Family ties: Can another Bartow steady UCLA?

Murry Bartow was a graduate assistant at Indiana when Steve Alford played for Bob Knight. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

LOS ANGELES -- It was an opportunity he couldn't pass up. That, more than anything, was why Gene Bartow accepted UCLA's offer to replace legendary basketball coach John Wooden in 1975.

After Wooden won 10 national titles over the previous 12 seasons, his eventual replacement always figured to be more of an anointment.

UCLA didn't so much call Bartow as it called for him. So after one 8-18 season at Illinois -- following a three-year stint at Memphis State, during which he guided the Tigers to an NCAA title-game loss against UCLA -- Bartow and his family were off to Southern California to live under a shadow so large it might as well have been night all the time.

His dad's new job might not have seemed impossible at the time for then-13-year-old Murry Bartow, but now, with more than 40 years of hindsight, he has a unique perspective.

"It will be like following Nick Saban with Alabama football," said Murry Bartow, who was named UCLA's interim coach when Steve Alford was fired Dec. 31. The Bruins play at Oregon on Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN). "You do not want to be that next guy. You just don't. And when you follow Coach Wooden, and then he's won 10 of the 12 prior NCAA championships, there's really nowhere to go but down."

Gene Bartow went 52-9 in two years at UCLA, finishing No. 5 and No. 2 in the polls, but it quickly became obvious, despite strong support and friendship from Wooden, that it wasn't a good long-term fit. When UAB came to him with more money and an opportunity to launch its athletic department and coach the basketball team, he took it.

"He had a lot of great memories out here," Bartow said. "But as a coach, you want to go to work every day and enjoy the wins and really have fun with the wins. I think my dad, over the course of his second year here, it was almost the fear of losing, just trying not to lose instead of the joy of winning."

In the 43 years since Wooden retired, UCLA basketball continues to exist in the shadow of his legacy. The Bruins have won only one national title (1995) since the end of his reign and haven't advanced past the Sweet 16 in 10 years. Coaches no longer have the direct comparisons that Gene Bartow dealt with, but success at UCLA is still measured with a higher standard than at just about any other school in the country.

That's why Alford started this season on the hot seat, despite reaching the Sweet 16 three times over his five seasons. His teams weren't great, but they were regularly conference-title contenders. Fair or not, that remains well behind the standard UCLA still expects from its basketball team.

When Alford was fired following a 7-6 start that included home losses to Belmont and, the final straw, Liberty, the timing might have been surprising, but it also was easy to understand.

Murry Bartow played and coached for his dad at UAB and served as a graduate assistant at Indiana under Bob Knight in 1987. That's where he met Alford, then a star guard for the Hoosiers. They remained friends over the years, with Bartow serving 18 years as a college head coach at UAB, East Tennessee State and as the interim coach last year at South Florida. Alford hired him in the offseason as an assistant.

"I've been in the business a long time and I'd been let go twice out of two jobs, so I'm not naive to the situation," Bartow said. "I thought this would be an important year, but I was honestly surprised at the timing [of Alford's dismissal]."

Bartow's experience made him the natural choice to hold the interim role, but he'll closely share responsibilities with assistants Duane Broussard and Tyus Edney. When the coaches huddled up to decide what needed to be addressed as they moved on without Alford and started Pac-12 play, they agreed that some of their best attributes -- speed, athleticism -- weren't being taken advantage of as well as they should have been.

"We're not the thickest bunch of guys, we're not at times the grittiest bunch of guys, but we do have speed," Bartow said. "We do have length, we do have athleticism and we do have depth. We've got those four things."

That's not exactly a bad place to start. Those four things alone, in fact, might be enough to win the Pac-12 this season.

Either way, the sure-to-be-brief Murry Bartow era got off to a promising start last week, with a 92-70 win against Stanford, followed by a 98-83 win against Cal. The Bruins upped the tempo, found some rhythm and looked as good as they have just about all season. Cal and Stanford have their own struggles to worry about at the moment, so not much can really be drawn from those games, but the energy the Bruins played with indicated a renewed sense of spirit.

"I love Bartow's energy," UCLA center Moses Brown said after the win against Stanford. "Like, in practice he does a lot to motivate us, and when Coach was around we just saw how much energy and how much effort he put into us and making us a better team.

"And now that he's the head coach, all of that has started to manifest. And as you can see on the court, we did a good job today. We had more energy, we were playing with them up and down, just having a good time."

They enjoyed the win, an old Bartow family rule. And it came on the seventh anniversary of Gene Bartow's death.

Coincidently, Stanford coach Jerod Haase shares a connection with the Bartow family, having recently coached at UAB, where the Blazers play in Bartow Arena. Ruth Bartow, who was married to Gene for 59 years before he died, is 87 and a regular at UAB home games.

"Jerod was incredible to my mom while he was there and in terms of just going out to the house to see her writing her notes, giving her a hug after a win," Bartow said. "My mom's at most every game. So Jerod was incredibly gracious to her."

The Bruins (9-6, 2-0 Pac-12) were one of three Pac-12 teams, along with USC and Arizona, to go 2-0 in the first week of the season and enter Thursday's game at Oregon with a chance to improve on that encouraging start. Without a clear favorite -- or even more than a few decent teams -- the Bruins, despite their early-season struggles and Alford's dismissal, are still somehow among the favorites in the conference.

Oregon (9-5, 0-1) opened conference play with a loss at home against Oregon State, two days after the school announced that prized NBA prospect Bol Bol would miss the rest of the season because of a left foot injury.

Bartow says he knows it will be impossible to shield the players from all the speculation about who will become the next head coach, but he's optimistic there will be no shortage of strong candidates.

"UCLA is still an unbelievable program, an unbelievable brand," Bartow said. "When you go all over the country, you can ask any person, 'Hey, name five or six programs.' UCLA is probably going to be one of them.

"So it's still a marquee program and can certainly continue on with great success."

Maybe even to the level of Gene Bartow's UCLA teams.