The game lost a great coach and the profession lost an outstanding human being with the passing of Gene Bartow.
During my time at Appalachian State I got to know his son, Murry. Over the years we have become very good friends so I got to know his dad really well. Gene was one of those guys who always made time for you. He was the truly the genuine article.
As a coach, Gene began working his trade at the collegiate level in 1961 at Central Missouri State. Three years later he moved on to Valparaiso and led the program to the NCAA tournament twice before taking over at Memphis State. His four-year run at Memphis was highlighted by a trip to the NCAA Championship game in 1973. Ironically he lost to UCLA and Coach Wooden whom he would succeed just two years later.
Gene’s time at UCLA was brief. He led the Bruins to the Final Four in 1976 and he coached them into the Sweet 16 in 1977. In two seasons he was 52-9. It was a pretty impressive two seasons, but not by UCLA standards at the time.
Succeeding Coach Wooden was virtually impossible for anyone. One Final Four appearance and one trip to the Sweet 16 would have been well received by the fans and media virtually anywhere else. But Gene was taking over a program that had won the National Championship in ten of the previous eleven seasons.
Following the 1977 season, Gene left UCLA to take over a program that didn’t exist yet. Imagine doing that today? At the very least you would expect a few losing seasons and maybe six or seven seasons before you would be competitive enough to compete for a spot in the NCAA Tournament. But Gene got things done a little faster.
In his first season UAB posted a winning record. The following season he took the program to the NIT. In his third season UAB went to the Sweet 16 of NCAA Tournament and one season later the Blazers advanced to the Elite 8. That’s pretty impressive.
Consider that he had to go into the community of Birmingham, AL -- where the Alabama and Auburn programs had been rooted for decades -- and convince the people to support a program that hadn’t yet played a basketball game. If a coach did something like that today -- and had the immediate success that he enjoyed -- it would likely be hailed as one of the greatest coaching accomplishments the game has ever seen.
Gene wasn’t a good coach. He was a great coach, but you don’t do what he did in Birmingham unless you are an even better person. His success at UAB was due in large part to the person that he was. Gene was such a quality individual and that had to resonate would the people in the community. If it didn’t, that program would have never gotten off the ground.
Shortly after Gene retired from coaching, Coach Smith retired at North Carolina. I remember thinking at the time that Coach Guthridge was in almost the same situation that Gene was some twenty years earlier.
In three seasons Coach Guthridge posted an 80-28 record and led North Carolina to the Final Four twice. Coach Guthridge retired following his second trip to the Final Four in 2000.
You can’t replace a legend.
Through the years many have chosen to remember Gene as the one that succeeded Coach Wooden and that’s unfortunate because he did so much in his career. His legacy goes well beyond the impressive win-loss record. What I will always remember about Gene is how he always made time for others.
I feel very fortunate to have known him. He was an outstanding person.