I figure this nostalgia for Coach Wooden will pass in about a
year. As long as UCLA keeps winning.
-- Gene Bartow, new UCLA basketball coach, fall 1975
Although Bartow turned out to be a better coach than
prognosticator, he still wasn't good enough. Oh, he kept winning
pretty regularly, as did his five successors. UCLA still hasn't
had a losing season since 1947-48, the year before John Wooden
arrived. And only three times in the last 20 seasons has a Bruin
team failed to win 20 games.
But the nostalgia for Wooden persisted. It was, in fact, one of
the few constants in two decades marked by six different coaches,
six different philosophies and no additional NCAA championship
banners. The 10 that already hung in Pauley Pavilion started to
fade, and worse, they became mere swatches of fabric rather than
daggers that struck terror into the hearts of opponents.
April 14, 1995
``It used to be that teams were intimidated when they played
against us,'' moped guard Raymond Townsend early in 1976. ``Now
they think we've lost our divinity.''
Bartow, the coach who led Memphis State to the 1973 championship
game against the Bruins, was the first to feel the heat for UCLA's
newly exposed mortality. Despite a Pac-8 title, a 28-4 record and
an appearance in the Final Four in his first year, fans were
calling for his resignation from nearly the get-go. His problem?
Though he was a Midwesterner of the Wooden mold who didn't smoke,
didn't drink, attended church every Sunday, wore glasses, parted
his hair on the left and was so morally upstanding that his
nickname was Clean Gene, Bartow didn't resemble his predecessor
The ``Wooden wouldn't'' mantra that would be heard for the next 20
years went something like this: Wooden wouldn't . . . use that
defense, make that substitution, blow that lead. True, Bartow
performed some unspeakable acts in his first year. He allowed the
Bruins to lose their opener to Indiana by 20 points and then let
Oregon ruin the Bruins' 98-game winning streak at Pauley Pavilion.
And then, after reaching the Final Four with frosh sensation David
Greenwood and '75 championship holdovers Marques Johnson and
Richard Washington, he failed to win it all. UCLA lost to Indiana
again in the semis.
For Bartow, the resulting vilification was nearly unbearable. He
lost 15 pounds, developed a chronically upset stomach and had to
get an unlisted number after his wife, Ruth, got a spate of
harassing phone calls.
The Bruins lost to Idaho State in the regional semifinals the next
year, and Bartow fled to Birmingham, where he became the coach and
athletic director at UAB. His record at UCLA was 52-9, which would
be sparkling anywhere else. Of course, as Bartow was no doubt made
aware, Wooden's previous five teams tallied only eight defeats.
Next up was Gary Cunningham, who had played for Wooden in the
early '60s and had been one of Wooden's assistants for 10 years.
He too resembled the Wizard in certain respects. Professorial in
demeanor, he didn't smoke, swear or say too much. When things on
the floor got tense, he folded his program, much as Wooden had
rolled his. In his two years Cunningham had a 50-8 record, won two
conference titles and had four players who became first-round NBA
draft picks. L.A. yawned, crankily.
Larry Brown, a slick New Yorker with college and pro coaching
experience in North Carolina and Denver, became Kiki Vandeweghe's
third coach in four years. ``I like to look at the positive side
of the changes,'' said Vandeweghe. ``I played under three coaches
with three different philosophies, and if I'd had only one, I
would have got only one philosophy.'' Brown's philosophy -- scrap
what isn't working -- and Vandeweghe's scoring took the Bruins as
far as the 1980 NCAA championship game, despite a fourth-place
finish in the Pac-10. Unaccustomed to wearing Cinderella's
slipper, UCLA lost to Louisville, 59-54.
Bannerless though he was, Brown seemed to be on the right track.
But after getting blown out by BYU in the opening round of the
1981 NCAAs, Brown abandoned UCLA in favor of the New Jersey Nets.
In his wake the NCAA inquired into improprieties involving a
wealthy UCLA alum and dealt the program a two-year probation. New
coach Larry Farmer, a former player of Wooden's and an assistant
to each of his successors, kept his head up and insisted he was
``happy to be here.'' But over the course of his three-year gig,
Farmer's indecisiveness and poor communication with his players
made for an unhappy tenure. When his 1983-84 team finished 17-11,
the school's worst record in 24 years, Farmer was forced to fire
two assistants and replace them with Walt Hazzard and Jack Hirsch,
two players from Wooden's first championship team. Farmer quit
four days after being awarded a two-year contract extension.
Within hours, athletic director Peter Dalis tapped Hazzard as
Though his was a rocky reign, Hazzard set a new longevity standard
for post-Wooden coaches by staying four years. In his first,
1984-85, he won the NIT title with a team that featured Reggie
Miller. (Yes, the NIT banner is allowed to hang in Pauley.)
Hazzard's second and fourth seasons resulted in records worse than
Farmer's last, despite the presence of future NBA picks Pooh
Richardson and Trevor Wilson. But something far more disgraceful
may have signaled Hazzard's end.
For several years the allure of national TV exposure in the East
via ESPN had been draining Southern California of some of its best
college prospects. But during Hazzard's reign, Westwood
experienced a new kind of defection: UCLA's players started
leaving for lesser lights nearby. Between 1986 and '88, Corey
Gaines, Greg Foster and Rod Palmer all transferred out. Wooden
wouldn't have lost them, many felt. In March 1988 Hazzard was
When Jim Harrick took the job -- after Jim Valvano, Mike
Krzyzewski and Larry Brown turned it down -- his first order of
business was to stem the flow of talent out of California and
direct it back to Westwood. Before he had blown a whistle at
Pauley, he had signed Simi Valley's Don MacLean, who was to become
an All-America and UCLA's alltime leading scorer.
Even with talent like MacLean and Tracy Murray, Harrick's teams
came up short in the NCAAs. Last year's loss to Tulsa in the first
round is considered by some to be the nadir of UCLA basketball.
``I remember looking up at the scoreboard and seeing us down by 29
with six minutes to go in the first half,'' says assistant coach
Mark Gottfried. ``I thought, Will we have jobs when we get back?''
They would. But, once again, their critics would lie in wait.