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."
All things considered, it would be folly for the confident Farmer to allow himself any other posture. A guy who was 89-1 has every reason to suspect he is something special. "Larry knows who he is," says Pete Newell, the longtime guru of California basketball.
For one thing, Farmer is a boy scout. Direct, warm, articulate. Smart, friendly, honest. Thrifty, brave and true. He was "Thunderbolt King" at Denver's Manual High School. With A's and B's in his classes. For another, he is an ornery customer on the basketball court. In the early '70s he was one of the enforcers for UCLA's Walton gang, a cop who used his elbow to open up the face of a Notre Dame player who had taken liberties with the Bruins' redheaded star. Once an offensive rebounder, always an offensive rebounder. "The sucker can still go to the rack," says O'Connor. In addition, Farmer is a humorist.
Farmer on his playing career: "They retired my number by giving it to Marques Johnson." Farmer at practice (shouting): "You hear that whistle—you stop. You stop even if you're in midair." Farmer at a coaches' clinic: "I hope you'll all read my new book, How to Get Rid of Head Coaches." Farmer at a boosters' meeting: "I'd hire John Wooden back as my assistant, but he's too expensive. Maybe I can get his seat moved down closer to the bench. Or install a TV monitor close by so I can watch his face."
Farmer to a grade school basketball team: "When I played here under Coach Wooden, we did things over and over and over. You'd think it would get boring, but it helped so much. When you see our players sprinting after the drills in practice, that's punishment. That's because I thought they were coasting. There is no wasted time in a UCLA practice. When we're not drilling, we're shooting free throws or 'game shots.' Basketball practice is a precious time. If a player misses a class, he doesn't get to practice. If he's late for a tutoring session, he doesn't get to practice. Basketball becomes more and more precious here. This is UCLA, guys. See those banners up there? They are the reminder."
The banners. Always the banners. They are the ghosts of UCLA past. Goodrich and Hazzard—the zone press. Alcindor (truly a ghost of a name)—The Triple. Wicks, Rowe—Heckle, Jeckle. The Walton-Wilkes juggernaut—radicals on parade. All the NCAA first-place trophies won by UCLA are over in the Ackerman Union now, in a narrow trophy case tucked between a bowling alley and a travel agency. The zone press is just another defense. Walton is in Stanford law school. Wooden is taking his daily five-mile walk in Encino. Still, the banners hang from the rafters of Pauley Pavilion, mocking everything that has come since, and is yet to be.
And what of Wooden, the ultimate shadow? As his years of triumph have fallen away, the 71-year-old former coach has become less visible around Westwood, although he still does his banking there, lunches there at his favorite haunt, Carl Andersen's Chatam (where Mrs. Andersen calls him "Johnny"), and attends most of the Bruin home games. On occasion, Wooden also handles the color announcing for UCLA cable TV showings.
Much of the external pressure that attends the UCLA head job has been flung at Wooden's doorstep, but it is difficult to imagine how the man could have handled such a delicate situation any better. He has never criticized the stratagems of his successors. He has never attended a practice without being asked. Surely he has not requested the TV cameras to flash to his reaction every time a Bruin play results in a turnover. "John is a UCLA fan," says Newell, an old friend. "He'd grimace at mistakes even if Nell [Mrs. Wooden] were coaching. About the only thing he could have done to avoid this controversy would have been to sail off to some desert island."
"Or die," says Wooden, with a grin.
Fred Slaughter, the hulking center on Wooden's first NCAA championship team in 1964, says, "If he's been a cloud at all, Coach Wooden is a positive cloud."
More than any of Wooden's successors, Farmer has taken advantage of Wooden's proximity. Over the summer he spoke during four separate sessions of Wooden's basketball camp and visited his mentor's home for lunch several other times. The two men are often in touch by telephone. Some of Farmer's coaching regulations are positively Wizardish in form. UCLA players must carry 3 x 5 cards that list all important phone numbers—the coaches' offices and homes, the training room, dressing quarters. "If they're going to be late, I want to know about it first. They're going to learn responsibility," Farmer says. In practice nobody dunks unless it is specifically allowed. At training table nobody eats until the whole team is ready to eat. On the road, coats and ties are mandatory.
