Nobody has been able to fill John Wooden's shoes at UCLA. Now the job is open again
April 10, 1988

When North Carolina State won the NCAA basketball championship in 1983, Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano had a list in his wallet of every coach who had ever won the title. Last week the legacy of the man whose name appeared on Valvano's list more often than any other—former UCLA coach John Wooden—again proved to be a daunting one. On Wednesday afternoon UCLA fired Walt Hazzard, the Bruins' fifth coach since Wooden retired in 1975 and the first to be shown the door involuntarily. By Friday morning, Valvano was in Los Angeles, a candidate for the big chair that seems to have a whoopee cushion on it.

V reportedly wanted UCLA. UCLA seemed to want V. It was a match made in alphabet heaven. And it appeared fitting, given a friendship between Wooden and Valvano that dates back to Valvano's days as a counselor in a camp in the Pocono mountains where Wooden was a guest speaker. "Jimmy's wanted to be in L.A. all his life," said one friend just before Valvano and his wife, Pam, arrived in Los Angeles to meet with UCLA administrators and do some house-hunting. "He wants to be on the Walk of Fame and get his footprints in front of Mann's Chinese Theatre."

Valvano's bid to become a sort of Hollywooden ended on Saturday with UCLA's announcement that he had withdrawn his name from consideration for the vacancy. Yet by making a big play for the histrionic Valvano, the UCLA administration demonstrated that it is desperate to have a powerful basketball team again. UCLA may ultimately even go so far as to welcome back Kansas coach Larry Brown, who quit the Bruins in 1981 after two seasons and today calls that decision "the biggest mistake of my life."

UCLA feels it has to do something. As the Bruins staggered through this past season, going 16-14 and failing to qualify for postseason play, Pauley Pavilion took on the pall of a mausoleum. The team's average home attendance of 7.855 was the lowest since it moved into the arena in 1965, and UCLA was reported to be worried that many season-ticket holders might not renew if Hazzard stayed on. Meanwhile, television executives can't promise UCLA more than two network appearances next season. As one disgruntled fan wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Walt Hazzard has brought new meaning to UCLA: Under Current Leadership, Atrophy."

Since Wooden's retirement, Gene Bartow, Gary Cunningham, Brown, Larry Farmer and Hazzard have filed through Westwood, and each has fidgeted on Wooden's throne. Their brief records were all comparable to the Wizard's early finishes (Wooden was 65-24 over his first three seasons). But against the standard of Wooden's later years, 10 NCAA titles in 12 seasons, none measured up. It is as if Wooden's trademark rolled-up game program were a psychic cudgel wielded against his successors.

Bartow (1975-77) was a splendid coach, but he was so thin-skinned that when a caller on a radio talk show questioned his strategy, he whipped off his headphones and stalked out of the studio. After two seasons and a 52-9 record, L.A. proved too much for the man, and he left on the midnight train to Alabama. He has since led the University of Alabama at Birmingham to a 10-year record of 210-109.

Cunningham, a former Wooden assistant who was serving as executive director of the university's alumni association during Bartow's tenure, told the administration that he missed coaching, got the job and went 50-8 in his two seasons. But he loathed recruiting and, in 1979, left for a more peaceful position as athletic director at Western Oregon State College.

Brown complained about his housing, his $40,000 salary and the athletic department's facilities even as he took the 1979-80 Bruins to the Final Four, where they lost to Louisville in the championship game. More important, he ran afoul of Sam Gilbert, the late Bruin booster whom UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian once wickedly called the most important stone in Wooden's famous "Pyramid of Success."

Gilbert began exerting more influence over the program after the death in 1980 of J.D. Morgan, the longtime UCLA athletic director who had hired Brown and who might have been his patron and ally had he lived longer. Gilbert, a gruff millionaire contractor who died last November (he was indicted in Miami four days later, by a federal grand jury unaware of his death, on charges of laundering drug money), was charged by the NCAA in 1981 with making improper payments to a Bruin player. The school was put on probation for that and other violations and was ordered to disassociate Gilbert from its recruiting, but by this time Brown had bolted for the NBA's New Jersey Nets.

