Kansas’ chase of UCLA’s record is almost complete.
With one more victory, the Jayhawks will clinch their 13th straight Big 12 championship, an amazing streak that will match the longest in college basketball, owned by UCLA from 1967-1979.
Some of the sports’ most iconic figures built that Bruins’ run. John Wooden won eight of his 10 NCAA championships in that window, and the coach who frequently clutched a rolled up program was there for the first nine titles in the league then known as the Pacific-8.
Lew Alcindor, later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Sidney Wicks, Jamaal Wilkes and Marques Johnson were among the stars that never lost a Pac-8 title.
The streak continued with programs coached for two years each by Gene Bartow and Gary Cunningham. The Bruins stopped dominating college basketball on the national level after Wooden retired, but the conference reign continued.
Now, unless something bizarre occurs, UCLA will share the conference streak record with Kansas, and Cunningham is OK with that.
“I have never thought or had great concern over records being tied or broken,” Cunningham said.
Besides, Cunningham is an admirer of the KU program. He headed the USA delegation to the World University Games in South Korea two years ago, and the men’s basketball team was comprised almost exclusively of Kansas players and coaches.
“A good group,” Cunningham said. “I still know some of those players.”
And he catches Kansas games when he can from his Los Angeles home. He watched the two most recent victories, the remarkable comeback against West Virginia in Lawrence last week and the nail-biter at Baylor on Saturday.
Nobody has more direct association with the UCLA streak than Cunningham. After playing on the Bruins’ first Final Four team in 1962, he joined Wooden’s staff three years later and remained an assistant through 1975 before becoming the head coach in 1977. Add it up, and Cunningham was part of 11 of the 13 conference titles as assistant or head coach.
There were differences between the streaks, just as there were between the eras. When UCLA’s streak started winning a conference championship was the only path to the NCAA Tournament, which was the case until 1975.
“You didn’t win the league, you didn’t go to NCAA,” Cunningham said. “That was a significant motivation.”
Also, freshmen weren’t eligible during the UCLA streak until 1972. The Kansas streak has unfolded in a time of roster flux, including the one-and-done rule, which started in 2005.
The Pac-8 race was one of the game’s big stories in 1971. Southern California was top-ranked when the teams met for the first time that that season. The Bruins prevailed. They also won the rematch, and those were the only losses for Trojans that season.
UCLA never tied for first, which Kansas has done four times in the previous 12 years. The Bruins won 11 championships by at least two games — their first one in 1967 by six games. All but the last one involved 14 league games. In 1979, the conference expanded to 10 teams and UCLA won the first 18-game schedule.
Cunningham said UCLA coaches didn’t make league supremacy a specific goal.
“In the years I played for Coach Wooden and the 10 years I spent as an assistant, he never once talked about winning,” Cunningham said. “Doing the best you can do transcended everything else, and only you’ll know if you did your best. That’s how he was with school, basketball, everything.”
It worked. For 13 years, the conference had no other winner.
Cunningham, who went 50-8 in his two seasons, stepped down to enter athletic administration and was replaced by Larry Brown. The Bruins finished fourth in the Pac-10 in 1980 but reached the NCAA title game before falling to Louisville. That participation was later vacated after the NCAA cited nine infractions against the program.
A few years later, Brown became the Kansas coach and in 1985 added Bill Self to his staff.
Self has been the head coach throughout this streak, which started in his second season in Lawrence. There’s been one national championship and another title game and three Elite Eight appearance during the KU streak.
Early on the streak was notable for some of individual stars Kansas overcame, like Texas’ Kevin Durant, Kansas State’s Michael Beasley and Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin. Lately, it’s the overall strength of the Big 12, which has been the first or second RPI conference four straight years.
No matter the conditions, Kansas has found a way to reach the top of the Big 12, and now stand one triumph away from matching what in 1979 must have seemed like untouchable streak.
Cunningham said he doesn’t remember if UCLA teams cut nets for conference championships. But he recalled the satisfaction of winning the league.
“We never took it for granted,” Cunningham said.
Comparing the streaks
88 consecutive victories, 1971-74
98 consecutive home court victories, 1970-76
Ranked No. 1 46 straight weeks (AP poll record) 71-74
NCAA Tournament bracket size: 22-40 teams
Home victory streaks of 69 (2008-11) and 54 (2014-2017)
158 consecutive weeks in AP top 25 (longest current streak)
More conference titles (12) than home losses (9)
NCAA Tournament bracket growth: 65-68