Branching out into the big time

With former UCLA Coach Gene Bartow, brash Birmingham is starting at the top
December 04, 1978

This is the era of the branch university. New ones—Texas-El Paso, Cal State-Long Beach, Nevada-Las Vegas, North Carolina-Charlotte—pop up almost as fast as McDonald's. If there isn't an Iowa-Dubuque already, there soon will be. A number of these branches, following the example set long ago by UCLA which, after all, is merely an arm of the University of California, have quickly become good in sports. But none of them reached for the big time quite as fast as UAB. UAB? That's the University of Alabama in Birmingham (no hyphen, please).

UAB has been around in one form or another since 1936, but it was not designated as a separate campus of the University of Alabama until 1966 and did not graduate its first class until 1970. And it did not field its first intercollegiate athletic team until last Friday night. Where? In the 16,795-seat Birmingham Coliseum.

That's right, the Blazers—that nickname won out over Barons, Titans and Warriors—opened up in a huge downtown arena, not some shoe box of a campus gym. The opponent was highly rated Nebraska, not Southwestern South Dakota Baptist. And Governor George Wallace and Mayor David Vann were on hand for the event. Never mind that Nebraska won 64-55; everybody had a good time anyway, and the next night the Blazers beat San Francisco State 67-51. It will not be their last win of the season by any means.

Seventeen months ago the UAB brass hired Gene Bartow, late of UCLA and Memphis State, as its basketball coach and athletic director and decided to plunge directly into the NCAA's Division I. The normal pattern is to build a program with a few seasons of competition in Division II. Given only a year to round up a team to meet this formidable challenge, Bartow began by scouring UAB's 270-acre campus for basketball players. He found a lot of would-be doctors, nurses and engineers among the 13,000 students, but nobody who could dribble anything except liquid from a test tube. That meant UAB was either going to play freshmen recruits only or snare some transfers. Bartow and his assistants, Lee Hunt and Larry Finch, did some first-class snaring. From Texas Christian came Forward Daryl Braden, who once scored 39 points against Houston. From Baylor came Forward Larry Spicer, who was voted 1976 Freshman of the Year in the Southwest Conference, and his buddy George Jones, a quick guard.

All three players grew up in Memphis, and all three were discontented and planning to transfer. Assistant Coach Finch was an All-America guard for Bartow at Memphis State, and it was not difficult for him to sell UAB to the trio. He also rounded up two other Memphis products, one a high schooler, the other a junior-college player.

But Bartow did not rely solely on the Memphis Connection. From a top J.C. team in Missouri he brought in Forward Stan Scales and Guard Greg Leet, and from Birmingham's Woodlawn High he signed Guard-Forward Oliver Robinson. Presto, Division I respectability.

At the same time Coach Bartow was recruiting, entrepreneur Bartow was setting up his Sunday-night TV show and summer basketball camps, and Athletic Director Bartow was hiring 1947 National League batting champion Harry (The Hat) Walker as UAB's baseball coach and establishing a women's basketball team, the Lady Blazers.

Bartow's headquarters for all these operations is a little brick building on the western edge of the sprawling urban campus. It is a squatty structure, made to seem squattier by the big hospitals and health-sciences buildings to the east and by the nearby statue of Vulcan, said to be the largest iron figure ever cast. The Blazers practice a block from Bartow's office in a disused high school gym that has been spruced up and expanded.

This setting is a far cry from UCLA and Pauley Pavilion. Bartow had a 52-9 record in two seasons at UCLA, and the Bruins won the Pac-8 title both years. But he was unhappy. So were the students and alumni, who had been spoiled by 10 time NCAA title-winning Coach John Wooden. They, a few UCLA players and some members of the press were not satisfied with merely winning league championships.

In the spring of 1977 UAB officials asked Bartow to be a consultant for their leap into intercollegiate sports. He met with them in Chicago. A week later there was another meeting in Kansas City, and the boys from Birmingham tried to hire Bartow, just as they had gotten cardiovascular expert John Kirklin away from a pretty big-time place called the Mayo Clinic. Not long after that, Bartow decided to make the move. He would have a blank page to write on. Let some poor sucker try to follow in his footsteps a few years hence.

Friday night's inaugural game, attended by 14,800 fans though it was televised locally, was a happy event. The Golden 100, boosters who had contributed $1,500 apiece to help UAB's program get started, gathered for pre-and postgame food and drink in a newly decorated Coliseum room. Reporters and VIPs received souvenir paperweights—Game 1 tickets encased in plastic. Fans wore buttons proclaiming I WAS THERE, UAB-NEBRASKA, NOV. 24, 1978. Mayor Vann proclaimed it University of Alabama in Birmingham Day in the city.

A victory on top of all the hoopla was too much to hope for—the Cornhuskers won 22 games last season, were NIT quarterfinalists and have a whole bunch of excellent players back. Still, despite poor performances by Braden, who underwent knee surgery on Oct. 16, Spicer and Robinson, UAB lost by only nine points.

"I think they're a very fine basketball team," says Nebraska Coach Joe Cipriano. "We played them at the very best time. They've got some big men inside and some fine outside players. If you let them fast-break, I think you'll find they'll win some games."

UAB has joined the Sun Belt Conference, which includes, among others, such schools as UNC-Charlotte, South Alabama and South Florida, but it is ineligible to win the league title until next season. Meanwhile, the impatient Bartow is hoping for a postseason tournament bid as an independent. Next year the Blazers should be even stronger, with everybody but Braden back and the addition of two good Birmingham products who have transferred to UAB, one from Alabama, the other from Southern Illinois, and have to sit out this season. Certainly a team with so much promise should enjoy the support of Birmingham fans, who have WHA hockey at the Coliseum in the winter, a few games of college football in Legion Stadium each fall and not much else.

Bartow and Jack Gardner are the only coaches to take teams from two different schools to the final four of the NCAA tournament. Gardner did it with Kansas State in 1948 and 1951 and Utah in 1961 and 1966. Bartow did it with Memphis State in 1973 and UCLA in 1976. It is not unreasonable to expect that he can do it some year with a third school, UAB. "I kind of have a dream of getting there with three different teams," he says. "Now that would really be something unusual."

Not any more unusual than the big leap UAB is making this year.

PHOTOBartow once followed a legend. Now he may become one.
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