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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A UAB Icon Faces Battle With Cancer

No one on the planet has done more to make the letters "UAB" known than Gene Bartow.

Many people at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) did more important work than Bartow, the university's retired athletics director and head men's basketball coach. After all, the university is, and has been, home to renowned heart surgeons, cancer specialists, biomedical researchers, and more.

But because of the public nature of sports--and the remarkable success Bartow had in building a program at UAB--he gave the university a positive identity in places where it had no identity at all before.

We learned from news reports yesterday and today that Bartow, 78, now is facing a battle with stomach cancer. Long-time associates say the prognosis is not good. But they know about the competitive fire that made Bartow a hall-of-fame coach and helped him build a comprehensive athletics program at a university that didn't even own a basketball upon his arrival.

They fully expect the coach to give cancer one heck of a battle, perhaps even taking it deep into overtime.

The Bartow story is one that touches us deeply here at Legal Schnauzer. If we are lucky, many of us have good parents to give us solid foundations for moving forward in life. And I certainly had that.

But if Hillary Clinton is right about the importance of a "village" in raising a child--and I believe she is--most of us need special people from outside the family structure to make us whole. Many people can point to teachers, ministers, coaches, mentors, bosses, coworkers, or friends who made profound (and maybe unexpected) differences in their lives.

Gene Bartow is one of those difference-makers for me.

I remember the day in 1977, during my junior year at the University of Missouri, when I picked up the newspaper and read that Bartow was leaving famed UCLA to start a new athletics program in Alabama. "Hey," I told my roommate, also a big sports fan, "did you know Gene Bartow is leaving UCLA for this school I've never heard of in Alabama?" Neither one of us could believe it.

A little more than a year later, diploma in hand, I would be on my way to Birmingham, where the city's morning newspaper (the now extinct Post-Herald) had won a major bidding war for my services. If my memory is correct, the Post-Herald paid me the princely sum of $160 a week, causing me to turn down offers from newspapers in such garden spots as Bartlesville, Oklahoma; Midland, Texas (yikes, George W. Bush Country!); Fort Smith, Arkansas; and Anderson, South Carolina.

My first assignment at the Post-Herald was covering high-school sports, and that's what I was doing when UAB played its first-ever game on a Friday night in November 1978, against the University of Nebraska. The Blazers played their second game the next night, against San Francisco State, and I bought a ticket and watched UAB get its first victory.

We didn't have a full-time UAB beat man that first year, mainly because I was the only guy on the staff who was really interested in them--and my assignment was high schools. The more veteran writers were mostly interested in college football and NASCAR.

By the time UAB's second season rolled around, we had a new executive sports editor named Tom Lindley. Like me, Tom was a Midwesterner (from Indiana) and a big hoops fan. I told him that the Blazers were amazingly good for such a young program, and I guess since I seemed genuinely excited about UAB, he put me on the beat.

I would go on to cover UAB for 11 years, getting to watch the upstart program beat such national powerhouses as Kentucky, Indiana, Virginia, Villanova, Michigan State, Missouri, Michigan, and more. I also got to travel all over the Southeast, plus trips to Los Angeles (twice), San Diego, Alaska, and Utah.

But the best thing about covering UAB was getting to know Bartow--and the many good people he hired to help get Blazer athletics rolling.

Dealing with Bartow was always a treat, and Kevin Scarbinsky of The Birmingham News does a nice job in today's paper of capturing the coach's personal side.

I learned early on about Bartow's quirks. He was a fussy eater and never drank anything stronger than orange juice, which had to be "fresh squeezed." I don't think I ever saw him even drink a Coke.

He could be paranoid--particularly about the University of Alabama program 60 miles down the road--and loved to complain about the coverage (or lack thereof) UAB received in its home city. "In Memphis they cover Memphis, in Louisville they cover Louisville, in Birmingham they cover Auburn," he would say. "I don't get it." I can't tell you how many times I've heard some version of that comment.

