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Full-Court Pressure

Six coaches have found the UCLA basketball job too hot to handle since Wooden left, and Lavin could be about to join list

March 05, 2003|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

For John Wooden, the realization struck March 29, 1975, amid the bedlam of an NCAA tournament semifinal victory over a team coached by his dear friend, Denny Crum.

For Steve Lavin, it was Dec. 9, 2002, the morning new Athletic Director Dan Guerrero fired football coach Bob Toledo.

In between, six other UCLA basketball coaches also experienced moments when they recognized their tenure was over.

The first four who followed Wooden resigned. The next two were fired.

All led UCLA to the NCAA tournament and left with winning records. One won a championship.

Yet all felt burdened by the expectations created by the success of Wooden, who led the Bruins to 10 NCAA titles in the last 12 of his 27 seasons.

Connecting the dots from coach to coach, from crisis moment to crisis moment, outlines what the next Bruin coach can expect.

And offers a hint of what he might feel the moment he knows it's over.

Blinded by the Light

Gene Bartow (1975-77, 52-9)

UCLA was shocked by Idaho State in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Bartow's last game, but the high-strung coach realized much earlier that escaping Wooden's shadow would be impossible.

"I really didn't adjust to the criticism very well," said Bartow, a Memphis Grizzly scout. "It was unexpected. I hadn't ever been criticized in coaching, and in my mind we were winning big and recruiting well."

The constant harping of UCLA fans took a toll. Bruin center Brett Vroman transferred to Nevada Las Vegas. Wooden, who kept an office at UCLA, publicly chided Bartow for being thin-skinned.

Bartow pressed forward, agreeing to go on a radio talk show after the loss to Idaho State. When callers criticized his coaching, he stormed out of the studio muttering, "Hogwash, hogwash."

Soon after, the coach began quietly negotiating with Alabama Birmingham, a school so low-profile it didn't even have an athletic program. He would start one, and coach the fledgling basketball team to an average of 20 victories over the next 18 years.

"I decided to leave UCLA the moment UAB offered to triple my salary," he said.

Postscript: Bartow eventually made the same mistake as Wooden, giving the appearance of peering over the shoulder of the next coach at Alabama Birmingham.

The twist was that the next coach was Bartow's son, Murray, who came under intense criticism and resigned in 2002 after six seasons. Bartow regrets staying as the school's athletic director when his son became coach.

"Murray would have had a better job had his dad not been his boss," he said. "I should have gotten out.

I Can't Tell You Why

Gary Cunningham (1977-79, 50-8)

The former Bruin player and longtime assistant under Wooden earned a doctoral degree in educational administration. But it didn't take a doctorate for him to realize that succeeding Wooden's successor would be easier than succeeding Wooden.

So he took a job in the alumni office until Bartow resigned, then became the obvious and accepted choice.

After two seasons, Cunningham remained popular, seemingly pleasing everyone except himself. He loved practice and games, but constant 16-hour days and year-round recruiting took a toll.

Cunningham was still in his 30s. But when he planned on spending a rare Sunday off with his wife and two young daughters, he fell asleep on the couch, exhausted.

A few days after the Bruins had dropped a regional final to DePaul in 1979, he called assistants Larry Farmer and Jim Harrick into his office and stunned them by saying he would resign.

Cunningham wore a broad smile at his farewell news conference. He was asked whether a college coach was able to lead a normal life.

"I don't know how to answer that question," he said. "I'm not sure I know what a normal life is right now."

Postscript: The eight Bruin losses under Cunningham were by a total of only 21 points, yet he never coached again. After leaving UCLA he became athletic director at Westen Oregon State, then athletic director at Wyoming, Fresno State and UC Santa Barbara.

Cunningham, who has been at UC Santa Barbara since 1995, was considered for the athletic director opening at UCLA when Pete Dalis retired a year ago, but was not one of three finalists.


Should I Stay Or Should I Go

Larry Brown (1979-81, 42-17)

Brown loved UCLA -- especially after he took an undersized team with four freshmen playing prominent roles to the NCAA final in his first season.

Nearly everyone at UCLA loved Brown -- despite an immature streak that exasperated athletic director Bob Fischer.

But a return to the NBA tugged at the coach and money finally tipped the scales. UCLA paid him only $50,000, and he earned another $50,000 in sportswear fees.

Late in the 1980-81 season, Brown went to Fischer and said the New Jersey Nets were offering him $800,000 over four years. He was uncertain what to do. Fischer, weary of the coach's demands for everything from office amenities to first-class seats on flights, told him the offer was too good to pass up.

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