UAB Community Says Goodbye to Gene Bartow
Gene Bartow, UAB’s first basketball coach and athletic director, was laid to rest in funeral services on Monday, January 9, 2012.
Among the hundreds who gathered at Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church were former players and coaches from the many stops of Bartow’s coaching career, as well as representatives from the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies, where Bartow worked as president for the past 10 years.
Below is a transcript of the three eulogies honoring a man who will forever be remembered as the father of UAB athletics.
(Murry was joined in the pulpit by his brother Mark Bartow and sister Beth Long.)
Proverbs 22:1 reads, “If you must choose, take a good name rather than great riches, for he knows that loving esteem is better than silver and gold.”
My dad loved people. He treated people the right way. He never met a stranger. He had time for everyone. The great thing was, he didn’t care how much money you had, what your position was, or what your title was. He just truly, genuinely liked people. He loved his interaction with people, and he had a great way of making people feel very special, very important. He was an unusually good man. He touched a lot of lives and had so many great friends. This is a sad day, but we do want this day to be a great celebration of life and what he meant for so many people and what an incredible life he had.
Today I want to speak on behalf of my brother Mark, my sister Beth, and the entire Bartow family. My mom has been the rock of our family for a lot of years—60 years—and she has obviously heightened that over the last two and a half years. She has been incredible with my dad and with our family.
As we prepared for this day with my dad, he talked about a lot of different things, but the two things he kept bringing up were, number one he said, “You’d better start it on time.” And number two, he didn’t want a lot of speakers, didn’t want a lot of fanfare. He gave Gary and I and Wayne very strict time limits on how long we could speak. I got a little longer than Gary and Wayne, but he was very adamant that he wanted to start on time and he wanted to get people in and out very quickly. I think that says a lot about who he was.
The second thing that he was adamant about was his former players—and we’ve got a lot of them here today. He was concerned about everybody and where they sat, but he kept coming back to his former players. And he was concerned about his assistant coaches and was concerned about a lot of people, but he wanted to make sure his former players were in these front pews. I think that says a lot about who he was. He was very loyal. I think one of his greatest qualities was loyalty. He was very loyal to his family to his friends, very loyal to UAB when he could have taken some other jobs along the way. More than anybody I know, he was incredibly loyal. I never heard him say a bad word about a former player. He loved his players at all of his stops along the way, and that’s why he wanted those guys to have the best seats here. And again I think that says a lot about who he was.
He was a great player’s coach. I played for my dad, and I think we can all attest to the fact that he wasn’t a big yeller, a big screamer. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard my dad say a bad word, but he certainly knew how to get the most out of his players. He made each player feel special, made each player feel important, made each player feel like he had a big role within the framework of that team.
He was a very competitive coach—a very gentle man, but a very very competitive coach. He was a great recruiter, a great motivator, and I see that when I look at his career and see all the wins, and now trying to follow in his footsteps, which is not easy. But he was an incredible builder of programs. If you look all the way back to his days as a high school coach, I think one of his fondest memories is the state championship when he was at St. Charles High School back in Missouri in the late 50s. But he was an incredible builder of programs. And then he went on to college at Central Missouri. He loved his time in Warrensburg. And then on to Valparaiso. He had six great years there at Valpo, and we had a great time with him there and he really loved his days there and had some great teams.
On to Memphis State. The third year there playing in the national championship game, and I know we have a lot of those guys here today. That was a great team and one of his fondest memories. The Memphis days were, I think, four of his funnest memories as a coach. He’s got very fond memories of Memphis and being at Memphis State.
The one year at Illinois, the two years following coach Wooden at UCLA, and then obviously on to Birmingham back in the late 70s to start the UAB program. And he loved Birmingham, he loved UAB, was very loyal to UAB and was a great advocate and ambassador for UAB.
But to do what he did, it took the help of a lot of people—great players, great coaches, some fabulous presidents. Great vice presidents. Lot of great people and support, but he was the one who was able to make it all go and pull it off. Year number three being in the Sweet Sixteen and year number four to be in the Elite Eight. It’s mind-boggling to me as a coach to even think about that, to win so quickly and always do it the right way, which is the way he did it.
My dad was a very humble man, a very simple man, a very genuine man, a very compassionate man. I’ve never been around a better people person than my dad. He was so good with people. He was very likable. It didn’t matter if he was at Bartow Arena in the Golden 100 Room, working that room or at the FedEx Forum working with the Grizzlies, or hanging out down at Full Moon with Joe and his group of friends down there, which he loved. He was just a great great people person.
I’ve got great memories of my dad, and as a kid, it was very cool to be the son of Gene Bartow. I think of all the camps I went to and playing golf as much as I did with my father. It was pretty cool being at UCLA and meeting coach Wooden and being around him and being a ball boy at UCLA.
I Remember all the trips we took to Puerto Rico with our family when he coached over there. But I have great memories of being a kid and being the son of Gene Bartow. I’ll smile at my memories when I think of my dad. And I think one of his fondest places he loved to be was the desert. I know he loved to be out there with my mom. He was a great man of routine, and he would take his walk and lie by the pool and play golf with his buddies out in the desert, and I’ll smile when I think of those memories.
