College basketball legend has ties to UK, East Tennessee

East Tennessee State head coach Murry Bartow talks with the media the day before their game against UK in the first round of the NCAA tournament at New Orleans Arena on Wednesday, March 17, 2010. Photo by Britney McIntosh

NEW ORLEANS – Only a handful of people can count legendary UK basketball coaches Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall and Tubby Smith as friends. Almost all of them will be cheering for the Cats when UK takes on East Tennessee State on Thursday night.

But Gene Bartow won’t be.

Bartow knew all of those coaches and has been close friends with UK head coach John Calipari since meeting him in the mid-1980’s, but he’ll be pulling for East Tennessee State. Bartow’s son, Murry Bartow, is the men’s basketball coach for the Buccaneers.

“I talked to John yesterday and I said ‘Well, you know who I’ll be for Thursday night,’ ” Gene Bartow said. “I’ve been for Calipari every game this year though, up to Thursday. John’s been a very good friend going back to his days at UMass and he’s a very good coach and a very good person.”

Bartow has been impressed with what Calipari has done at UK so far, and said he’ll likely have the chance to win at least one national championship in the next five years at UK – that is, if he doesn’t win it this year.

He should know something about coaching, too. Bartow coached college basketball for 36 years, the last 18 years of which were at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He led Memphis to the 1973 NCAA Championship game and succeeded coaching legend John Wooden at UCLA. In fact, his .852 wining percentage in his two years at UCLA was higher than Wooden’s. He was inducted into the college basketball Hall of Fame in 2009 in the same class as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Now, he’s president of Hoops LP with the Memphis Grizzlies.

After knowing Calipari for so long, he said he thinks he’s the perfect choice for a high-profile job like coaching UK basketball.

“I think he’s a great fit at Kentucky,” Bartow said. “I think he’s handled all aspects of that job extremely well.”

But for anyone thinking he might be in New Orleans to check out UK’s lottery talent (freshmen John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, and junior Patrick Patterson), think again. He’s just here to watch his son coach in the NCAA Tournament.

He also knows something about big upsets over UK. In 1981, he led the Blazers to a win over UK in the NCAA Tournament, what he called at the time the biggest win in UAB history Still, he acknowledged that opening round games for No. 16 seeds like East Tennessee State can get ugly at times.

“You never know in college basketball, but East Tennessee would have to be playing their perfect game and Kentucky would have to be having kind of an off night for it to be a close game,” Bartow said. “But you never know.”

Bartow said he has been especially impressed with Kansas State this season, and said they could win the national championship. But if the Bucanneers fall to the Cats on Thursday, he knows he’ll be able to cheer for another one of the favorites in the tournament.

“If (UK) wins tomorrow night, I’m hoping they’ll win the national championship and I think they could,” Bartow said. “But there’s 10 or 12 other teams that have got very, very good players too so you never know.”