Saturday night was already going to be an emotional night for UAB and Memphis fans. Not because of any action on the basketball court, but because money was being raised in Gene Bartow’s honor for cancer research. In recent months, any mention of Bartow left Blazer and Tiger fans worried and sad. They all knew their beloved former coach was suffering through his battle with cancer. That battle ended earlier this week.
The Bartow Classic will now serve as a memorial for Bartow. There will be plenty of Tiger and Blazer fans shedding tears together while saying their goodbyes to their former coach Saturday. I teared up a few times when I heard about Coach’s condition worsening recently, but I don’t believe I will Saturday because I feel that two men will be watching this game from high above.
Nine months ago, Memphis said goodbye to another one of their former coaches, Larry Finch. Finch had suffered a stroke in 2002 and his health only worsened after that. Finch suffered through his last nine years before dying at a relatively young age. Both Bartow and Finch suffered through their last days here on Earth.
Gene Bartow and Larry Finch had a very close connection to each other, not to mention UAB and Memphis. Bartow coached Memphis to their first Final Four appearance during his four year run as the Tiger’s head coach. His star player on that team that reached the finals was Larry Finch. Finch was the hometown kid who stayed home and took his school to new heights. Years later when Bartow came to Birmingham to build an athletics program from scratch, he brought Larry Finch with him as an assistant coach. Coach Finch helped Bartow set up a pipeline of players coming from basketball rich Memphis that helped the Blazers reach unprecedented success for a start up program. Finch would leave Birmingham and go back home to Memphis where he cleaned up a program on NCAA sanctions and returned them to post season success. Bartow remained in Birmingham as coach for the first 18 years of the Blazer program, leading them to 10 NCAA tournaments during that span and not one losing season.
This Saturday I’m going to smile when I see the tributes to Coach Bartow. I will remember the good times and what a wonderful man he was. The biggest source for my smile will come from somewhere else, something happening far away from Bartow Arena. While a rivalry will be renewed on the court, a reunion will be taking place between old friends. Friends who helped build two wonderful programs together, shaped lives together, and left places better than they found them. The best part about this reunion is that it will be pain free. No more worries or sorrow, just the enjoyment of watching two universities play. Universities that are forever better places because Gene Bartow and Larry Finch were a part of them.