaltzy. "On cue, sing out loud and clear: Hello Johnny, well hello Johnny," the program instructed. Auld Lang Syne came later. Assorted celebrities, ranging from Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley to Bob Hope, took turns expressing gratitude for being given the honor of honoring Wooden. And there were so many standing ovations that people popped up and down in their seats as if they were watching an overtime game against USC.
A number of times Wooden was called the greatest coach in the history of basketball, and who present would argue with that? He was also called the creator of "the most magnificent era in the history of intercollegiate sport," a weighty accolade that caused him to gaze self-consciously at the floor. From the evening's proceeds—the worshipers paid $5 per ticket—Wooden received a watch, a tie clip and cuff links, each inset with 10 diamonds, one for each of the NCAA championships he brought to UCLA. He was also given a pale blue Mercedes-Benz 280 sedan. Fortunately for Wooden, whose taste in status symbols runs to such things as well-polished wing tips, the car came without a diamond-studded steering wheel. He could have been given Pauley Pavilion, and no one would have minded.
Sitting quietly in the shadows at Wooden Night was a bespectacled man who must have been squirming in his chair with each display of reverence accorded the guest of honor. He was the man appointed to replace the Wizard of Westwood. He has not been asked to replace Wooden in the hearts of UCLA fans, but he knows he soon must find a nook of his own in there.
November 17, 1975
"I figure this nostalgia for Coach Wooden will pass in about a year," Gene Bartow says, "...as long as UCLA keeps winning." He shakes his head. "But they love him here, don't they?"
For the six months since he was hired last April, Bartow had shared Wooden's office and had sat toe to toe with him, a position that served as constant reminder of how big a legend's shoes can be. Technically it had been Wooden sharing Bartow's office, but the signs of success in the room—plaques and trophies and framed magazine covers—meant more than the name on the door.
The office sharing was by Bartow's choice, not necessity. Relieved though he may be now that Wooden's physical, if not spiritual, presence is gone, he had asked Wooden to stay around for a while and submit his brain for picking. And the information Bartow obtained rubbing feet with the master made the tight quarters worthwhile. "Besides visiting with Coach Wooden about common interests like golf and the Dodgers, I asked him specifically about the zone press and the strengths and weaknesses of the returning 11 players," says Bartow. "Several times we sat down and worked at the blackboard, actually using Xs and Os."
"Intimidating" is a word that Bartow uses a lot these days, usually accompanying it with a chuckle, a shake of his head and a roll of his eyeballs. He has heard so much about the aura he is supposed to be intimidated by that he responds to it now with an easy, genuine laugh. "If I felt differently about Coach Wooden, if I felt he wasn't actually above the rest of the basketball coaches in this world, then there would be pressure for me to prove something," he says. "But I don't feel that way."
So for the past six months Bartow has been saying things like "I don't intend to try to compete with John Wooden; his record is a miracle," and "We're in a new era now; the Wooden book is closed." Something he has not been saying is, "O.K., you guys, lissen up: things is gonna be different around here from now on, see?"
Of course, things will be different, but not much. Bartow's second move (his first was to put Lee Hunt, who has been his assistant for the past five years and a friend for 15, on the UCLA staff) was to hire Larry Farmer as jayvee coach. Farmer had played forward on UCLA's undefeated teams of 1971-72 and 1972-73, and he had been an assistant coach on Wooden's staff the following year. "If you take over a program that's bad, you may not want to know anything about it," says Bartow. "But if you take over a program that's just won 10 national championships, it helps to know a little bit about what's been going on."
During Wooden's reign at UCLA, Bartow was putting together a record of his own that could hardly be described as unsuccessful. He has coached basketball for two decades: six seasons in high school, three at Central Missouri State, six at Valparaiso University, four at Memphis State and one at Illinois. Three times he took Valparaiso to the NCAA small-college regionals, and he directed Memphis State to an 18-8 record in his first year there, after it had been 6-20 the year before. Two seasons later, in 1973, Bartow was named Coach of the Year by his peers for leading the Tigers to the NCAA final. He lost that game to UCLA 87-66. Illinois hired him away from Memphis State last year. The Illini's 8-18 record in 1974-75 was Bartow's worst as a coach, but he turned the school's recruiting system around by actively seeking black players from the Chicago area, a source of talent that Illinois coaches had largely ignored in the past. Illinois released him from a five-year contract so he could go to UCLA. Bartow also coached the Puerto Rican National team to a silver medal in the 1971 Pan-Am Games and a sixth place in the 1972 Olympics, and in 1973 he led a U.S. all-star team on a successful eight-game tour of China.
