Jerry Young was sitting in his office recently, feeling like the guy who has just discovered his child is a prodigy.His kid doesn't just play the piano at age 3; his kis is already composing symphonies.
Young's kid is the University of Alabama-Birmingham basketball program, in its third year. Five days ago the baby beat Kentucky -- you know, the team that plays in a palace and has more money than neighboring Fort Knox.
Now Young's baby is in what Al McGuire calls the Sweet 16. It is one of 16 teams alive in the chase for the NCAA championship, facing Indiana in the Mideast semifinals tonight on the Hoosiers' court in Bloomington. St. Joseph's plays Boston College in the other game.
Young, chairman of the athletic council at UA-B, remembers the conception four years ago.
Young said, thinking back to the winter of 1977, "We knew that with an almost new, 17,000-seat arena in the city, with the right person running the program, we could really build a premier basketball program."
Looking for advice, Young set up a meeting with Gene Bartow, then the coach at UCLA. They met for an afternoon at Chicago's O'Hare Airport that April.
"We were looking at Gene strictly as a consultant at that point," Young said. "By the time the meeting was over, I knew I wanted Gene to be our coach."
When Young called Bartow, the UCLA coach's first reaction was negative. One simply doesn't leave UCLA to become coach of a program that doesn't exist. Except . . .
"I wasn't happy at UCLA," Bartow said. "I wasn't looking to get out specifically, but those 26 months there were not happy ones for me. The pressures and all that. They asked me to come to Birmingham and look."
They also asked him, after the visit, to put down on a piece of paper what it would take for him to accept the job. Bartow was stunned when Young said, "You've got it."
During that winter when he was looking for a coach, Young had decided it would be a mistake to put a team on the floor the next fall. "I thought we would need a year to let the coach get settled in, let him concentrate strictly on recruiting, scheduling and finding a conference."
Bartow did just that. He found a conference that, like UA-B was just getting off the ground -- the Sun Belt.
Eight of the 14 players on the current 23-8 team came from junior colleges. Two more are transfer students, including 6-foot-10 Norman Anchrum, who had played at Alabama and Tennessee-Chattanooga and spent a couple of months at Wright State.
Like the program, the school itself is evolving. Originally an extension of the University of Alabama, 60 miles down the road in Tuscaloose, it became a separate entity 10 years ago. It now has an enrollment of 15,000, 8,000 undergraduates.
It is an urban commuter school. With less stringent admission criteria, Bartow was able to assemble a team quickly.
The team's record was 13-13 its first season. Last year it was 18-12, including a trip to the National Invitation Tournament. This year, with each starter in his third year in the program, the Blazers have improved steadily. Remember that Bartow, now 50, took Memphis State from six victories in 1969, the year before he arrived, to the national final in 1973.
"It's like this is a blow for the little guy," said Glenn Marcus, the 5-10 guard who made 12 free throws down the stretch against Kentucky."
"I remember talking to Gene when he was still deciding," Young said. "He said to me, 'I'm not sure I want to come there because you guys will probably expect the final four in three years.'
"I told him, 'No, Gene, we're very reasonable. Five years will be just fine.'"
The Indiana team that UA-B will face Friday has, as Bartow put it, "just about been conceded a spot (in the final four) in Philadelphia by a lot of people." Coming off a 99-64 humiliation of Maryland, even Coach Bobby Knight conceded today his Big Ten champions are "playing pretty well right now."
The Boston College and St. Joseph's coaches, Tom Davis and Jim Lynam, respectively, have said all week they are just delighted to be around, with nothing to lose now.
Concerning reports he may leave BC to coach Georgia Tech next season, Davis said: "I have not applied for the job and I don't anticipate applying for any jobs."