In 1995, I took my 9-year old son Jeremy to the NCAA Final Four in Seattle. He still considers that vacation to be one of his favorite childhood memories.
When the Bruins won the championship that year, it was their first title since John Wooden’s last team, in 1975. As the Bruins and their fans celebrated in Seattle, I said to Jeremy, “Enjoy this. It’s been twenty years. It could be twenty or more years before the Bruins win another one.”
Jeremy, who is now 31, and I were reminiscing about 1995 after UCLA was eliminated by Kentucky last Friday night. He asked me, “Why haven’t the Bruins won more championships?” And, in a more pointed question, he asked, “Who is to blame?”
He wanted an answer, and I gave him one: J.D. Morgan.
Morgan, for whom the campus athletic department’s building is named, attended UCLA and later coached the Bruins to eight NCAA championships in tennis. He also served as the school’s athletic director from 1963 to 1979. During those sixteen years, UCLA won thirty national titles, including ten in basketball under John Wooden.
When Coach Wooden retired in 1975, it was J.D. Morgan’s task to find a replacement. Most UCLA fans at the time knew who the replacement should be: former Bruins player and chief assistant coach under Wooden, Denny Crum. Crum had left UCLA after the 1971 season, his third straight year of helping the Bruins win a national championship. He was hired by Louisville to become their head coach, and he took the Cardinals to the Final Four in both 1972 and 1975. In both of those years, it was UCLA who defeated Louisville in the national semifinals.
When Wooden retired, Crum was more than ready. He wanted the job. But J.D. Morgan had a blind spot. He didn’t like Denny Crum.
Morgan wanted the new coach to be a guy who wore plain grey suits. The new coach would have to fit a certain conservative image. Crum didn’t always wear grey suits; he even liked to wear turtlenecks. He had a way of speaking his mind – a quality that John Wooden appreciated in an assistant coach. But Morgan wanted someone who would be more docile.
And so, Morgan selected Clean Gene Bartow, the coach of Memphis State. Bartow had led Memphis to the 1973 national title game against UCLA, and Morgan had been impressed with Bartow’s quiet demeanor.
Bartow lasted exactly two seasons at UCLA. It was tough to follow a legend, and Bartow couldn’t handle the pressure. He was followed, in quick succession, by Gary Cunningham, Larry Brown, Larry Farmer and Walt Hazzard. Five coaches in thirteen years, and none of them lasted more than four seasons.
During those same years, Denny Crum went to four more Final Fours at Louisville, winning two national championships, in 1980 (defeating UCLA in the final) and 1986.
In a 2006 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Crum talked about UCLA and what could have been. “I remember when Gene Bartow took the UCLA job out there, he had a really hard time with the media,” Crum said. “I think I could have handled it. And Coach Wooden thinks I could have handled it. And he’s pretty smart. I honestly think I could have won more championships had I gone back to UCLA.”
Because of J.D. Morgan’s stubbornness, we never got to find out if the Bruin dynasty might have continued well past John Wooden’s retirement.
And that’s my answer for Jeremy – and for all Bruin fans.
Jim Bendat is the author of Democracy’s Big Day (available on Amazon) and a frequent guest on the What’s Bruin Show. He is a lifelong sports fan with an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of LA Sports.