Larry Farmer ’76 was a late bloomer. A forward playing for Manual High School in Denver, at the start of his junior year season in 1967 he was struggling to earn playing time on the junior varsity team. He couldn’t have ever predicted that within two years he would be part of the unparalleled UCLA basketball program, playing under the tutelage of one so great that he is known simply as “Coach.”
Farmer finished his Bruin career in 1973 with the best win-loss tally of any National College Athletic Association (NCAA) player in history: 89-1, even bettering the 88-2 mark of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ’69. At the age of 30, he became the first Black coach to head the program that holds the record for most NCAA titles.
Farmer argues that the undefeated UCLA squad of 1971–72 should be remembered as the best college basketball team ever, backing that up with statistics: “We scored more than 100 points in each of our first seven games … with no three-point shot and no shot clock. Over the course of all 30 games our average winning margin was 30.3 points.” Such ruminations pepper the book.
Farmer grew up in a military family and writes that his father “ran a strict household. It was not a democracy.” That experience made Farmer feel right at home in the system run by John Wooden. The Wizard of Westwood rarely praised Farmer in his three years on the varsity squad, but Coach so admired the young man’s work ethic and selflessness that he eventually named him team captain.
The book details Farmer’s interactions with the sport’s larger-than-life figures: Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Wilt Chamberlain, Reggie Miller and L.A. Lakers owner Jerry Buss. UCLA icons such as tennis great Arthur Ashe, athletic director J.D. Morgan, UCLA Chancellor Charles Young M.A. ’57, Ph.D. ’60 and booster “Papa Sam” Gilbert also pop up. Stuffed with stats and records, the book offers insights into some of the most famous bits of UCLA basketball lore (the rivalry with coach Digger Phelps’ University of Notre Dame is especially engaging).
But, ultimately, the memoir takes readers into the mind of Farmer, now 72. Equal parts talented and selfless, Farmer is someone Coach Wooden “always thought was the living example of team spirit,” according to Wooden’s daughter Nan. Larry Farmer’s journey is perhaps summed up best by his former teammate Bill Walton ’74 in the book’s foreword: “He learned from the best. He was part of the best. He became the best.”
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Spring 2023 issue.