In an interview last week with the Los Angeles Herald Examiners Bob Keisser, Brown said of Gilbert, "I feared this guy would tear down the program if I fought him, so I tried to tolerate him.... I was honestly afraid what he would do, and I didn't want to exclude any booster. But it got very ugly and so uncomfortable.... He didn't want anyone questioning what he did."

Farmer, a Bruin forward in the early '70s and a Gilbert favorite, guided UCLA to a 61-23 record over the next three seasons. In '84 the university offered Farmer a two-year contract extension. But the deal required that he accept Hazzard as one of his assistants. Farmer quit: several hours later, athletic director Pete Dalis announced that Hazzard would be the new coach. "I feel he has the qualities we're looking for in a UCLA coach," said Dalis. "Plus, we could not wait. We're at a very critical point in recruiting."

Hazzard, who coached with the same combative style with which he played for the Bruins in the early '60s and for five NBA teams, went 77-47 in his four seasons. His demeanor seemed to repel as many prospects as it attracted. Although he hired Hazzard, Dalis reportedly ran out of patience with him sooner than did Dr. Charles Young, UCLA's chancellor. Young had supported the two-year contract extension granted Hazzard last Sept. 21, just a week after the NCAA ordered that two scholarships be taken away from the Bruins for recruiting violations. Most of these occurred during the pursuit of L.A. high school star Sean Higgins, who wound up at Michigan (SI, Feb. 23, 1987).

On March 11, Young and several vice-chancellors watched Washington State upset UCLA 73-71 in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 tournament in Tucson and heard fans chant "Sit down, Walt!" every time Hazzard rose to fix his trademark hands-on-hips glower on an offending player or official. Only then was Hazzard's fate sealed. Young subsequently agreed with Dalis that the coach would have to go.

Dalis had already been pondering four possible replacements—Valvano, Brown, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Arizona's Lute Olson (Olson's contract, though, prohibits his coaching at another Pac-10 school within five years of leaving Arizona). On March 28, two days before Hazzard was fired, Valvano, who was in San Diego for a speaking engagement, flew to Los Angeles. He met with Young, Dalis and Elwin Svenson, a vice-chancellor and Young's "eyes and ears" for athletic department matters, before jetting back to Raleigh to tell North Carolina State chancellor Bruce Poulton what was afoot.

The economics of compensating college basketball coaches have changed profoundly since '81, when Brown walked away from Westwood for big bucks in the NBA. Opportunities for outside income—summer camps, lectures, TV and radio shows, and shoe contracts—have grown with the game's popularity. A school's coffers needn't be emptied to keep a coach living well.

During the Wooden reign, the UCLA coaching job was the most glamorous in college basketball, but for 17 seasons the Wizard mopped the gym floor himself before practice, and he never was paid more than $32,500 for a season. Nor did he have car, TV show or shoe contracts. The Bruins are just beginning to adjust to the new order. "UCLA is 20 years behind the times," says one Pac-10 administrator. "It's the same way Ohio State's been in football. Earle Bruce had to hustle up his own TV show."

Yet last week UCLA did its best to put together a deal that would make Valvano happy. N.C. State pays Valvano $200,000 to be both coach and athletic director, and ancillary income fleshes his total take to an estimated $750,000. UCLA presumably would have paid Valvano at least the $100,000 that Hazzard earned, and V's potential to generate extra income in Southern California would have been considerable. For example, Nike, with which he has a shoe contract that pays him an estimated $120,000 per year, was prepared to restructure its deal, taking into account the higher visibility of a coach at UCLA.

But the tossing about of all these freight-train figures was sure to offend traditionalists at UCLA, notably the state's regents and many faculty, who might consider them obscenely high for a basketball coach. In addition, N.C. State insisted that Valvano buy out, to the tune of at least $575,000, the remainder of his "rolling" contract, which is renewed for five years each year. Faced with having to pay Valvano a princely sum, fulfilling the two years left on Hazzard's contract and giving football coach Terry Donahue a raise to keep him on a par with Valvano, UCLA could hardly help Coach V settle his obligation to N.C. State.