During the recent UCLA clinic, Farmer wore a coat and tie onto the court rather than change into warmups. Wooden used to do that. In the same office that was once dominated by a chart of Wooden's famous Pyramid of Success, Farmer has hung his own keepsakes—a picture of himself leaving his last college game, a telegram from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a lithograph of a rainbow with the slogan, WHEN YOU REACH THE TOP, KEEP CLIMBING. Bob (Spider) Webb, a bit actor who played with Farmer at UCLA and against him in Germany, says Farms will soon have his Jimi Hendrix posters plastered all over the place. But Farmer also has tacked something else on the wall. It is Wooden's favorite old chalkboard, which Brown had removed. "I thought about it and thought about it. I'm not superstitious," Farmer says, the laughter welling from deep in his belly, "...haw, haw, haw...Just careful."
Clearly, Farmer always was one of Wooden's pets. He was never a big scorer. Just industrious, intelligent, coachable. Wooden wanted to change Farmer's defensive stance on the baseline once but Farmer convinced the coach that he could keep his outside foot forward and not get beat. They worked it out. "I've never heard anyone at any time make a critical remark about Larry Farmer," Wooden says. "Nobody knew what color Larry was, either. I can't say that about every player I had. White or black, there has never been a more popular player at UCLA."
During his sophomore year the 6'5", 215-pound Farmer was fourth forward behind Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe and John Ecker. His playing time was sparse. But in the NCAA West Region final the Bruins were in a struggle with Long Beach State, Wicks and Rowe were plagued with fouls and Ecker was being pounded. So Farmer went in and immediately contributed a blocked shot, an important rebound and an outlet pass that led to two free throws. The Bruins went on to win the game and, eventually, another championship.
As an undergraduate, Farmer studied the floor patterns, asked questions and worked hard to make himself a big-time player. On the freshman squad he won the most valuable player award. As a soph he won the outstanding first-year varsity award. As a junior he won most-improved honors. And in his senior season he was appointed captain. During his last two NCAA championship campaigns, Farmer's quick, strong defense earned him man-to-man assignments against an abundance of guards, including Ed Ratleff, Ernie DiGregorio and Ron Lee. In addition, he averaged more than 11 points and five rebounds a game. Then, too, there was the 89-1, a nearly mystical achievement in itself, with a perfect 90-0 marred on the day Austin Carr of Notre Dame scored 46 points in an 89-82 upset of UCLA at South Bend. "Wicks's fault," says Farmer.
Farmer had three other classmates who might have shared in his record, but Tommy Curtis redshirted, Marvelous Marv Vitatoe transferred out of UCLA and Larry Hollyfield transferred in too late to be eligible for the NCAA playoff games in 1971. "Poor Holly," says Farmer, "...haw, haw...I got the record solo." Following Farmer on the UCLA won-lost honor roll, then, are Hollyfield 85-1, Lew Alcindor 88-2, Henry Bibby 87-3 and Walton, Wilkes, Wicks and Rowe, all 86-4. (Swen Nater had a 60-0 record, but it covered only two seasons, 1971-72 and '72-73, and his role was limited to backup duty for Walton.)
"Eighty-nine and one. Eighty-nine and one. You think Farms ever lets us forget it?" says Michael Holton, a junior guard on this year's UCLA squad.
As an in-house appointment and legend-successor three times removed, Farmer is not likely to experience the problems of the previous regimes. And Wooden doubts the problems were all that big, anyway. "Every one of those men left for better jobs more suited to their needs," Wooden says. "Not because of problems at UCLA. Pressure? I've known coaches who got out when the cupboard was bare. I didn't exactly leave the cupboard bare with Marques Johnson and Richard Washington. Give me talent and I don't give a hoot about outside pressure. Criticism? I don't think any of them got much criticism. Larry Brown wanted a bigger office and the walls painted and the students' seats moved closer to the court in Pauley. And he needed more money. That's what he got criticized for. Gary Cunningham was not cut out for coaching. He never wanted the job. He only wished to pursue his doctorate and get into athletic administration. I'm probably most responsible for convincing him to stay his second year and not run out. Before Cunningham, Gene Bartow was just not ready for the sophistication of Los Angeles. He was too sensitive to the kook letters and the radio talk shows. Gracious sakes alive. I had lots of awful letters written about me, too. You just show weakness if you let them get to you."
