Gene Bartow, the successor to John Wooden as UCLA basketball coach who became the architect of a new and successful athletics program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, died Jan. 3 at his home in Birmingham, Ala. He was 81.
Mr. Bartow was diagnosed with stomach cancer two years ago, said a university spokesman.
Mr. Bartow started the athletics program at Alabama at Birmingham and established the basketball program as nationally competitive. But he probably will be most remembered in Los Angeles as the man who replaced arguably the best coach in college basketball history and unarguably the most beloved and respected coach in Los Angeles sports history when, in 1975, he took over UCLA’s program after Wooden’s retirement.
With the expectations that he would automatically take the Bruins to the same place Wooden had gone in 10 of his final 12 years — the national championship — Mr. Bartow lasted only two years as head coach, despite a 52-9 record and a Final Four appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
In 1975-76, Mr. Bartow’s first season as Wooden’s successor, the Bruins went 28-4 and reached the Final Four. The next year the Bruins finished 24-5.
Marques Johnson, who played for both Wooden and Mr. Bartow, had a vivid memory of the pressure that Mr. Bartow faced.
“He was a sensitive person,” Johnson said in an interview. “He was used to being totally embraced as a coach and a person, and he was just not ready for the kind of vitriol thrown at him when he took Coach Wooden’s place. He never came to grips with it, and it bothered him more than anything.
“After two years, he was gaunt and pale, and he refused to read the Los Angeles newspapers or listen to the radio because there was so much negativity. But he was a wonderful human being, a super nice guy and a great coach.”
Johnson said Mr. Bartow probably made the correct decision in leaving UCLA after the 1977 season to start the athletic program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He finished with a 647-353 record over a 34-season coaching career and was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.
Before arriving at UCLA, Mr. Bartow also had great coaching success at Memphis State, where he took the 1973 team to the NCAA national championship game, a contest Memphis State lost to Wooden’s UCLA team. Wooden died in 2010, at 99.
Gene Bartow was born Aug. 8, 1930, in Browning, Mo., and was a college basketball coach at Central Missouri State, Valparaiso, Memphis and Illinois before replacing Wooden at UCLA in 1975. After leaving UCLA at the end of the 1977 season, he coached at Alabama at Birmingham until 1996 and then became athletic director before retiring in 2000.
He later became president of the parent company of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies and their arena, FedEx Forum.
Survivors include his wife of 59 years, Ruth; three children; a brother; and eight grandchildren.