When North Carolina State won the NCAA basketball championship in 1983, Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano had a list in his wallet of every coach who had ever won the title. Last week the legacy of the man whose name appeared on Valvano's list more often than any other—former UCLA coach John Wooden—again proved to be a daunting one. On Wednesday afternoon UCLA fired Walt Hazzard, the Bruins' fifth coach since Wooden retired in 1975 and the first to be shown the door involuntarily. By Friday morning, Valvano was in Los Angeles, a candidate for the big chair that seems to have a whoopee cushion on it.
V reportedly wanted UCLA. UCLA seemed to want V. It was a match made in alphabet heaven. And it appeared fitting, given a friendship between Wooden and Valvano that dates back to Valvano's days as a counselor in a camp in the Pocono mountains where Wooden was a guest speaker. "Jimmy's wanted to be in L.A. all his life," said one friend just before Valvano and his wife, Pam, arrived in Los Angeles to meet with UCLA administrators and do some house-hunting. "He wants to be on the Walk of Fame and get his footprints in front of Mann's Chinese Theatre."
Valvano's bid to become a sort of Hollywooden ended on Saturday with UCLA's announcement that he had withdrawn his name from consideration for the vacancy. Yet by making a big play for the histrionic Valvano, the UCLA administration demonstrated that it is desperate to have a powerful basketball team again. UCLA may ultimately even go so far as to welcome back Kansas coach Larry Brown, who quit the Bruins in 1981 after two seasons and today calls that decision "the biggest mistake of my life."
UCLA feels it has to do something. As the Bruins staggered through this past season, going 16-14 and failing to qualify for postseason play, Pauley Pavilion took on the pall of a mausoleum. The team's average home attendance of 7.855 was the lowest since it moved into the arena in 1965, and UCLA was reported to be worried that many season-ticket holders might not renew if Hazzard stayed on. Meanwhile, television executives can't promise UCLA more than two network appearances next season. As one disgruntled fan wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Walt Hazzard has brought new meaning to UCLA: Under Current Leadership, Atrophy."
Since Wooden's retirement, Gene Bartow, Gary Cunningham, Brown, Larry Farmer and Hazzard have filed through Westwood, and each has fidgeted on Wooden's throne. Their brief records were all comparable to the Wizard's early finishes (Wooden was 65-24 over his first three seasons). But against the standard of Wooden's later years, 10 NCAA titles in 12 seasons, none measured up. It is as if Wooden's trademark rolled-up game program were a psychic cudgel wielded against his successors.
Bartow (1975-77) was a splendid coach, but he was so thin-skinned that when a caller on a radio talk show questioned his strategy, he whipped off his headphones and stalked out of the studio. After two seasons and a 52-9 record, L.A. proved too much for the man, and he left on the midnight train to Alabama. He has since led the University of Alabama at Birmingham to a 10-year record of 210-109.
Cunningham, a former Wooden assistant who was serving as executive director of the university's alumni association during Bartow's tenure, told the administration that he missed coaching, got the job and went 50-8 in his two seasons. But he loathed recruiting and, in 1979, left for a more peaceful position as athletic director at Western Oregon State College.
Brown complained about his housing, his $40,000 salary and the athletic department's facilities even as he took the 1979-80 Bruins to the Final Four, where they lost to Louisville in the championship game. More important, he ran afoul of Sam Gilbert, the late Bruin booster whom UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian once wickedly called the most important stone in Wooden's famous "Pyramid of Success."
Gilbert began exerting more influence over the program after the death in 1980 of J.D. Morgan, the longtime UCLA athletic director who had hired Brown and who might have been his patron and ally had he lived longer. Gilbert, a gruff millionaire contractor who died last November (he was indicted in Miami four days later, by a federal grand jury unaware of his death, on charges of laundering drug money), was charged by the NCAA in 1981 with making improper payments to a Bruin player. The school was put on probation for that and other violations and was ordered to disassociate Gilbert from its recruiting, but by this time Brown had bolted for the NBA's New Jersey Nets.
In an interview last week with the Los Angeles Herald Examiners Bob Keisser, Brown said of Gilbert, "I feared this guy would tear down the program if I fought him, so I tried to tolerate him.... I was honestly afraid what he would do, and I didn't want to exclude any booster. But it got very ugly and so uncomfortable.... He didn't want anyone questioning what he did."