There were other considerations as well. The Valvanos were stunned by the prices of four-and five-bedroom homes in Brentwood, Bel-Air and Beverly Hills, even with a UCLA employee home-financing plan taken into account. And one of their three daughters, 15-year-old Jamie, was so attached to a high school sweetheart in Raleigh that she told her parents she would sooner enroll in boarding school than head west. The thought of a teenage daughter on the other side of the continent clinched their decision.

With Valvano declining to grab the accursed clipboard, Young and Dalis were left with:

•Krzyzewski. He was said to be Dalis's first choice, even over Valvano. Coach K says he had a "four-minute conversation" with Dalis several weeks ago, and told him that he wouldn't discuss the job during the season. However, the day after Duke lost to Kansas in their semifinal game, Krzyzewski declined an invitation from UCLA officials to be interviewed for the job. He is said to be happy in Durham and is unlikely to go anywhere.

•Loyola Marymount's Paul Westhead. His manner and credentials (he teaches English, as did Wooden) would fit in at UCLA, and his pro-style, fast-break offense would bring fans back to Pauley.

•Pepperdine's Jim Harrick. A former UCLA assistant, he is not a marquee name, and his hiring would constitute "settling." But, like Westhead, he has succeeded at a school without any of the Bruins' facilities or tradition.

•Brown. Everyone expects him to leave Kansas, perhaps no one more than Dick Vitale, who has promised to mop the floor of the Jayhawks' Allen Field House before the first practice next fall if Brown is still their coach. Although he denies it, sources say that for the past six weeks Brown has been calling friends at UCLA, reciting his "biggest mistake of my life" mantra. According to the Los Angeles Times, he has even been asking prospective recruits whether they might be interested in attending UCLA if he wound up there. "That report is so distasteful," says Brown. "Ethically, I would never do anything like that."

If he is hired, it will be because the Larry Lobby—friends and followers of Brown's still in Westwood, including Donahue—succeeds in persuading Young to take him back. The UCLA players held a team meeting on Wednesday, at which they decided to let Young know that they want Brown. The chancellor, however, isn't known to be a great Brown fan, or to grant second chances. Four years after Cunningham quit to go to Western Oregon, the UCLA athletic director's job became vacant, and Cunningham, who had moved on to the A.D. job at Wyoming, pursued it. Young, feeling burned once, snubbed Cunningham for Dalis.

Young has to be impressed, though, with the remarkable job Brown did this season with an ordinary, injury-and suspension-plagued team. Brown also is more mature now. His first tour at UCLA was his debut as a college coach, and he has worked hard to shake his image as a chronic malcontent.

The first order of business for whoever is chosen will be to meet with Don MacLean, the 6'10" uncommitted high school star from Simi Valley (Calif.) High, coveted by UCLA and by just about everyone else. The second will be—with all due respect to the Wizard and tradition and the UCLA way—to see to it that someone other than the coach mops the Pauley Pavilion floor before practice on Oct. 15.

The odds, it's fair to say, are pretty good that Vitale will be available.

TWO PHOTOSGEORGE LONG PHOTORICHARD MACKSON PHOTOPETER READ MILLER PHOTORICHARD MACKSON PHOTOSTEPHEN GREEN-ARMYTAGEWhen Wooden was working his wizardry at Pauley Pavilion, NCAA titles were routine. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONPooh Richardson and the other Bruin players met to express their preference for Brown. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONUCLA's 16-14 record gave Josephine Bruin precious little to cheer about this season. PHOTOCURT GUNTHERYoung does not like to be spurned. PHOTOJOHN STOREYA new basketball coach could mean a raise for Donahue... PHOTODAVID KLUTHO...but the man that UCLA selects will be someone other than Valvano.


Each of these five pretenders to the Wooden throne achieved records at Westwood that would have been impressive at almost any school but UCLA. Will Brown, under whom the Bruins made their last appearance in the Final Four, try once more?