Surprisingly, Wooden was not consulted by Morgan on any of the hirings. He was mystified at Bartow's appointment. The Wizard himself would have gone after Louisville's Denny Crum—another former UCLA player and assistant coach. "One of the biggest mistakes I ever made was sharing an office the first few months with Bartow," Wooden says. "My understanding was I would help with the transition. But I was never used, and I should have realized my presence made him uncomfortable. I should have left long before I did. I suspected Bartow would be at UCLA a long time. If he had stayed around, I think he would have liked it. I wish I would have known him better, and Brown, too. I spent more time with their assistants. But it was no different for Bartow than it would have been for me if I had stayed another year. The only UCLA coach who got criticized for not winning the national championship was me. In 1974. Seven points ahead in overtime of the semifinals against North Carolina State? Why yes, we should have won. As the UCLA fan said to me when we won it the next year: 'Well, you let us down last season, but we got 'em back this time.' What do you say to that? Ten championships in 12 seasons wasn't enough. It's laughable. But the UCLA coaching job has never been difficult."
Clean Gene. While Gene Bartow is safely ensconced in Birmingham, Ala. now as athletic director and head coach of UAB, four years and thousands of miles removed from what he used to describe disgustedly as "the waves" of media in Southern California, he says he can remember certain UCLA games "as if they were yesterday." He recalls hearing Wooden's "the cupboard wasn't bare" line. He recalls hearing it when he was still coaching at UCLA. On sharing the office, he mostly recalls Wooden's answering the phone: "Hello, Coach Bartow's office." He recalls this being disconcerting. Bartow thinks UCLA was a difficult job. And no fun.
It started being no fun in November 1975 when Bartow guided the defending NCAA champion Bruins against Indiana in a national TV spectacular. "They blew us out, 18 points," says Bartow. Actually, the score was 84-64, but it was even worse than that. It was the most humiliating defeat for UCLA since...well, since Wooden's Bruin team lost 103-81 at Washington the previous season. Bartow remembers the spread on that one. Hmmmm. The difference was that Wooden's 1975 Bruins won the NCAA championship, while Bartow's 1976 edition was eliminated in the semis in another shelling by Indiana.
The grumbling from alumni and the carping from the press increased, and Bartow became, in his word, paranoid. "We had worked hard, we had a great year," he says. "And yet they came out of the woodwork after me. I didn't deserve that. I just wasn't ready for it."
Bartow told off the newspapers. He walked off a radio show. He was booed during the introductions at Pauley. By his second season he had disassociated himself (and urged his freshmen to do the same) from Sam Gilbert, a construction magnate who is the Bruins' most public and powerful supporter, but who, Bartow felt, had too much control over the program. Texas Coach Abe Lemons once said, "I guess if you have a Pyramid of Success—and Sam Gilbert—you can always be a winner." Wooden had used the ostrich approach with Gilbert: He didn't want to know. Bartow tried to diminish the influence of "Papa G," as the players call him, and he failed.
During his second season Bartow was chastised by Gilbert, who said the coach was shaming the school by bowing his head on the bench. Soon the Bruins had lost in the NCAA tournament to Idaho State. Gilbert privately told Billy Packer, the television announcer, that he and other wealthy alumni were buying up Bartow's contract. Not long afterward Bartow was able to write his own new ticket—at UAB.
"John Wooden was right," Bartow says. "I was too sensitive then. I think I could cope now. But every coach needs a power base and there is a certain vulnerability when you are being constantly attacked by the media. Not to mention by others. Once I told the L.A. Times that whatever happened, I'd always be a small-town Missourian, and I guess that's what I am. Whoever thought I would ever share an office with the man?"