I’ll smile when I think of his last 10 years with the Memphis Grizzlies. He loved Mr. Heisley, the owner of the Grizzlies, who is here today. He had a great 10-year run with the Grizzlies and he really appreciated those times. I’ll smile when I think of my dad in the family room of our house playing with the grandkids. I don’t know how many of you have played the matching card game, but it wasn’t my dad’s best game, where you have the cards face down and you have to flip one card over at a time and then match them. He would inevitably get beat every time in that game, but then the fierce competitor would come out, and he would challenge them to a game of checkers. And he was a big-time checker player. I’m not sure the grandkids ever beat him in checkers. He was a great dad, a great grandfather, obviously an incredible husband to my mom. We’ll all have great memories.
I want to say some quick thank yous. I want to thank Dr. Carol Garrison, Brian Mackin, Steve Mitchell, and Reid Adair. I thought the visitation yesterday was really overwhelming. It was well done and what my dad wanted and what our family wanted. The things people said were great.
I want to thank the doctors at UAB and the nurses. I don’t want to start naming names, or I’ll get myself in trouble. But incredible doctors at UAB, incredible nurses, and we had some incredible caregivers at the house. Drew Ferguson, I do want to mention him by name because he was with my dad at the hospital a lot of the time.
Dr. Sutton, I do want to mention by name. He is such a close friend of our family, and he gave us so much guidance and so much comfort. I also want to thank all of you. Also, I want to thank all of you. And I really mean this very sincerely, I think that the cards the letters, the prayers, were just overwhelming. And I hope some of you don’t mind, but we read many of those letters. I know some of them were personal in nature, but they just blew us away with the things you had to say to my dad. But I really believe the calls, the letters, the prayers did two things. I really believe they prolonged his life. And I think they improved the quality of his life. Because I know how he’d feel when he’d get the calls and the letters, and obviously, a lot of you played a part in that.
Mark, Beth, and I are very proud of all the awards, a lot of wins, a lot of trophies, a lot of awards, 10 halls of fame. We’re very proud of that. But we’re most proud of the person he was, the lives he touched, and the way he did it. And we’re just incredibly proud of the difference he made in our lives and so many lives. Mark, Beth, and I are so lucky to have been raised in a Christian home and so lucky to have Gene and Ruth Bartow as parents, and I know today in my heart that my dad’s now in a better place, thanks be to God.
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So many big wins. So many exciting games.
Who could forget Glenn Marcus hitting all those free throws down the stretch to beat Kentucky at Tuscaloosa, or Andy Kennedy scoring 41 against St. Louis? Who doesn't remember UAB completely frustrating Virginia and Ralph Sampson? The only two players who played every minute of that game were Chris Giles and Oliver Robinson. And of course, there's the memory of Robert Shannon draining a 3 that nailed the door shut against Alabama at Coleman Coliseum.
One thing those games, and so many more, had in common for me was that when they were over, for just a moment, I sat behind my typewriter and wondered, “How in the world can I put into words anything that will do justice to the game I just saw?”
Multiply that by a hundred, or a thousand, and you come close to understanding how I feel about trying to put into words anything that will do justice to the life, legacy, and memory of Gene Bartow.
I rode with him several times over the last few years to see the Grizzlies play in Memphis. On the way home one night, just as we hit the Interstate at the Mississippi line, I asked him how he got into coaching.
For the next couple of hours, as we rode across Mississippi and Alabama heading toward midnight, he talked about his journey from Browning, Missouri, to Birmingham, Alabama.
Somewhere around New Albany or Tupelo I remember him saying. “My goal at first was not to be a great college coach. My goal was to be the very best coach Shelbina High School ever had.” Then he said, “You know, I think I'm one of the luckiest coaches in the world. It seemed every time I moved to a new school I would move into a situation where they had some really great players, and we would win.” I'm sitting there driving and thinking, “Coach, I've seen you work. It wasn't luck.”
His legacy is surely wins; more than 900 of them in high school and college basketball; with national teams in the Olympics and Pan Am Games, and exhibitions with college All-Star teams around the world. But wins aside, perhaps his greatest legacy is his impact on individual lives at every stop along the way.
Some of my best memories have little to do with the actual games. A flight out of Los Angeles at 1 a.m., that landed in Dallas as dawn broke, then Jackson, Mississippi, and the excitement of comedian Jerry Clower when he boarded in Jackson and found he was on the same plane with Gene Bartow. Sitting in a restaurant in Oklahoma City when Ken Trickey stopped by and listening to their stories of recruited against each other when Coach was at Memphis State and Trickey at Oral Roberts. Going to a Grizzlies game, or to lunch at Full Moon or The Fish Market or Nickie's, and being amazed at how many people there knew Coach, and even more amazed at how many of those who didn't know him just wanted to speak to him, or shake his hand.
