Gary Allen Cunningham, a Ph. D. in educational administration, made his debut as UCLA's head coach last Saturday, and while it may have been educational, it wasn't much fun. In fact, it was downright scary, which probably serves the Bruins right for not scheduling a sensible opening game—against, say, Hollywood Barber College or Cleveland Chiropractic—to help Cunningham ease into his job.
Cunningham, who had earned an unofficial doctorate in basketball by working as an assistant to John Wooden for 10 years and by playing for the Wizard of Westwood before that, is a quiet, upright fellow who deserved a more comfortable baptism than a last-second 75-73 win over Brigham Young.
BYU was supposed to be too inexperienced to go into Pauley Pavilion and calmly hit 20-foot jump shots. But that is just what the Cougars did on Saturday night against a UCLA squad that is equally young (Guard Raymond Town-send is the only senior) and eminently capable of committing such sins as traveling, charging and missing clutch free throws, all of which it did.
Nonetheless, it was not too shabby a start for Cunningham, especially considering that his predecessor, Gene Bartow, lost his UCLA coaching debut two years ago. And 29 years ago Wooden won his opener by only six points.
December 5, 1977
The bespectacled Cunningham could pass for a physics professor as he shuffles around campus with his shoulders slightly hunched, except that few profs are 6'7" tall. He was a jump-shooting forward for Wooden's teams in 1960-62 and coached what was probably the best freshman team of all time, the Lew Alcindor-led group of 1965-66. When Wooden retired in the spring of '75, to be succeeded by Bartow, Cunningham went to work for the UCLA Alumni Association but found he missed basketball. Now he is immersed in it again and apparently immune to the alumni-fan-media pressures that so annoyed Bartow that he quit and moved to Alabama-Birmingham, where the natives are less restless.
Bartow had won two Pac-8 titles in two years, which simply wasn't good enough for some UCLA partisans, who had been spoiled by the Bruins' 10 national titles between 1964 and 1975. But Cunningham, perhaps because he knows every nook and cranny of the UCLA psyche after 17 years at the school, seems to have a thicker hide.
"I wouldn't feel any pressure from the Wooden era," Cunningham said just before he landed the job. "I was part of it. The fact that he's still around UCLA is a plus. I'd use it in a positive way. He's a tremendous resource, and I wouldn't hesitate at all to talk to him."
Ironically, Bartow could turn out to be an even bigger benefactor for Cunningham, because he did not exactly leave a bare cupboard. The most notable of Bartow's stars is 6'9" David Greenwood, a junior theater arts major who wants to be a recording engineer (after a pro basketball career, of course). Greenwood and another noteworthy Bruin, Guard Roy Hamilton, have been buddies since the eighth grade and were a prize recruiting package when they graduated from Verbum Dei High School in L.A. UCLA beat out Las Vegas for their services.
With Greenwood, sharpshooting Kiki Vandeweghe and several other blue-chippers, UCLA is well stocked at forward, and Hamilton, Townsend and Brad Holland are an imposing trio of guards. But Las Vegas took a measure of revenge when seven-foot Brett Vroman transferred from UCLA to UNLV. A popular theory among the West Coast's numerous UCLA-haters is that the remaining pivotmen, 6'9" sophomores Gig Sims and Darrell Allums, are neither good enough nor tall enough to enable UCLA to win its 12th consecutive Pac-8 title.
Despite such talk, Cunningham does not contemplate an early return to the alumni office. He is so calm and stoic most of the time that it seems he could face a firing squad—or worse, a roaring Pauley Pavilion crowd suddenly hostile to him—without blinking.
"You look at North Carolina last year, at Marquette, at Las Vegas," he says. "They didn't have the seven-foot center, and they were able to go quite far. So it's not a factor that we can't deal with. We can get by with our mobility and our quickness. We can do other things that the big guys can't do."
Seattle offered a pretty good test of that countertheory on Sunday, because it arrived in L.A. with a rather sizable weapon, seven-foot Jawann Oldham. The Chieftains' towering center was the leading scorer in the game with 22 points, but he got most of them after UCLA had used its speed to build up a huge lead en route to a 106-73 victory. And the Bruins showed that they may have an unexpected asset at center—flexibility. When Oldham burned the slender Sims several times early in the second half, Cunningham sent in the muscular Allums to put a stop to it, which he did.
The BYU game Saturday night was one of the most exciting ever seen in Pauley, although it probably was not fully appreciated by UCLA fans, who had not yet recovered from the last-minute football loss to USC on Friday. One coronary per weekend is their limit. BYU Coach Frank Arnold also was a Wooden assistant, and he brought in a fair-to-middlin' team that ran its offense nicely, setting picks that even an NFL fullback could not get through. The result was a lot of open, medium-range jumpers, and the Cougars hit them.
BYU led 38-34 at halftime, but after the intermission, UCLA slowly edged to an eight-point lead and it seemed time for the roof to cave in on the visitors. Instead it collapsed on the Bruins. Greenwood and Vandeweghe fouled out, Hamilton missed a free throw and Townsend had the ball stolen from him. Faster than you could say Jack Robinson (UCLA, '41), the score was tied at 73, UCLA in possession, 0:24 left.
On the ensuing play, Hamilton could not get the ball inside to Sims, so he drove the baseline and flipped a pass out to Townsend at the free-throw line. Townsend missed his shot, but Forward James Wilkes tapped the ball in at the buzzer.
"I always say a close game is good for you as long as you win it," said Cunningham, who has obviously studied the Wooden manual on postgame quotes. The rabid Bruin fans cheered loudly, indicating that they are willing to be patient—so long as Cunningham wins the close ones. Still, those who are fixated by visions of more national championships could hardly find much solace in the narrow home-court victory over un-ranked BYU.
But the resounding win over Seattle and the testimony of the UCLA players, many of whom did not like Bartow's system, should keep the alums off Cunningham's back, at least for the moment.
"It is totally different than last year," says Greenwood. "It's like the last two years have been washed away. Last season we ran an offense with a double-low post on one side, and we also ran patterns intended to get Marques Johnson the ball. This year Coach Cunningham has high-post and low-post offenses designed so that no one is ever standing. No one will ever look lethargic, like he's watching two or three others play.
"Last year Coach Bartow stressed playing defense after your man received the ball. This year we're stressing denying your man the ball. And Coach Cunningham said the only time we will use a zone is if we are in desperate, desperate trouble."
One thing bothers Greenwood. He has not been on a team that has won one of those blue and gold NCAA-championship banners hanging from the Pauley rafters. "By now I expected to have two championship rings," he says, "but things didn't work out. I still have two years left, and with any luck we can win one or maybe two championships." Gary Cunningham's job may depend on it.