In Bartow's present office—twice again the size of the one at UCLA, and he shares it with no one—he still keeps all the nasty letters in a desk drawer. On one wall there is a lone reminder of UCLA: a framed photograph of the 1973 NCAA championship game between UCLA and Memphis State. Bartow coached in that contest to be sure. But it was not for the Bruins. It was against them.
The Wizard's Disciple. It was sometime during Gary Cunningham's coaching tenure at UCLA that visiting teams ceased feeling the wrath of God merely upon setting foot on the Bruins' home court. "Opponents used to think about playing only for respectability against UCLA, not about winning. You saw it in their eyes. The awe when they spotted the banners. The fear when they came out for the warmups. Then it all changed." This is what Cunningham was telling the Rotary Club of Laramie, Wyo. down at The Tipple one recent lunch-time. In March of 1979 Cunningham had stunned the UCLA basketball family by resigning as head coach to become the athletic director at tiny Western Oregon State College in Monmouth, where he could fish, hike and supervise the activities of the Wolves' teams in the Evergreen Conference. Talk about a refuge. Now Cunningham has surfaced again in Division I as A.D. at Wyoming, which is how he happened to be butchering Ragtime Cowboy Joe with the rest of the Rotary crew and reminiscing about UCLA.
Cunningham was the heir apparent to Wooden before the first coaching change in 1975, but he immediately disqualified himself by opting to work in the alumni office in Westwood. During the Bartow years, however, Cunningham says he missed coaching and, by a "purely emotional decision," he agreed to go back to the bench when his alma mater beckoned in 1977. In 1962 Cunningham had played on the first Wooden team to make the NCAA Final Four. (The Bruins lost to Cincinnati at the buzzer in the semifinals.) In 1965 he had coached the Alcindor-led UCLA freshman team to a 15-point victory over the two-time defending national champion varsity. And he had been at Wooden's side since 1965. His credentials were impeccable. Cunningham says the spectre of Wooden never bothered him. He says the alumni never uttered a harsh word. Of the 58 games his teams played, they lost eight, none by more than four points. Still, he was unhappy.
"My time at UCLA was very rewarding," says Cunningham. "But Gene Bartow is right. The job was not always fun. All coaching is draining. At UCLA it is extra demanding. I think it takes a special kind of person to go through that year after year. The UCLA mystique was diminished by the time I went back, and that made it even harder. Coach Wooden's presence was everything. With the master gone, things couldn't be the same."
By November of Cunningham's second year he had decided to resign effective at the end of the season which ended prematurely in the NCAA West Region final when the Bruins were upset by America's Grandfather, Ray Meyer, and DePaul, 95-91. Even as he was escaping, Cunningham says, he felt "devastated."
Carolina West. If Larry Brown was ever serious about pursuing a career at UCLA, he didn't convince many people in the friendly confines of Westwood. John Wooden doubted he would stay long. Brown's closest friends gave him a year. Sam Gilbert—dum da dum dum—expected a short stay too, especially if Brown tried to keep him from the players. "I could cut his——off and he wouldn't know it until he pulled his pants down," he told a journalist. Good neighbor Sam. With enemies like this, Brown needed friendly confines. Instead, he offended UCLA oldtimers by bemoaning the university's penchant for red tape, the lack of office space and the cramped condition of the facilities. "I came into work the day after a concert at Pauley," Brown says, "and nobody had cleaned the vomit off the steps outside." This was famous, classy UCLA and there was mess right outside the gym? It didn't help that Brown was correct in his belief that an athletic plant so well-endowed in bodies should look as elegant as it plays. The way, say, his own school back in Chapel Hill, N.C. looked. Something should be finer.