He was a special coach. He was a special person. And he was special to everyone from the greatest to the smallest.
I went by to see Coach in early October after he had stopped treatment. He wasn't in pain and was alert, but so very, very weak. As he struggled to get comfortable, he said, “You know, when the quality of life is gone, there just isn't much left.” I said, “Coach, I believe with all my heart that this life we're living here is just the shootaround.” For those who aren't familiar with the term, a shootaround is just a warmup session on the morning of game day. I said to Coach, “I believe comparing the life we have here to what God has prepared for us is like comparing a shootaround to the greatest basketball game ever played.” He looked at me, nodded and said, “I believe that too.”
In the last few years I have come to realize that sometimes God's miracle may not be a miracle of healing, but instead a miracle of extra time. In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, it says, “Then came the word of the Lord to Isaiah, saying, Go, and say to Hezekiah, Thus saith the Lord, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: Behold, I will add unto thy days fifteen years.”
God didn't bless Coach with 15 extra years, just three. But I think that perhaps the greater blessing was for Ruth, for Mark and Murry and Beth, and for the grandchildren. They were blessed by God's miracle of extra time with Coach. And that blessing of extra time with coach extended to me and Gary, to Brian Mackin and the people at UAB, and to each of you. And it extended to people who knew and loved him from Birmingham to Memphis to Missouri, and literally around the world.
Thank you, Coach.
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It was in spring of 1978, I was called into my boss’s office at Channel 13. He wanted my opinion on a proposal presented to us by the new UAB basketball coach, Gene Bartow. That began a relationship that continued through his 18 seasons as UAB coach, the additional years as athletic director after leaving coaching, and the 11 years after his retirement to the present day. When someone asked me what do I do as director of broadcasting for the UAB Blazers, I’d say, “I do whatever Coach Bartow wants me to do.” And that continues today. It was coach’s choice that a longtime newspaper reporter and the radio voice of the Blazers be speakers as we wish him farewell.
"Gary," he said, "don’t mention names." There are so many great players whose efforts he appreciated. Assistant coaches who labored with him to create an outstanding basketball program. Valued assistant athletic directors who helped build from scratch a major athletic program. "Do mention Dick Hill and Jerry Young," he said. "They’re the ones who really created UAB athletics." Well, I respectfully disagree with Coach on that. I think Dr. Hill and Dr. Young brought Gene Bartow to UAB, and he built a program that went from not owning a basketball to seven straight NCAA Tournaments, with wins over Kentucky, Indiana, and Ralph Sampson’s Virginia Cavaliers in the program’s first four years of existence.
The late Dr. Hill once said that as UAB president, he thought his two most significant hires were Dr. Kirklin and Coach Bartow. Remember the UAB 1, UCLA 0 bumper sticker that Dr. Hill was so proud of? It’s my opinion that no one else, no one else could have done what Coach Bartow did. He got the quality players, top assistant coaches, big time schedule, and important to me, radio and TV sponsors. Only Gene Bartow had that rare combination of personality, talent, loyalty and toughness that was required to do such a job.
I have so many happy memories of games, trips and shows that we worked together. In the early years, it seemed to me that the coach was really better known than the university. Out of town papers often said “Bartow’s team is coming.” Not UAB. And in the second season of our program, we drove into the gameday shootaround with Oklahoma City only to see a billboard saying, “Tonight the Chiefs versus Alabama.”
Well, while the players shot and the coaches coached, the broadcaster went down to the building office and pointed out that yes we were from Alabama, but that was not our name. That night when we returned for the game, the billboard said, “Tonight, the Chiefs versus Bartow’s Blazers.”
It was most unusual for a basketball man to start a football program, but coach did ask me to mention two other names when we talked about football—president Scotty McCallum and vice president Dudley Pewitt. They supported his desire to start a football program despite some opposition.
Like you, I have seen plans for an on-campus football stadium, and I’d like to make a suggestion right now that to join Bartow Arena, Bartow Stadium has a nice ring to it. If ever a basketball man deserved to have a football stadium named after him, it’s right here, right now.
Coach often told me how much he appreciated his position as president of the Memphis Grizzlies of the NBA after his retirement, made possible by Grizzlies owner Mike Heisley, who is here today. He had 10 great years with the Grizzlies, and I wish you could have had the experience I had of walking around the FedEx Forum in Memphis with Coach Bartow. Many times I would walk with him, and we were up on the third level one time, and a man was mopping the floor. He stopped, put the mop down, and said “Coach Bartow, Coach Bartow,” and just fell all over Gene, and Gene was very nice to him.
We literally went 10 steps around the corner, and we ran into the mayor of Memphis. And he said, “Coach Bartow, Coach Bartow,” and fell all over him. From the man mopping the floor to the mayor of the city, they loved Gene in Memphis.
Gene and Ruth also told me how much they loved Memphis. And they did, but they also loved Birmingham, and they made this city their home.
He was my boss, he was a person I greatly admired, he was my friend. Godspeed, Coach Bartow. You will always be remembered.
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