Remembering UAB Legend Gene Bartow

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The man referred to as the father of UAB athletics has died. Gene Bartow passed away Tuesday after a two-year battle with stomach cancer. He was 81. The hall of fame coach lead teams at six universities, but it was at UAB where he really made his mark as the first mens basketball coach and first athletic director. WBHM’s Andrew Yeager has this remembrance.

Before he even set foot in Birmingham, Gene Bartow had an enviable record. He took what’s now the University of Memphis mens basketball team to the national championship game in 1973. He then succeeded legendary coach John Wooden at UCLA. And while that two-year stint in California included another trip to the Final Four, Bartow told WBHM in 2009 being in Wooden’s shadow was tough.

“When someone called [about camps my secretary would] say, ‘Now do you want coach Bartow’s camp or do you want coach Wooden’s camp?’ And I’d laugh. Now whose camp are gonna go to if you’ve got a choice? I even sent my own son Murry to coach Wooden’s camp.”

Bartow said he wasn’t really having fun at UCLA. So in 1977 the Missouri native packed up and moved to a school that wasn’t even a decade old – the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“The UAB situation intrigued me.”

Bartow became the school’s first mens basketball coach and first athletic director. When his first recruits arrived, they didn’t find anything that said college sports.

“You know, when I got on campus it was kind of like going to another high school.”

Oliver Robinson is the first player to receive a four year basketball scholarship at UAB.

“We would have to go to the physical education department to get basketballs to play with during the summer.”

Success on the court would come quickly. In Bartow’s second year, the team made the National Invitational Tournament. The team then made seven straight NCAA tournament appearances including trips to the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Bartow retired from coaching in 1996, finishing with enough career wins to be among the top 20 winningest NCAA Division I basketball coaches of all-time.

Meanwhile UAB’s Athletic Department grew under his watch to include 17 sports. He retired as athletic director in 2000.

Current UAB Athletic Director Brian Mackin opens his desk drawer.

“That’s the whistle that was left in his drawer right there.”

Glance around Mackin’s office and you can’t ignore the former coach’s presence. Pictures line the walls along with Bartow’s 600th win jersey.

“His bobblehead. His credenza and his desk. So it’s, it’s important. This is a shrine. In a good way.”

Bartow went on to become president of the company which operates the National Basketball Association’s Memphis Grizzlies. But Mackin explains Bartow maintained connections with UAB. They continued to meet and talk.

“And really leaned on him for advice. He was quick to give it, but he was quick to say you don’t have to do it. But I knew better.”

Former UAB player Oliver Robinson calls Bartow a family man. Robinson says he cared about people. He kept tabs on fomer players. And little known fact…

“He loved barbecue. The barbecue restaurants in Birmingham, I know they made a mint off Coach Bartow.”

That gentle, grandfatherly figure was one side of Bartow, says Birmingham News Sports Columnist Kevin Scarbinsky. At the same time, he was a fighter.

“He did not like to lose. He did not suffer slights well. He was forever in a battle with officials believing on occasion not necessarily that they were out to get him but they weren’t on his side.”

Bartow’s battles weren’t just on the hardwood. Scarbinsky points out Bartow faced an uphill climb starting a basketball program in Birmingham, the football capital of the south. At the same time officials at the University of Alabama weren’t too keen on UAB having a division I athletic program.

“And Gene Bartow stood up to that. Gene Bartow fought that. And Gene Bartow succeeded in overcoming that.”

Scarbinsky says Birmingham has never given Bartow the full respect he deserves, partly because it’s such a football town. Nevertheless Scarbinsky says he had an affection for Birmingham. He turned down offers to leave, including the chance to lead the storied University of Kentucky basketball program. After all, UAB Athletics was his baby.