Almost five years ago, Gene Bartow walked away from college basketball's most dominant program to take over a team that had never played a game.

Now his former school, UCLA, is on probation and watching these NCAA playoffs on television. And his new school, the University of Alabama in Birmingham, is one game away from the final four.

Bartow's accomplishment ranks as one of the finest building jobs in college basketball history. But he claims that long before he began preparing for Saturday's 12:40 p.m. (EST) matchup with Louisville in the Mideast Regional final, he was very happy.

Just leaving UCLA and the pressures that made basketball "no longer fun anymore for me" was enough to bring back Bartow's easy smile.

"It got to the point where you were playing and coaching not to lose instead of coaching to win," he said. "Now you ask what is the difference, and I say there is one and it's not much fun.

"I wasn't fired or run out of town. I walked away. I decided I couldn't put up with all the outside influences. I finally decided that I could never control my own program. What's coming out now (about UCLA) is what I'm talking about. I just never wanted to elaborate before things began appearing the last few months."

Bartow said he was referring to published reports about the influence that Sam Gilbert, a major UCLA backer, has had on the Bruin program. Bartow said Gilbert was an obstacle during his two-year (52-9) tenure as John Wooden's replacement.

At UAB, Bartow served at first as a consultant, then was hired as coach and athletic director in the spring of 1977 to build a Division I program from scratch. He spent a year recruiting before the Blazers played their first game. They were 15-11 his first season, 18-12 (including a trip to the National Invitation Tournament) his second and 23-9 (including an upset of Kentucky in the NCAA playoffs) last year. Thursday night, they upset Virginia, 68-66.

He's been successful using a combination of junior college and four-year college transfers and freshmen recruits. He's stuck mainly with Birmingham-produced players. And he has won despite being located in the heart of college football country, where crowds of only 6,000 at Blazer home games in spacious Birmingham Coliseum are commonplace.

"I always felt that with what we had to sell and that if we brought in two or three good players over a number of years, we could win 20 or 22 or 24 games a year," Bartow said. "If you do that, then good things will happen to you."

Bartow has won before. He built a floundering Memphis State team into an NCAA finalist and he won at UCLA, recruiting four players who became first-round draft picks. If he can beat Louisville Saturday with perimeter shooting and team quickness, he'll become the first to ever take three schools to the final four.