As if Brown's $40,000 base pay the first year wasn't bad enough. This was more than Wooden ever made in the J.D. Morgan robber-baron days, but it was far less than at least 30 other major college coaches received and approximately one-sixth what Brown hauled in from the pros. The new coach had left a magnificent home in Colorado to find the California real estate market had gone nuts. Brown remembers hearing that Philadelphia Eagle Coach Dick Vermeil had made more money on the sale of his house in L.A. than he had earned in two years as head coach at UCLA. Some rich alumni (not Gilbert) purchased an abode for Brown to lease in fashionable Brentwood but he was uncomfortable with the arrangement. Babs Brown went to work at a travel agency. This was famous, classy UCLA and the coach's wife has to help make ends meet?
Brown's first year produced some outstanding recruits, but the coach began the season by playing the seniors in a mèlange of multiple formations. The Bruins stumbled to an 8-6 record. Then Farmer suggested a return to simplicity. Brown inserted Slew Sanders at the high post, brought on the rookies, tightened up the x's and o's and roared to the NCAA finals. Washington State Coach George Raveling said Brown's first year produced "the finest coaching job in UCLA history."
Alas, last season was soiled by the Kenny Fields cause cèlèbre in which newcomer Fields sulked, missed practice, became a prima donna, was dismissed from the team and later was permitted to return. O'Connor labeled the Fields affair "an open wound." It was the kind of wound that—like Kiki Vandeweghe's missed juke-move layup against Louisville that probably cost the Bruins the previous season's NCAA championship—never was permitted under the Wooden reign.
While UCLA partisans were still chewing on the Fields affair, Brigham Young blew out UCLA 78-55 in the second round of the NCAA tournament, and soon Brown was gone to greener Meadowlands and the New Jersey Nets. "Everybody in the country told me not to take the UCLA job," he says, "but it was an unbelievable feeling to be the basketball coach there. I think it's like, well, our national team. Everything I did there was for the kids. I feel good about the shape I left the program in. I want to stress the positive. I felt it was an honor to hold that position." I'm just happy to be here. Perhaps Larry Farmer learned more than merely situation coaching from Brown. Obviously loyalty is an important part of Farmer's makeup. His three predecessors all agree that Farmer could be depended upon through good times and bad. The litmus test came during the regimes of Bartow and Brown, both of whom kept the basketball office at arm's length from Gilbert, who had always been a close friend to Farmer.
In the past Gilbert negotiated professional contracts for many UCLA players. Gilbert has been a financial adviser to Farmer. Sam and Rose Gilbert are occasional dinner companions of the Farmers'. Gilbert wears one of Larry's NCAA championship rings.
(Recently, Gilbert responded to an NCAA investigation into the UCLA basketball program by producing evidence that a loan he made to Walton took place after Walton had finished school. Gilbert also was questioned about the Thanksgiving dinner he annually hosted for the UCLA basketball team at his palatial home in Pacific Palisades. But he said he was not involved in the controversial purchase of automobiles by four UCLA players in the spring of 1980. "The world has become too crass," says Gilbert. "Every move I make is considered insidious, an NCAA violation by innuendo. If they only knew how many of these UCLA players we kept in school, how many problems wound up here [in the Gilbert study] and not over in the school's athletic department.")
"When I played at UCLA Sam held us spellbound with his NBA stories and his agentry talk," Farmer says. "But he isn't into that much anymore, and the players have gone in other directions. After he received so much attention and people became suspicious of his motives, Sam withdrew. He's old and tired now. The players can't eat over there anymore. It's against the rules unless the whole school eats there.
"I remember, as a student, once complaining about something," Farmer goes on. "But Sam stopped me in my tracks and said I was at UCLA for an education first and never to forget it. He has never put academics behind athletics. He has never bad-mouthed a coach to me. He's part of my personal life, period. I won't let him get involved in the basketball side. He respects that because he respects me."
UCLA's players, in the habit of enjoying a loose atmosphere around Farms the assistant, have discovered this new Farmer, the head man, means business. Senior Tony Anderson says that during the Brown years the head coach's office was open and the television always on. Players grabbed gobs of candy off the desk, plopped onto the sofa and kicked their feet up on the table. "There was so much candy you'd get pimples just looking at that desk," Anderson says. Brown was an arm-around-the-shoulder pal, just one of the guys. The other day Anderson had assumed the usual position, stretched out and laid back, when the new Farmer, Head Coach Farmer, entered. The older man snapped off the TV, demanded that Anderson ask for candy from then on, very little candy, and warned him against "wasting time" in the office. Anderson says it was as if a new boss had ordered him to work at nine when his body was used to waking up at noon. "It was a shock to my system," says Anderson. "I miss Coach's jokes. I miss having fun with him."
