Hall of Famer Gene Bartow dies at 81

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Gene Bartow, who succeeded John Wooden at UCLA and later began UAB's athletic program, has died, UAB officials said. He was 81.

Bartow, who was the president of the company that owns the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies and FedEx Forum, died Tuesday evening at his home in Birmingham, Ala., after a battle with stomach cancer, said university spokesman Norm Reilly.

"Coach Bartow is a beloved figure in college basketball and in the lives of many players and fans," said UAB athletic director Brian Mackin in a statement. "He was a great man and dedicated leader who set a standard of excellence for UAB athletics."

The school had been preparing for Saturday's Bartow Classic, a basketball game between UAB and Memphis that raises money for the Coach Gene Bartow Fund for Cancer Research. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer in April 2009.

Bartow was one of the winningest NCAA Division I basketball coaches with 647 wins over 34 seasons. He was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009 and UAB renamed its basketball arena in his honor in 1997.

He succeeded John Wooden as UCLA's coach in 1976 and led the Bruins to the Final Four but left after two seasons to start Alabama-Birmingham's program, expanding it under his tenure as athletic director to feature 17 sports.

"The UCLA family has suffered a great loss today with the passing of former Bruin men's basketball coach Gene Bartow," UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero said in a statement. "Gene had the unenviable task when he arrived at UCLA of following the greatest coach in college basketball history, John Wooden, and he did so admirably."

As UAB's basketball coach from 1978-96, Bartow led the Blazers to seven straight NCAA tournament appearances. He retired as athletic director in 2000.

"To begin an athletic program from the ground up, UAB had to find a motivating force without parallel," UAB president Carol Garrison said in a statement. "Gene Bartow certainly was that person. He was a pioneer and passionate believer and leader in UAB athletics."

Bartow coached Memphis State from 1970-74 and guided the school to the 1973 national championship game, where the Tigers lost to a UCLA team coached by Wooden. That year, Bartow was named national coach of the year, according to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame web site.

"Through his years as a coach, an athletic administrator and an NBA executive, Coach Bartow built an incredible network of friends and today we all feel a tremendous loss," said Alabama state Rep. Jack Williams in a statement.