By Grant Martin
A near-capacity crowd filled Bartow Arena for a rivalry game against the University of Memphis in early January, but one courtside chair was left empty.
The seat would remain vacant the rest of the season in honor of the man who sat in that position for so many years—the man responsible for the birth of UAB athletics—the man whose absence surely left a void in the hearts of fans from both schools who were in attendance that night, as well as countless others in arenas across the country.
That game against Memphis, already scheduled as the “Gene Bartow Classic,” was the first Blazer game following the death of Gene Bartow on January 3, 2012. Bartow, who is widely regarded as the “father of UAB athletics,” was the Blazers’ first basketball coach and athletic director and was arguably the person most responsible for bringing instant name recognition and credibility to a young university.
“To begin an athletic program from the ground up, UAB had to find a motivating force without parallel,” says UAB President Carol Garrison. “Gene Bartow certainly was that person. He was a pioneer and a passionate believer and leader in UAB athletics. Anyone who was fortunate enough to know Coach Bartow was enriched.”
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The “UAB Miracle”
Bartow brought UAB national recognition when he accepted the challenge of building an athletic program from scratch in 1977. At that time, he was one of only a handful of coaches to take two separate schools to the NCAA Final Four, which Bartow had done at both Memphis (1973) and UCLA (1976). He will forever be remembered as the man who replaced legendary coach John Wooden at UCLA, and then shocked the college basketball world just three years later to come to Birmingham and a school many across the nation had never heard of before that time.
Remembering Gene Bartow
Former UAB player Steve Mitchell
Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive
Former Birmingham News sportswriter Wayne Martin
Former Memphis player
Memphis Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley
The Gene Bartow Fund
They would hear a lot more of it in the ensuing years, after Bartow led the upstart Blazers to the NIT in the second year of the program. They would reach the NCAA Tournament a year later, starting a run of seven straight Tournament appearances, including trips to the Sweet 16 in 1981 and to the Elite Eight in 1982. Three UAB players earned All-American honors during that stretch.
“It has always been my position that Gene Bartow was the only person who could have pulled off what I call ‘The UAB Miracle,’” says longtime UAB broadcaster Gary Sanders. “To build a program from scratch and have that kind of immediate success, only Gene Bartow had that rare combination of personality, talent, loyalty, and toughness required to do such a job.”
Cementing a Legacy
“My dad was a great players’ coach,” says Murry Bartow, one of three Bartow children as well as one of his father’s former players and assistants before succeeding him as head coach. “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 the team.”
After playing the first 10 years of UAB basketball in downtown Birmingham at the BJCC Arena, the team moved to an on-campus arena in 1988. Bartow’s teams would lose only 17 games over eight seasons in that building, including four seasons with only one home loss.
No matter how much success his teams found on the basketball court, however, UAB never earned the kind of year-round exposure that went to the state’s college football programs. To that end, the basketball coach brought football to UAB, starting with a club team in 1989 before growing into a full Division I-A program in 1995.
Bartow retired as UAB’s basketball coach in 1996 with 647 career wins and 12 NCAA Tournament appearances, ranking him among the top 20 winningest NCAA coaches of all time. At UAB, he posted a 366-203 record with 14 postseason appearances in 18 years.
As athletic director, he put together a program that grew from a handful of student-athletes and employees to eventually include 17 varsity sports with an operating budget of more than $10 million. Bartow retired as athletic director in 2000. “There is never a good time for something like this,” Bartow said at a retirement ceremony. “My wife Ruth and I will carry with us and cherish always the memories of more than two decades at UAB. That includes the friends we have made, the wonderful players and coaches we have been associated with, and some of the best administrators in the world who invited us here in the beginning, stood with us over the years, and continue to make this program possible.”
After his retirement as coach, the building he had built on campus was renamed Bartow Arena in his honor. In 2001, a cast bronze sculpture of Bartow was unveiled on the arena’s concourse. But Bartow’s true legacy doesn’t lie in the record books, the buildings and statues in his honor, or the hall of fame plaques he received, but rather in the lives of his three children and grandchildren, in the former players who speak of him with reverence, and in the thousands of fans whose lives he touched during his long career as coach, administrator, and executive.