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The March Of The Wooden Soldiers
Jack McCallum
April 16, 1984
Walt Hazzard becomes the fifth coach in a decade to try to reestablish John Wooden's championship tradition at UCLA
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April 16, 1984

The March Of The Wooden Soldiers

Walt Hazzard becomes the fifth coach in a decade to try to reestablish John Wooden's championship tradition at UCLA

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The UCLA basketball team finished the 1983-84 season with its worst record in 24 years and its self-esteem at perhaps an alltime low. In the space of four bizarre days at the end of March, Larry Farmer, the Bruins' tormented coach, was rewarded with a two-year contract extension and rearmed with two new assistants, and then abruptly quit. Now, as Farmer's replacement, former UCLA All-America guard Walt Hazzard embarks on the Bruins' fifth "new era" since John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, retired in 1975, he must rebuild not only a team, but also a reputation that once seemed unassailable.

Perhaps Hazzard, who will turn 42 this Sunday, will be the first Wooden successor to stay long enough to get his desk arranged, put the pictures of the wife and kids on the wall and reestablish the kind of coaching continuity that top-level basketball programs like UCLA's are supposed to have. While nothing in Hazzard's unimposing coaching résumé suggests that he deserves to be the presiding prince of Pauley Pavilion—he has been a head coach for only four years at the junior-college and Division II levels and was twice cited for administrative improprieties—something in his personality suggests that he might succeed. He did win 97 of 120 games at Southern California's Chapman and Compton Community colleges, although 21 of the wins at Compton had to be forfeited after Hazzard was found to have used an ineligible player. "It's a tough, nasty business," Hazzard said last week, "and I love it."

It was too tough and nasty for the 33-year-old Farmer, who didn't love it. At the moment, Farmer is spending his time playing pickup basketball games around L.A. and considering whether to go on coaching or try for a career in broadcasting. If he decides on the former, he'll do it as far from the pressures of Westwood as he can get.

Meanwhile, Hazzard is wading into hazardous waters. The Bruins' two best players last season, Kenny Fields and Ralph Jackson, have used up their eligibility. Of California's seven best graduating high school stars, only Jerald Jones, a 6'6" guard from Vallejo High, has announced he's going to UCLA. Three McDonald's All-Americas, 6'8" John Williams of Crenshaw High, 6'7" Chris Sandle of Long Beach Poly and 6'6" Craig McMillan of Cloverdale High, have said they are going elsewhere, and another blue-chipper, 6'8" Leonard Taylor of St. Bernard's, was sitting on the fence at week's end, with signing day set for this Wednesday. The uncertainty of the Bruins' coaching situation and the toughened academic standards set by UCLA since the Billy Don Jackson embarrassment were factors in the Bruins' poor recruiting. (Jackson, a UCLA football player from 1977 to '79 who pleaded no contest to a manslaughter charge in 1982, was found to be functionally illiterate, despite having attended the school for 2½ years.) "It used to be a kid asked, 'Am I good enough for UCLA?'" Willie West, the basketball coach at Crenshaw High, said last week. "But now it's, 'I'm too good to go there.' "

If the Bruins' 17-11 1983-84 season was a bad dream, then the postseason was a nightmare. After rumors that Farmer was a goner had dominated the L.A. area sports pages for weeks, UCLA called a press conference to announce that he'd been given the two-year extension. Two days thereafter, the two new assistants, Hazzard and one of his old Bruin teammates, Jack Hirsch, were agreed upon. Two days after that, Farmer resigned. At least he'd established a longevity record of three seasons, among the four Wooden successors. The others (Gene Bartow, 1975-77, Gary Cunningham, 1977-79, and Larry Brown, 1979-81) all called it quits after two seasons. Farmer's record was 61-23; Wooden's was 65-24 after his first three years. But around Westwood these days, that's not good enough.

One hour after Farmer resigned, at 12:30 p.m. on March 27, UCLA athletic director Pete Dalis called in Hazzard, and six hours later Hazzard signed on as the Bruins' ninth basketball coach and fifth in the last 10 years. No interviews, no search, no calls to Louisville's Denny Crum or Arkansas' Eddie Sutton or any of the other big names who might have wanted to take a crack at reviving the Wooden tradition.

Why not? Money. Farmer's salary was estimated to be around $65,000, a reasonable sum, but less than many big-time schools pay their coaches. And beyond that, the UCLA administration doesn't allow its basketball coach to run a summer camp on campus because of "facility overload," and a coach's radio or television show simply doesn't wash in glitzy L.A. Farmer estimates that it would be difficult for the UCLA coach to gross more than $100,000—what many a top coach makes on his summer camp alone.

"I know that I couldn't afford to take the UCLA job," says Sutton. "It's not just the salary. I make about $60,000 in salary, but where a coach makes it is in radio, TV, camps and speaking engagements. I still think the UCLA job is one of the top 10 in the country, but the package they can offer just isn't as attractive as many others."

It was attractive enough for Hazzard, though, who three years ago was getting $1,500 a year to coach part-time at Compton. Like Cunningham and Farmer, Hazzard came out of the UCLA system. In fact, he and Hirsch co-captained Wooden's first NCAA championship team in 1963-64. But the road back to Westwood was a long one for Hazzard. He sometimes felt that the Moslem name Mahdi Abdul-Rahman, which he'd adopted in 1972, during his eighth season of a 10-year NBA career, scared away potential employers, so he uses his original name professionally. "A lot of doors closed in my face along the way," he says.

Now that the door at UCLA has slammed shut on Farmer, his former players aren't bashful about criticizing him as a coach. Forward Nigel Miguel: "One of the main things was communication, and we didn't communicate. Coach Farmer would say his door was always open, but we didn't feel we could go to him with problems." Center Stuart Gray: "If you're the coach, you have to look like you're in control. With Coach Farmer we didn't think he was in control." Fields: "If you put the ball through your legs or something, you'd get comments like 'Save it for the NBA.' " Gray: "I get pushed around and bumped and I'm told not to get angry or retaliate. Part of my game is playing mad. But that's not the image of UCLA basketball."

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