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The question turns out to be not who is this year's new UCLA basketball coach, but what difference does it make? Does it really matter if the coach is Gene Bartow or Jean Harlow? Gary Cunningham or Billy Cunningham or Richie Cunningham? Larry Brown or Jerry Brown or Les Brown and His Band of Renown or Farmer Brown or Fanny Farmer or Soybean Farmer? Or even Larry Farmer?
It matters. UCLA basketball personified solidarity before anyone knew what that meant. Lest the program abandon its heritage of excellence and continue to be a halfway house for transients searching out an identity or mercenaries hustling a glamour gig, UCLA desperately needed somebody to sit still, stand up to the Wooden legacy, handle the alumni and the media pressures, accept the chintzy salary, enjoy himself and, above all, commit himself to the job. "I'm just happy to be here," says Larry Farmer, this year's new UCLA basketball coach.
I'm just happy to be here. Farmer and his two assistants, Kevin O'Connor and Craig Impelman, repeat this phrase to each other every hour or so, injecting it into the conversation for fun and, perhaps, enlightenment. It is their self-deprecation code. But it is also a reminder of how fortunate they are to be where they are. This is their perception, understand. It may be that of the outside world as well—the outside world being those college basketball people who do not labor under the duress of perfect sunshine, a fairy-tale campus, the implausibly wonderful starlet song girls and the NCAA championship banners. Given the circumstances, it is a compelling attitude they have come to share: Impelman, 29, a gym rat who twice had to leave UCLA (for St. Mary's in Texas and for Pepperdine) because there was no room at the inn; O'Connor, 33, an East Coast guy (Staten Island, N.Y., for goodness sakes) who prepped for his position in the roundball hotbeds of VMI, Virginia Tech and Colorado; and Farmer, the head man, the 30-year-old head man, the 30-year-old, black head man.
After all, in high school back in Denver the Farms, as he is known, had to write a letter to UCLA even to get noticed. As a pro he was cut at the end of the preseason by the Cleveland Cavaliers and later wound up riding the buses and trains out of Koblenz in the West German league. Ah, but at UCLA? Farmer played on the varsity from 1970 to '73 and his teams won 89 games and lost one. Think of that. 89-1. And after that Farmer married Joyce Cox, the second song girl from the left. That is a winner. In fact, Farmer is the winningest three-year player in the history of college basketball. And except for his brief sojourn abroad he has been at UCLA helping the staff and contributing to the winning ever since. I'm just happy to be here. Larry Farmer isn't going anywhere else.
UCLA basketball began in 1919. In the first 56 years the school had four head coaches. In the last six UCLA has had four more. After John Wooden retired in 1975—the Wizard of Westwood won 620 games and 10 national championships in his 27 seasons—UCLA, in the person of Athletic Director J.D. Morgan, attempted to fill the void by applying what, in retrospect, seem like two very distinct sets of qualifications. Both Gene Bartow (1975-77) and Gary Cunningham (1977-79) were virtual clones of the old ruler—"another him," Wilt Chamberlain called each of them. Bartow is a scholarly, small-town Midwesterner who speaks gently, wears glasses and even styles his hair as Wooden does, with the part on the left side. Cunningham is a former Wooden player and assistant coach, a disciplined organization man who never smokes or swears or says much of anything but who quietly folded his game program in the heat of battle just as Wooden had rolled his.
Conversely, Larry Brown (1979-81) came to UCLA already a burgeoning star—a modish, flashy hipster out of New York by way of the big-time college and pro systems at North Carolina and Denver. Brown called the UCLA team "my kids," as if he were Jerry Lewis or somebody. He excited the campus. He whiplashed UCLA back into the 20th century and into the headlines as well. While Brown was able to weather the unfulfilled expectations and media onslaughts that overwhelmed Bartow and eventually drove him from Los Angeles, and while he could withstand the massive tugs of family, friends and placidity from the outside that finally caused Cunningham to depart, his memories of the pro coach's life-style were too fresh and lovely. And quite frankly, there was not enough gold in them thar hills of Westwood to keep Brown around.
All three coaches stayed two years and then split. Though Bartow and Cunningham won more games than Wooden did in his first two-year stretch (46), and though Brown took UCLA to the NCAA championship game in his first season, whereas Wooden didn't get there until his 16th, none of them won an NCAA title. Drive for show, putt for dough. Fair or not, that is what a UCLA coach is expected to do, and that is what these three men will be remembered as not doing. To be sure, desertion never was an issue. Neither Bartow nor Cunningham nor Brown admits to seeking his future refuge—the respective new jobs came looking for them. But it was no secret that they wanted out and that UCLA was willing to oblige. At the end, Bartow was perceived as thin-skinned, insecure, a weak recruiter; Cunningham as a cold fish, not tough enough, his heart absent from his work; Brown as indecisive, a whiner and all too slick in his Polos and saddle shoes for the uppity Bruin alumni. When Morgan died of heart disease last December, he left behind 36 NCAA championships in all sports and a reputation as the most effective athletic director of his generation. Yet on the very day he passed through the pearly gates, with his beloved basketball team en route to Japan (Japan?), old J.D. must have realized that in UCLA's search for another wizard, the school had somehow wandered off the yellow brick road.
Despite his color and his age and his dearth of head-coaching experience, the UCLA job should be easier for Larry Farmer than it was for the others. Farmer is succinct. "I am Family" he says, capitalizing the last word with his tone. "I have been the constant at UCLA. With all the stuff that's gone on the last decade, there's one face that people have seen around here and it's mine. I've been accepted right away. As a black, the danger of being labeled only a recruiter was always in the back of my mind. But when I got into coaching I made sure I was not stereotyped that way. I've never been the head recruiter here. My duties as an assistant were more on the academic and administrative sides. I've had terrific support from the alumni. The older players, the NBA people, have come out in force to help. Kareem, Jamaal Wilkes, Walton, Marques, all of them. I have no fears about comparisons with Coach Wooden. I welcome them. I'd be flattered. The tradition doesn't scare me because I always have been a part of it."
Farmer believes he was technically ready for the head job two years ago. "I've been gearing myself mentally ever since," he says. "Now I'm tougher, more aggressive. I'm pumped up. I think I gained something valuable from each of my predecessors. Coach Bartow—to come in here and put a whole new system in and get his players to perform the way they did. The man was a motivator! Coach Cunningham showed me the benefits of organization and attention to detail. Even in the spring he had every day mapped out, down to his dental appointment. We knew where he was and where we were supposed to be every single minute. Coach Brown taught me situation game-coaching, spur-of-the-moment bench stuff. And teaching, how to teach. He was such a teacher.
"One thing should be understood," Farmer continues. "I was always loyal to these guys, but I was also always the house man. Last season when the alumni were up in arms about us changing the uniforms to a lighter shade, Brownie got ripped because they thought he was bringing in Carolina blue. Actually the Japanese made those uniforms and presented them to us over there. The thing was, I got as much angry mail as Coach Brown. I was supposed to be the bulwark, the defender of the place. The UCLA people were saying, 'Do something to stop this.' I've always been around. I'm the traditionalist. To them, I am UCLA."