With that sort of dedication, Barnett may soon be given the esteem Bartow and Rose already enjoy. The only active coaches to have taken two different teams into the final four—the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, another Sun Belt team, and Purdue for Rose; Memphis State and UCLA for Bartow—they have won a combined 69.3% of their games over the years. This season Rose guided South Florida, a 6-21 doormat in '79-80, to an 18-10 record and a possible NIT bid. Miraculous? Not really. It was only the second season in Rose's 14-year career at four schools that he has failed to win 20 games. "You can either sustain programs or create them," he says. "I think there's something special about the creative process. Tampa has never been a hotbed of basketball, there was no great tradition, no support. But the potential was there."
Bartow's project at 12-year-old UAB has been even more ambitious—building a team from scratch, which he got plenty of four years ago to move to Birmingham from UCLA. "We have an administration that really wants to be known as the University of Alabama and get rid of the hyphen," Bartow says. "They want to be recognized like a USC in football or a UCLA in basketball."
At Alabama-Birmingham, as distinct from UCLA, Bartow isn't coaching the team you love to hate. Locally, that title belongs to his neighbor to the south, South Alabama. A loose group, the South Alabama players love to jive and high-five, usually in their opponents' faces. They're always messing with the opposition's heads, talking from the opening tip and getting louder with each good play they make.
Two seasons ago, in Jacksonville, the Jaguars were pelted with socks, some of which were stuffed with ice or golf balls, as they were introduced before the game and again after the action had started. Things got to the point where Locke had to get on the P.A. system to restore order.
"We get that stuff because we win. When I was a freshman we were the doormats, but then we went undefeated in the conference the next year and that rap began," says South Alabama's Ed Rains, a smooth forward and this season's Sun Belt Player of the Year. "It's just propaganda, just like our talking to other players. There's nothing illegal or vulgar about it. If you can mentally disturb a guy, it's to your advantage, and if he can't handle it, he shouldn't be out there."
Despite having the best talent and biggest mouths in the conference, South Alabama has never won the postseason tournament. Last week the Jaguars, who finished the regular season at 22-4 and were rated as high as 14th in the SI Top 20, were knocked off 86-59 in the semifinals by Alabama-Birmingham. That put UAB in Sunday's final against Virginia Commonwealth, which had beaten South Florida 53-45 in the other semi. The matchup was a repeat of last year's final, won 105-88, by Virginia Commonwealth, and provided a stark contrast between the gentlemanly, bespectacled Bartow and Barnett, a first-class ranter and raver.
Although the two men grew up in the same county in Missouri, they aren't the best of friends. After blowing an early lead and losing 67-65 to the Blazers in Birmingham on Jan. 10, Barnett put his fist through a locker room blackboard. Bartow sent him a $265 bill for the damages.
Barnett's tone for the tournament was set two minutes into the Rams' first practice session after they arrived in Jacksonville, when he stopped the action to remind his squad why they had made the trip to Jacksonville. "If you're here to screw around, your ass is grass," roared Barnett. "We're not here to play, we're here to WIN!"
And when all the shouting was over they had, although with the game on the line Barnett was surprisingly the quietest person in the arena. The clincher came on a free throw by the Rams' outstanding point guard, Edmund Sherod, following a questionable two-shot foul call with four seconds to play, and as Sherod went to the line, Barnett seemed to bow his head in prayer. It drooped lower when Sherod missed his first shot. But after the game-winner had rattled home, Barnett was talking loud and tough again. "I want to make it clear. We are the best team in this conference," he said. "We're 23-4 with 15 wins in a row. Someone is going to damn sure realize that VCU exists."