The year was 1970, and Tiger basketball was at an all-time low. The last two years of the Moe Iba Era had seen the Tigers win only 12 games and lose 39… something drastic had to be done. Fortunately for Memphis State, Gene Bartow came along. Bartow had been successful as head coach at Central Missouri State and Valparaiso University.
The Moe Iba Era was characterized by a slow, deliberate style of play that was not only boring to watch, but it didn’t get us many wins. So the Tigers needed a coach who would play an up-tempo game and win more than they lost. The story goes that when asked about his coaching style, Bartow answered, “If there was a 10-second clock, we would beat it every time down the floor.” Sure enough, Bartow hit the ground running and things were never the same.
He was out to sell Tiger basketball, and he worked night and day. He spoke to the Rotary Club, the Kiwanis Club, and any and every group in between. It was a new day in Tiger Land, and you didn’t want to miss it. He once remarked, “This would be the greatest job in the world if we just didn’t have to play those games.”
The Tigers won their first two games in routine fashion, and it set the stage for the big game with Union. Wait a minute—a big game with Union? That’s right, Union. They had beaten us the last two times, and Tiger fans were spoiling for revenge. We beat them by 15 and never looked back. The Tigers were 18-8 in Coach Bartow’s first year. Finch averaged 18.4 points a game that year, but the best was yet to come.
It was a marriage made in basketball heaven—Gene Bartow and the Memphis State Tigers.
My nickname for the coach was the Ole Fox, because like a fox, he knew just what to do and when to do it. His most memorable moment for me happened at the Vanderbilt gym. It was the ‘72-73 season. We started off 2-3 and by the time we hit Vandy, we were on a roll. The Commodores were nationally ranked, and we needed a big time win. Their home court advantage was huge. In my opinion, the officials were overly generous when it came to calling fouls on the visiting team. That particular night, we were getting hosed by the officials worse than usual (to the point that I even called one official a Communist). Down on the floor, Bartow was madder than me. He jumped off the bench and ran to midcourt. He made a sweeping motion with his right arm as though to say, “Come on boys, we’re going home!” The team gathered around the coach for a quick conference until the referee broke them up. The game went on, but a strange thing happened—the officiating changed dramatically, and we won the game. That was what I considered to be the greatest single moment in Tiger history.
On the post-game show, I asked the coach if he was going to take the team off the floor and go home. He said anyone who would do a thing like that should be fired—the Ole Fox! Coach Bartow, you were a great coach.
Written by Jack Eaton and originally published in the September/October 2008 issue of Memphis Sport magazine.
“Big” Jack can be heard every Friday at 8am on KWAM 990 alongside former County Commissioner John Willingham. He was recently inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.
-Photo courtesy of the University of Memphis