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The March Of The Wooden Soldiers

Walt Hazzard becomes the fifth coach in a decade to try to reestablish John Wooden's championship tradition at UCLA

The UCLA basketball team finished the 1983-84 season with its worst record in 24 years and its self-esteem at perhaps an alltime low. In the space of four bizarre days at the end of March, Larry Farmer, the Bruins' tormented coach, was rewarded with a two-year contract extension and rearmed with two new assistants, and then abruptly quit. Now, as Farmer's replacement, former UCLA All-America guard Walt Hazzard embarks on the Bruins' fifth "new era" since John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, retired in 1975, he must rebuild not only a team, but also a reputation that once seemed unassailable.

Perhaps Hazzard, who will turn 42 this Sunday, will be the first Wooden successor to stay long enough to get his desk arranged, put the pictures of the wife and kids on the wall and reestablish the kind of coaching continuity that top-level basketball programs like UCLA's are supposed to have. While nothing in Hazzard's unimposing coaching résumé suggests that he deserves to be the presiding prince of Pauley Pavilion—he has been a head coach for only four years at the junior-college and Division II levels and was twice cited for administrative improprieties—something in his personality suggests that he might succeed. He did win 97 of 120 games at Southern California's Chapman and Compton Community colleges, although 21 of the wins at Compton had to be forfeited after Hazzard was found to have used an ineligible player. "It's a tough, nasty business," Hazzard said last week, "and I love it."

It was too tough and nasty for the 33-year-old Farmer, who didn't love it. At the moment, Farmer is spending his time playing pickup basketball games around L.A. and considering whether to go on coaching or try for a career in broadcasting. If he decides on the former, he'll do it as far from the pressures of Westwood as he can get.

Meanwhile, Hazzard is wading into hazardous waters. The Bruins' two best players last season, Kenny Fields and Ralph Jackson, have used up their eligibility. Of California's seven best graduating high school stars, only Jerald Jones, a 6'6" guard from Vallejo High, has announced he's going to UCLA. Three McDonald's All-Americas, 6'8" John Williams of Crenshaw High, 6'7" Chris Sandle of Long Beach Poly and 6'6" Craig McMillan of Cloverdale High, have said they are going elsewhere, and another blue-chipper, 6'8" Leonard Taylor of St. Bernard's, was sitting on the fence at week's end, with signing day set for this Wednesday. The uncertainty of the Bruins' coaching situation and the toughened academic standards set by UCLA since the Billy Don Jackson embarrassment were factors in the Bruins' poor recruiting. (Jackson, a UCLA football player from 1977 to '79 who pleaded no contest to a manslaughter charge in 1982, was found to be functionally illiterate, despite having attended the school for 2½ years.) "It used to be a kid asked, 'Am I good enough for UCLA?'" Willie West, the basketball coach at Crenshaw High, said last week. "But now it's, 'I'm too good to go there.' "

If the Bruins' 17-11 1983-84 season was a bad dream, then the postseason was a nightmare. After rumors that Farmer was a goner had dominated the L.A. area sports pages for weeks, UCLA called a press conference to announce that he'd been given the two-year extension. Two days thereafter, the two new assistants, Hazzard and one of his old Bruin teammates, Jack Hirsch, were agreed upon. Two days after that, Farmer resigned. At least he'd established a longevity record of three seasons, among the four Wooden successors. The others (Gene Bartow, 1975-77, Gary Cunningham, 1977-79, and Larry Brown, 1979-81) all called it quits after two seasons. Farmer's record was 61-23; Wooden's was 65-24 after his first three years. But around Westwood these days, that's not good enough.

One hour after Farmer resigned, at 12:30 p.m. on March 27, UCLA athletic director Pete Dalis called in Hazzard, and six hours later Hazzard signed on as the Bruins' ninth basketball coach and fifth in the last 10 years. No interviews, no search, no calls to Louisville's Denny Crum or Arkansas' Eddie Sutton or any of the other big names who might have wanted to take a crack at reviving the Wooden tradition.

Why not? Money. Farmer's salary was estimated to be around $65,000, a reasonable sum, but less than many big-time schools pay their coaches. And beyond that, the UCLA administration doesn't allow its basketball coach to run a summer camp on campus because of "facility overload," and a coach's radio or television show simply doesn't wash in glitzy L.A. Farmer estimates that it would be difficult for the UCLA coach to gross more than $100,000—what many a top coach makes on his summer camp alone.

"I know that I couldn't afford to take the UCLA job," says Sutton. "It's not just the salary. I make about $60,000 in salary, but where a coach makes it is in radio, TV, camps and speaking engagements. I still think the UCLA job is one of the top 10 in the country, but the package they can offer just isn't as attractive as many others."

