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Mars Bars and Memories: A Tribute to a Great Coach

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I wouldn’t expect many people reading this to immediately know the name of Gene Bartow. And, if not for a certain unfortunate incident a quarter century ago, I wouldn’t even be writing about him now. In 1976, Gene Bartow became the head basketball coach at UCLA–yes, he was the successor to the legendary John Wooden. And he promptly took the Bruins to the Final Four. In 1978, he moved to Birmingham and created the University of Alabama-Birmingham basketball program. He was UAB’s head coach until 1996 when he became the school’s athletic director. A member of the College Basketball Hall of Fame, Coach Bartow retired from UAB in 2000 and had since spent his time as president of the company that owns the Memphis Grizzlies. Earlier this week, he passed away after a battle with stomach cancer. When I heard the news, I immediately flashed back to a special night in 1986.

I was a student at Western Kentucky University. Some friends of mine and I went to a Western basketball game at Diddle Arena–in Bowling Green, of course. Western was hosting UAB that night. Coach Bartow consistently had good UAB teams in the 80s. And the decade was a good one for the Hilltoppers, as well. At the time, UAB and Western were in the same conference, so it had become a nice little rivalry.

It was just an innocent little candy bar...once. (marsbar.com)

That night, some campus organization was giving away free Mars Bars at the door. During the course of the game, tempers flared and some unruly Topper fans decided to hurl their Mars Bars at the UAB bench and Coach Bartow. Very embarrassing.  Well the four or five us–and we all lived on the same floor of our dorm–who went to the game decided to buy a box of Mars Bars and send them to Coach Bartow in Birmingham with an apology. Kind of a peace offering. A few weeks later, we received a note in the mail from Coach Bartow. He was very gracious and very funny and thanked us for the candy. In fact, the entire incident just rolled right off his back. I guess when you’re a coach, you’re prepared for anything. It’s sad to see Coach Bartow leave us. And I honestly had no idea he had cancer. He was a great coach and a great man. And he played a key role in a great memory.

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