Bartow could work a crowd, but he was at his best in one-on-one situations. Even though Bartow was known from coast to coast, he was about as unpretentious as a famous person can be. He always returned phone calls. He often answered his own phone. And when I interviewed him, he tended to ask me as many questions as I asked him.

He always ended our sessions with, "Sure do appreciate everything you're doing for the program." And the funny thing was, I think he really did appreciate it.

As he came to trust me, our interviews got more and more entertaining. There was the on the record stuff that would show up in the next day's newspaper. But we developed several levels of juicy stuff that wasn't for print. Bartow had "off the record," "way off the record," and "we're talking brother to brother now." The "brother to brother" stuff was always the best.
Bartow clearly cared about his players, and he particularly grew fond of them after they were gone, when their shortcomings had faded from memory.

UAB had one player named Marvin Ray Johnson, who had some pretty obvious deficiencies on defense. "Marvin Ray couldn't guard that tree," Bartow would say, pointing to a plant that appeared to be dying in the corner of his office. But after Johnson had graduated, and had a pretty good career, Bartow missed him terribly. "We sure could use Marvin Ray," the coach would say. "These guys we've got now can't do the things he could do."

I came to Birmingham thinking I would stay four or five years and probably move on, perhaps somewhere closer to home. But I enjoyed covering UAB so much that I couldn't bring myself to leave. And besides, my Post-Herald salary got up over $200 a week, so how could I give up that? I actually turned down one or two job possibilities, ones I hadn't sought, because I wanted to keep covering the Blazers.

Bartow was not the only good thing about covering UAB. He had a knack for surrounding himself with good folks, who were fired up about putting an unknown school on the nation's sports map. They were a joy to be around. There was Lee Hunt, Pete Derzis, Joe Davidson, Oscar Catlin, Robert Corn, Judy Willis, Drew Ferguson, Barbara Walker, Bobby Staub, Roz Ervin, Gary Sanders, Grant Shingleton, Dennis Rancont, Harry Walker, Joe Evans, John Prince, Reid Adair, Allen Brown, Murry Bartow, and many more. Even my competitor, Birmingham News beat man Wayne Martin, was (and is) a great guy.

And the good folks included the guys in uniforms, the ones who actually played the games. I enjoyed my interactions with almost all of UAB's players, especially Oliver Robinson, Steve Mitchell, Chris Giles, Donnie Speer, Archie Johnson, Scott Simcik, Stan Scales, James Ponder, Andy Kennedy, Jack Kramer, Jerome Mincy, Tim Richards, Bill McCammon, Glenn Marcus, Jonath Nicholas, Lex Drum, Greg Leet, Raymond "The" Gause, Tracy Foster, Alan Ogg, Larry Rembert, Reginald "Sir Slam" Turner, Tony Mabry, Bruce Baker, George Jones, Larry Spicer, Daryl Braden . . . and the list goes on. Marvin Ray Johnson was a great guy, by the way.

I enjoyed covering UAB so much that I wound up putting down roots in Birmingham and staying for 30 years--and counting. In fact, I tell Mrs. Schnauzer from time to time, "If it weren't for Gene Bartow, you and I would have never met." She usually responds by getting this quizzical look on her face as if to say, "I'm not sure if I should be thankful for that or not."

Actually, we are among hundreds and hundreds of people--in Birmingham and beyond--who are grateful for the positive impact Gene Bartow has had on our lives.

My friend Paul Finebaum had me on his show yesterday to talk about Coach Bartow, and I hope I was able to provide some perspective on what Coach has meant to me and so many others. You can hear the interview by going to the Finebaum Network Web page, scrolling to the archives for 4/15 and clicking on Hour 1.

I've watched Gene Bartow overcome great odds to win a number of tough battles over the years. The battle he faces now is the one I want him to win the most.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Roger,

I enjoyed your comments about Coach Bartow. As I was reading, I kept thinking about the "Marvin Ray couldn't guard that plant" comment---and then had to smile when I read a few paragraphs later and saw that you included that story. Too funny.

Anyway, you captured Coach's personality well, and he truly does mean so very much to so many of us. He is surely in my prayers.

KL