It was attractive enough for Hazzard, though, who three years ago was getting $1,500 a year to coach part-time at Compton. Like Cunningham and Farmer, Hazzard came out of the UCLA system. In fact, he and Hirsch co-captained Wooden's first NCAA championship team in 1963-64. But the road back to Westwood was a long one for Hazzard. He sometimes felt that the Moslem name Mahdi Abdul-Rahman, which he'd adopted in 1972, during his eighth season of a 10-year NBA career, scared away potential employers, so he uses his original name professionally. "A lot of doors closed in my face along the way," he says.

Now that the door at UCLA has slammed shut on Farmer, his former players aren't bashful about criticizing him as a coach. Forward Nigel Miguel: "One of the main things was communication, and we didn't communicate. Coach Farmer would say his door was always open, but we didn't feel we could go to him with problems." Center Stuart Gray: "If you're the coach, you have to look like you're in control. With Coach Farmer we didn't think he was in control." Fields: "If you put the ball through your legs or something, you'd get comments like 'Save it for the NBA.' " Gray: "I get pushed around and bumped and I'm told not to get angry or retaliate. Part of my game is playing mad. But that's not the image of UCLA basketball."

Farmer is widely recognized as a sensitive man who conducted himself with dignity in a three-ring media and basketball circus. But he admits indecisiveness was a big part of his undoing. He first considered quitting a year ago after the Bruins lost to Utah in the second round of the 1983 NCAA tournament. And minutes before the press conference at which his contract extension was announced. Farmer sat in his office with his soon-to-be-dismissed assistant coach and best friend, Craig Impelman, and confided that he wasn't sure he wanted the job at all.

A complaint voiced at one time or another by all of Wooden's successors has been the UCLA administration's failure to make them feel secure. Yes, the media can be tough, and, yes, the alumni may be spoiled—one alumnus, after observing forward Gary Maloncon raise his fist after a good play this season, confronted Impelman later on and wanted to know "what this black-power crap is about"—but the administration could have done a lot to soften the criticism. It didn't. "There was always a feeling of not quite pleasing them, even in my first two years, when I was 21-6 and 23-6," Farmer said last week. "It wasn't so much what they said as what they didn't say. I'd always been taught that if you don't have anything positive to say, don't say anything. And that's what they said. Nothing."

There's a certain institutional pomposity at UCLA, though exactly how it affects the basketball program is difficult to assess. At the top is chancellor Charles Young, who has held that position since 1968, the year Wooden won the fourth of his record 10 NCAA titles. But more important to the Bruins' basketball fortunes may be vice-chancellor Elwin Svenson, who has overseen the UCLA intercollegiate athletic programs since 1978. Svenson is a tall, scholarly-looking man who considers every question long and hard before answering, and he speaks as if from a mountaintop.

Dalis is in his first year as athletic director and is having a difficult time of his own filling the shoes of the late and legendary J.D. Morgan. Dalis previously was director of UCLA's cultural and recreational affairs department, a position of responsibility but one that might not have fully prepared him for the pressures he would face as athletic director. Dalis has refused to give his home telephone number to the UCLA sports information office. He also declined to be photographed for this article.

"It's not so much that the people in the administration have the personality of small shrubbery," says Keith Glass, who was a UCLA assistant when Larry Brown was coach. "It's just that, ultimately, I don't think they care about improving the program."

Farmer feels that Dalis, Svenson and, by extension. Young applied pressure on him to get rid of his assistant coaches, Impelman and Kevin O'Connor. Dalis and Svenson both insist that Farmer was the one who wanted Impelman and O'Connor to go and Hazzard and Hirsch to be brought in, and that's exactly what was going to happen if Farmer had accepted his contract extension.

"I had heard after my first year that I should change my assistants," said Farmer. "And it was some of the people in the administration who wanted the change. It wasn't communicated to me directly, but it came through loud and clear—via people I respect."

One of Farmer's closest friends, Sam Gilbert, 71, the influential UCLA alumnus who for nearly two decades has been known as the godfather of Bruin basketball, also pushed Farmer to change assistants. There was nothing sinister in Gilbert's thinking; he, like many others, merely felt that a Farmer-Hazzard-Hirsch triumvirate would restore the glorious UCLA tradition. "It became clear that they [Hazzard and Hirsch] were the 'people's choice,' " says Farmer.