"You don't wonder whether Farms is serious anymore," Holton says. "You know he is serious."
Both Farmer's basketball and discipline are from way back. Denver. Smiley Junior High, to be precise. In the ninth grade Farmer kept getting whistled for three-second violations because he didn't understand the rule. Confused, he simply made himself stay out of both foul lanes, and he played the game that way. Later, basketball-vied with the military. "I was a lieutenant colonel in the Army ROTC, battalion commander, second-ranked guy in the state," Farmer says. "I loved the regimen, the order. Most ROTC guys were considered quiffy, but I was an athlete, too. I loved my uniform. I made up excuses so I could wear my uniform on more days. I loved a spit shine, polished brass, all of that. And the parades! I'd be out in front of everybody marching along—the commander. My staff was behind me and 300 guys behind them. Yeah. I loved it. In those days, for me it was James Brown, the Temptations, then John Philip Sousa. I loved my uniform so much I wore it to register for the draft."
Farmer received an appointment to the Air Force Academy, but he decided not to go, preferring basketball to the Vietnam war. Ultimately, of course, he chose UCLA. Stylish haberdashery, knickers and Oleg Cassini hats—"The gangster look," Farmer remembers—replaced his dress greens. For better or worse he has been in Westwood just about ever since, fairly wallowing in UCLA tradition.
One would not be surprised if by now Bruin blue courses through his veins in place of the real stuff. "We don't have that UCLA attitude yet," he will say. Or: "I hate it when our practices get sloppy. It's so untraditional."
"I think Coach Wooden liked me so much because of that attitude," Farmer says. "I also listened to him all the time. It was like I was in class taking mental notes. I memorized all the drills. And the details. Coach Wooden had one time period devoted to how to tie our shoelaces so they would never slip. You start late the way I did and you have to listen to what everybody says. Plus, I wasn't exactly gifted.
"I was a small forward with big-forward skills. That finally dawned on me in pro camp. When I discovered I wasn't going to be a professional player...I'll never forget this...I almost perceived myself as a failure. Almost. Then I realized I had graduated from college. I had a good job waiting for me back at UCLA. I was on my way into a new career. There was no time to pout or sulk. I was always going to wind up this way, of course. As this role model. Not just a jock. But a well-rounded adult person. Fate is like a train. It's already determined where you're going. How long it takes depends on the conductor."
Back in 1973 a story in this magazine—Who Are These Guys?—profiled the UCLA team that was on its way to a collegiate record of 88 straight victories. Farmer suited up for 75 of those, more than any other Bruin. Yet this story, which was accompanied by a cover and pictures of six of his teammates, did not contain a photograph of Farmer. Shortly thereafter, the writer offered his apologies. But the senior captain, so versed in UCLA basketball lore and so proud of his own acheivements, was understandably disappointed. Crushed might be a more accurate description.
Recently the same writer apologized once more. "That's okay," Farmer said. "I figured you guys would get around to me again some day. I'm just happy to be here."
What goes around, comes around. UCLA basketball should just be happy Larry Farmer has always been here.
Wooden's specter doesn't haunt Impelman, Farmer and O'Connor, who are "just happy to be here."
Farmer was an assistant to four UCLA coaches, but the diagrams he prefers are the ones Wooden drew.
Nine seasons have passed since Farmer went to the hoop against Weber State in the West Region, but he can still muscle his way inside.
After UCLA beat Memphis State in '73, Farmer, with Wooden and Holly field, had an 89-1 record.
While working on Bartow's staff with Lee Hunt (right), Farmer learned a lot about player motivation.
Though Farmer was the UCLA "house man," no one ever questioned his loyally to Cunningham (seated above) or Brown (below right).