This article originally appeared in the January/February 2008 issue of Memphis Sport.
The easiest connection between the Tigers and Grizzlies starts right at the top with Gene Bartow.
Former Tigers coach turned Grizzlies advisor, Bartow is in his first season as president of Hoops, LP, the company that runs the Grizzlies and FedExForum.
“One day last summer Michael Heisley (Grizzlies owner) called and said I’d like to give you the title of president of the organization,” Bartow remembers.
It is the latest chapter in the life of a legend who will always be adored locally for what happened in 1973. He coached the Tigers as far as they have ever been in the NCAA tournament, bringing a divided city together.
“I’ll never get tired talking about that,” he says. “I had a lot of good teams in my years, but that ‘73 team that played for the national championship was my favorite team. Larry Finch was my favorite player… still is.”
The Tigers lost to UCLA, but won over the city.
“My four years as the Tigers head coach was a great experience,” Bartow remembers.
“Several reasons” including the Tigers departure from the Missouri Valley Conference led to Bartow leaving then Memphis State University to coach at Illinois. He later spent two years at UCLA before leaving to build UAB’s athletic program from scratch as the head basketball coach and athletic director.
“At a game, if I get tired or mad at a referee, I just go and get a hot dog. I couldn’t do that when I was on the bench.”
“Billy Murphy offered me a chance to come back [to Memphis], after I had moved to UAB,” Bartow says. He called and invited me to come back as the head coach. I verbally agreed to do it on the phone.”
But, Bartow would have to retract because his daughter wanted to finish school in Birmingham and the president of UAB would not let him out of his 10 year contract.
“I have been one of the lucky ones in athletics,” he says. “I enjoyed my 34 years as a college coach, even the two years at UCLA which were kind of bizarre. I enjoyed walking into that office everyday. I enjoyed everything… except the games. The games are stressful.”
Following his retirement from UAB, Bartow found his way back to the Bluff City as a special advisor to the newly relocated Memphis Grizzlies. After tallying 647 wins as a coach, the Grizzlies’ new president is enjoying his role in the front office.
“At a game, if I get tired or mad at a referee, I just go and get a hot dog,” Bartow jokes. “I couldn’t do that when I was on the bench.”
He may work for the Grizzlies now, but he keeps an eye on the Tigers and Coach John Calipari.
“I see John from time to time,” Bartow says. “I consider him a good friend. He has been really kind to Larry Finch. He is a generous person, a good coach, very deserving. I hope he can win a national championship this year.”
Every year when the Tigers play in Birmingham, they have to compete in the hostile environment of Bartow Arena. Though, FedExForum is the arena Bartow is most concerned about these days.
“I think Mike Conley is going to be a really good player, ” he says. “Rudy Gay may be our next superstar. We have got good guys here. We have got a lot of good things going.”
Kevin Cerrito is the managing editor of MemphiSport and host of MemphiSport Live (MSL) every Saturday from 11:00 am – 1:00 pm on Sports 56 WHBQ. MSL was voted 3rd Best Sports Radio Show in the 2010 & 2011 Memphis Flyer Best of Memphis poll. You can follow him via Twitter @cerrito.
-Photo by Sean Davis.