Gilbert's role as an adviser to Farmer made the school administration a trifle nervous. Gilbert had been specifically barred by the NCAA from "activities associated with...recruitment" when it placed the Bruins on two years' probation for a variety of offenses during the 1981-82 season. But on the question of assistant coaches, the administration didn't disagree with Gilbert. Hazzard was also Dalis' choice for the top assistant's job. The two had been friends since Hazzard returned to UCLA in 1976 to resume work toward his degree in kinesiology, which he completed in 1978. Dalis and Hazzard often dined together at the Tree House, a campus cafeteria.

Rumors about Hazzard's joining or even replacing Farmer began circulating when the team was stumbling at midseason. Not once this year was Pauley filled to its 12,800-seat capacity. A crowd of 10,264 watched the Bruins get ripped 84-68 by DePaul on Jan. 28. Earlier, 8,215 watched UCLA blow a 13-point lead and lose to New Mexico. For the first time ever, the Bruins dropped three consecutive games at Pauley, to DePaul, Oregon and Oregon State.

Miguel might have been speaking for Farmer as well as the UCLA players when he said, "If you don't believe in yourself around here, they'll treat you like a tack and just push you down." Says Farmer, "I should've worked harder at being tougher." He also feels Dalis wasn't much help in deflecting the heat when reporters asked about Farmer's status. Then, when the season finally dragged to a close with a 70-65 loss at Oregon State, a defeat that probably knocked the Bruins out of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1965-66 (excluding the probation year of '81-82), the administration rejected an invitation to the NIT without bothering to consult Farmer or the players.

Meanwhile, high school recruits were rejecting UCLA in droves. Williams and Sandle, two of the most sought-after players in the country, might not have been able to satisfy UCLA's academic requirements in any event. But McMillan, announcing he would sign with Arizona, told the Los Angeles Times, "Even if you believe that Coach Farmer is going to be back next year, you know that he has only one more year on his contract, and they're not extending it." Within three days of McMillan's published comments, UCLA offered Farmer the two-year extension, which would have made him the coach through the 1986-87 season. Then came the decision to bring in Hazzard and Hirsch.

Still, the thought of another year in the meat grinder weighed on Farmer. Says Impelman, "I kept telling him what he could do with next year's team, what a great season he'd have. And he'd say, 'Imp, you're missing the whole point. I don't want to be here anymore. It's no fun. I don't enjoy it.' "

Farmer didn't look at all relieved at the March 23 press conference, and when he kept insisting that he hadn't yet signed the extended contract, Dalis got edgy. "I was a bit startled, frankly," says Dalis. And when Farmer disappeared over the following weekend and failed to show up for a Monday appointment to wrap up the Hazzard-Hirsch hiring, Dalis' unease grew. That night Dalis and Gilbert met with Farmer at a restaurant, and Farmer told them that his heart wasn't in it. The next morning Farmer carried his letter of resignation with him when he drove to the UCLA campus.

After accepting Farmer's resignation, Dalis, Young and Svenson, who was reached in Mexico, where he was on university business, agreed that a long search-and-interview process for a new coach would be disastrous with the signing date for recruits so near. Anyway, Dalis said, they had their man, Hazzard, and an assistant, Hirsch.

The UCLA administration had already concluded that Hazzard shouldn't be held responsible for the two alleged improprieties that had occurred while he was coaching at Compton. As for the forfeits, Hazzard laid the blame on poor record-keeping that' failed to note that the ineligible player had participated in games the previous season, before Hazzard arrived. As for the other incident, Hazzard was accused of paying $1,580 to cover damage to and rent for an apartment in which several of his players had been living. Hazzard insists he merely handled the transaction on behalf of the players. An investigation by Compton cleared him of wrongdoing. That was good enough for UCLA.

Hazzard was home in L.A. with his 19-year-old son, Yakub, a sophomore at Stanford, when Dalis called an hour after Farmer's resignation.

"Son," said Hazzard after he got off the phone, "I think I may be the next head coach."

"You're kidding," said Yakub.

That's pretty much what a lot of other UCLA watchers said, too. Wooden, however, wasn't among them. "I feel Walt will be a successful coach," he said last week. "He's knowledgeable about the game, and he's aggressive, which I mean in the good sense of the word." Hazzard is also an ardent Wooden disciple. "I want John Wooden up in the seats," says Hazzard. "I'm not afraid of him looking over my shoulder. I think he can be a reminder, a standard, something to live up to."

Hazzard paused and smiled. "But I'm not saying there's no pressure. Hey, it's tough here."



Hazzard (above) returns to UCLA 20 years after co-captaining Wooden's first NCAA title five (from left): Gail Goodrich, Keith Erickson, Fred Slaughter, Hirsch and Hazzard.



When California blue-chippers (from left) McMillan, Williams and Sandle chose other schools, Farmer's stock fell and he decided to cashier himself.



Soon it will be Wooden looking over Hazzard's shoulder.