UCLA's selection of Bartow was like a man acquiring a new hound of the same breed to replace a trusty old beagle who is no longer up to the hunt. Bartow's basketball philosophy parallels Wooden's; he likes a wide-open fast-breaking offense and sticky man-to-man or pressing defense. And the two have strong personal similarities, despite their 20-year difference in age. They are both Midwest-erners—Wooden is from Indiana and Bartow from Missouri. Bartow is nicknamed Clean Gene. He doesn't smoke, doesn't swear, leaves the vodka out of his screwdrivers, goes home to his wife and three kids at night, goes to church every Sunday, gets his hair cut regularly, shaves every morning and insists that his players put their dirty towels in the laundry bin to make the team manager's job easier.
Despite his subdued appearance on the bench, Wooden was a skilled referee-baiter; Bartow can also ride refs with the worst of them. And his sideline outbursts, like Wooden's, are often the product of guile, not anger. One such incident occurred when Memphis State was playing Vanderbilt three years ago. The Tigers led most of the game, but the momentum suddenly shifted to Vanderbilt after a series of calls in its favor. Bartow seemed to grow livid with rage; he called time, leaped from the bench and waved his players off the court. He drew a technical foul, and Lee Hunt had to calm down the referees. The calls were more evenly divided after that, and Memphis State won 74-71. Bartow later claimed his behavior had been mostly an act. No one needs to explain the meaning—or the value—of intimidation to him.
In a speech to more than 500 high school coaches at a clinic at UCLA recently, Bartow described another of his acts: "When I was coaching high school in my nastier days, one of my favorite tricks was to make the team practice late while I yelled at the players and told them how awful they were. After they had taken their showers, I'd go in the locker room, yell at them some more and then send them back on the court for another hour."
That only proves that Clean Gene is human. "He either knows where the body is buried or he's got some dirty pictures under his bed," says one close Bartow-watcher from Illinois. "There's got to be something like that; he's just been too successful for there not to be." Which is just the sort of reaction Wooden's parsonlike demeanor drew from skeptics for years.
Bartow is as successful a coach off the court as he is on it. He may be the best PR man in college basketball; sincerity oozes from him, yet he comes off not as an unctuous back slapper, but as a man who wants to solve your problems. Wherever he goes, he leaves friends. They still love him in Memphis and, had he stayed there longer, he might well have engendered the kind of adoration Wooden receives at UCLA.
"When he gets to a new town, the first thing he does is look up the people who are supposed to be his enemies and cultivate their friendship," says one Chicago newspaperman who has followed Bartow's career closely. "That usually means the media, but it's not only them. One of the first people he became friends with when he was still coaching in high school was Wooden."
Even though Bartow is also considered a masterful recruiter, those talents have not yet been needed at UCLA. When he arrived there, most of this year's work in that area had already been completed by Wooden's assistants. The four freshmen they attracted to UCLA are considered the best incoming group at any college this year. All four are from Los Angeles, and two of them—6'10" Forward David Greenwood and Guard Roy Hamilton—are from the same high school. The other two are Forward Chris Lippert, the Los Angeles All-City Player of the Year, and Guard Brad Holland, who paces around the key at practice, pumping jump shot after swishing jump shot into the net. Because of the returnees from UCLA's national champs of last season, including three starters, only Greenwood is expected to play a great deal this season.
UCLA's first practice was held the day after the party. Bartow's organization of the session and communication with the team was so facile it seemed almost as if his predecessor had never left. (When Bartow blew his whistle for the first time, Wooden was on an 18-day Caribbean cruise with his wife Nell. He will spend his winter at speaking engagements and as color commentator on five televised games.) As the players filed into the locker room after the opening workout, Bartow almost skipped off the court, barely restraining himself from jumping in the air and clicking the heels of his Adidases.
"I've seen some talented teams before, but there's more talent here than I'm accustomed to," he said. "And these guys have spirit. I think this is going to be the kind of team that will walk onto the court and beat people."
After the first week of practice, Bartow's praise was being reciprocated. "He makes you want to play more than Coach Wooden did," says Gavin Smith, one of five hopefuls for a starting guard slot. "There's more encouragement. I get the feeling everyone has a chance to play, where Coach Wooden always seemed to have his mind made up."
"He's a little less conservative and allows players more individual freedom on the court," says Rich Washington, the MVP at last spring's NCAA tournament. "He's getting us ready to play sooner than Wooden did."
Bartow may need to. UCLA's first game, on Nov. 29, will be against Indiana, which was unbeaten last year until the NCAA semifinals. The Hoosiers have lost only one starter. "I'm already dreaming about that game," says Bartow. "I see us winning."
Bartow's dream might also include an NCAA championship, but if it does, he is not letting on about it. "If it takes a national championship to be considered successful around here, I'm in trouble," he says. "But Wooden coached here 15 years before he got one, so I think they'll be patient with me. If not...well, I used to teach drivers' ed and badminton in high school. I've always got those skills to fall back on."
Then he shakes his head and rolls his eyeballs and laughs that genuine laugh, and it is very clear that Clean Gene Bartow is not going to allow himself to be intimidated.