Gene Bartow, the man who followed John Wooden as UCLA basketball coach, believes his life would have been in danger had the NCAA delved too deeply into the activities of the late Sam Gilbert, the Bruin booster who was closely aligned with the program during the Wooden years, according to a letter Bartow wrote to an NCAA official.
"I want to say 'thank you' for possibly saving my life," Bartow, basketball coach and athletic director at the University of Alabama Birmingham, wrote in a Nov. 1, 1991, letter to David Berst, NCAA assistant executive director for enforcement.
Bartow's feelings toward Gilbert were part of a five-page letter in which the coach called on the NCAA's top enforcement official to investigate the basketball program at the University of Alabama, UAB's chief recruiting rival. A copy of the letter was obtained by The Times.
The letter contradicts public statements made by Bartow, who has said he did not fear Gilbert.
Bartow became UCLA basketball coach upon Wooden's retirement in 1975, but left after two seasons to start the basketball program at UAB.
In offering his "thank you" to Berst, Bartow wrote that he had just read "Undue Process," a book that was critical of the NCAA's enforcement practices. He noted that the book indicated that an NCAA investigator had wanted to scrutinize the UCLA program during Bartow's first season at the school, but had been taken off the case.
"I would assume it was you or (former NCAA executive director) Walter Byers who did not let the investigator delve into the UCLA program in 1976," Bartow said in the letter. "At any rate, one of your investigators . . . insinuated that he wanted to investigate UCLA's basketball program and was pulled off.
"I believe Sam Gilbert was Mafia-related and was capable of hurting people. I think, had the NCAA come in hard while I was at UCLA, (Gilbert and others associated with the program) would have felt I had reported them, and I would have been in possible danger.
"Sam was a most unusual person, and he violated many rules knowingly. Without question, he put out some front-end money (to recruits) in a few cases, and I think that could have been proven."
Gilbert, a Los Angeles contractor who died in 1987, reportedly had a long history of providing improper gifts to Bruin basketball players, particularly the stars of the Wooden era.
His role as a benefactor for UCLA players did not draw sanctions from the NCAA, however, until 1981. None of the rules violations cited by the NCAA occurred during Wooden or Bartow's tenures at UCLA.
In November of 1987, a federal grand jury in Florida indicted Gilbert on charges of conspiracy, racketeering and money-laundering, but he never stood trial because the indictments were handed down four days after he died of heart failure at the age of 74.
A trial in March of 1990 revealed that Gilbert and his Miami associates organized an international money-laundering ring primarily to build the Bicycle Club casino in Bell Gardens. According to witness testimony and financial records, Gilbert used $12 million in cash supplied by a drug smuggler to pay for construction of the casino.
Bartow said in an interview that he does not recall making the reference to Gilbert that appears in the letter, but could have written something in jest about the influence Gilbert had on the UCLA basketball program.
"I've kind of kidded around about it," he said. "But I never feared (Gilbert), if you're asking me that. I didn't leave UCLA because of any fear. I left UCLA for one major reason: (UAB) offered me three times what I was earning."
He added: "I've been very hesitant to say much about Sam to anybody for 16 years--although I may have written something kind of personal to David--because I have so much respect for John Wooden and his program and his national championships."
Berst said he, too, does not remember the reference to Gilbert, but believes Bartow could have made such a statement in jest.
"I've known Gene for years," Berst said. "We have an informal relationship. Other than that, I don't want to comment on letters I receive."
As for the notion that the NCAA somehow "saved" Bartow by not pursuing an investigation of UCLA in 1976, Berst said: "I'm not aware of anything that would cause him to think that."
Bartow used similarly blunt language to present his feelings toward the University of Alabama basketball program in the letter, urging Berst to "take a serious look" at the Crimson Tide.
"I have had four ex-Alabama players (at UAB)," Bartow wrote. "In each case, they have described rules violations (involving) them and other players there. Not once did an NCAA person investigate them to ask any questions about what went on at Alabama. . . .
"If an investigator would just ask two questions of six or eight former players who have dropped out of that program, I think you would get some interesting answers. . . . I really believe somebody would blow the whistle on them."