Gary Allen Cunningham, a Ph. D. in educational administration, made his debut as UCLA's head coach last Saturday, and while it may have been educational, it wasn't much fun. In fact, it was downright scary, which probably serves the Bruins right for not scheduling a sensible opening game—against, say, Hollywood Barber College or Cleveland Chiropractic—to help Cunningham ease into his job.
Cunningham, who had earned an unofficial doctorate in basketball by working as an assistant to John Wooden for 10 years and by playing for the Wizard of Westwood before that, is a quiet, upright fellow who deserved a more comfortable baptism than a last-second 75-73 win over Brigham Young.
BYU was supposed to be too inexperienced to go into Pauley Pavilion and calmly hit 20-foot jump shots. But that is just what the Cougars did on Saturday night against a UCLA squad that is equally young (Guard Raymond Town-send is the only senior) and eminently capable of committing such sins as traveling, charging and missing clutch free throws, all of which it did.
Nonetheless, it was not too shabby a start for Cunningham, especially considering that his predecessor, Gene Bartow, lost his UCLA coaching debut two years ago. And 29 years ago Wooden won his opener by only six points.
The bespectacled Cunningham could pass for a physics professor as he shuffles around campus with his shoulders slightly hunched, except that few profs are 6'7" tall. He was a jump-shooting forward for Wooden's teams in 1960-62 and coached what was probably the best freshman team of all time, the Lew Alcindor-led group of 1965-66. When Wooden retired in the spring of '75, to be succeeded by Bartow, Cunningham went to work for the UCLA Alumni Association but found he missed basketball. Now he is immersed in it again and apparently immune to the alumni-fan-media pressures that so annoyed Bartow that he quit and moved to Alabama-Birmingham, where the natives are less restless.
Bartow had won two Pac-8 titles in two years, which simply wasn't good enough for some UCLA partisans, who had been spoiled by the Bruins' 10 national titles between 1964 and 1975. But Cunningham, perhaps because he knows every nook and cranny of the UCLA psyche after 17 years at the school, seems to have a thicker hide.
"I wouldn't feel any pressure from the Wooden era," Cunningham said just before he landed the job. "I was part of it. The fact that he's still around UCLA is a plus. I'd use it in a positive way. He's a tremendous resource, and I wouldn't hesitate at all to talk to him."
Ironically, Bartow could turn out to be an even bigger benefactor for Cunningham, because he did not exactly leave a bare cupboard. The most notable of Bartow's stars is 6'9" David Greenwood, a junior theater arts major who wants to be a recording engineer (after a pro basketball career, of course). Greenwood and another noteworthy Bruin, Guard Roy Hamilton, have been buddies since the eighth grade and were a prize recruiting package when they graduated from Verbum Dei High School in L.A. UCLA beat out Las Vegas for their services.
With Greenwood, sharpshooting Kiki Vandeweghe and several other blue-chippers, UCLA is well stocked at forward, and Hamilton, Townsend and Brad Holland are an imposing trio of guards. But Las Vegas took a measure of revenge when seven-foot Brett Vroman transferred from UCLA to UNLV. A popular theory among the West Coast's numerous UCLA-haters is that the remaining pivotmen, 6'9" sophomores Gig Sims and Darrell Allums, are neither good enough nor tall enough to enable UCLA to win its 12th consecutive Pac-8 title.
Despite such talk, Cunningham does not contemplate an early return to the alumni office. He is so calm and stoic most of the time that it seems he could face a firing squad—or worse, a roaring Pauley Pavilion crowd suddenly hostile to him—without blinking.