Saturday, June 12, 2010

John Wooden, a coaching legend

I recently heard a wonderful tribute to the life of John Wooden, UCLA's legendary basketball coach.  The speaker's admiration for the coach was visible and emotional, having been one of millions over the years who has had the privilege of hearing him speak in person.

John Wooden was affectionately called "The Wizard of Westwood."  He built one of the greatest dynasties in all of sports at UCLA and became one of the most revered coaches who ever lived.  He died recently at age 99.

I have sons who became great basketball players, but none of them even knows Coach Wooden's legacy the way those of us who are older remember it.  Wooden led the UCLA Bruins to 10 NCAA championships.  Seven of those national championships were reeled off in consecutive years from 1967 to 1973.  That's just an amazing feat by anybody's calculations, and will likely never be duplicated.

Over a period of 27 years he won 620 games, including 88 straight during one historic stretch.  He coached many of the game's greatest players such as Bill Walton and Lew Alcindor — later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The tributes to the coach have been heaped upon him not only in life, but in the aftermath of his death -- all well-deserved.  As a coach, he was a groundbreaking trendsetter who demanded his players be in great condition so they could play an up-tempo style of basketball.  His withering full-court defenses smothered opponents and broke their will to win again and again.  He revolutionized the approach to the team game.

But his impact only began with his coaching.  He was the master of the simple one- or two-sentence homily, instructive little messages best presented in his famous "Pyramid of Success," which remains must-read material, not only for fellow coaches but for anyone in a leadership position in American business.  (Click on the image to enlarge).

He taught the team game and had only three hard-and-fast rules — no profanity, tardiness or criticizing fellow teammates. Layered beneath that seeming simplicity, though, were a slew of life lessons — primers on everything from how to put on your socks correctly to how to maintain poise: "Not being thrown off stride in how you behave or what you believe because of outside events."

In today's NBA game is a long-lost Woodenism:  "It takes ten hands to make a basket."  He despised one-on-one showboating.

Asked in a 2008 interview the secret to his long life, Wooden replied: "Not being afraid of death and having peace within yourself.  All of life is peaks and valleys. Don't let the peaks get too high and the valleys too low."

Asked what he would like God to say when he arrived at the pearly gates, Wooden replied, "Well done."

Even with his amazing achievements, he remained humble and gracious. He said he tried to live by advice from his father: "Be true to yourself, help others, make each day your masterpiece, make friendship a fine art, drink deeply from good books — especially the Bible, build a shelter against a rainy day, give thanks for your blessings and pray for guidance every day."

While he lived his father's words, many more lived his. Those lucky enough to play for him got it first hand, but there was no shortage of Wooden sayings making the rounds far away from the basketball court.

"Learn as if you were to live forever; live as if you were to die tomorrow," was one.

"Don't give up on your dreams, or your dreams will give up on you," was another.

And those are just a few for starters.  Here's the Christian Science Monitor's top 10 Wooden quotes:

10. Failure is not fatal but failure to change might be.

9. Ability is a poor man’s wealth.

8. It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.

7. Don’t measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability.

6. What you are as a person is far more important that what you are as a basketball player.

5. You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.

4. Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.

3. Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.

2. Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.

1. Never mistake activity for achievement.

Born Oct. 14, 1910, near Martinsville, Indiana, on a farm that didn't have electricity or indoor plumbing, Wooden's life revolved around sports from the time his father built his own "field of dreams" -- a baseball diamond among his wheat, corn and alfalfa.  Baseball was his favorite sport, but there was also a basketball hoop nailed in a hayloft. Wooden played there countless hours with his brother, Maurice, using any kind of ball they could find.

Wooden could easily have written the script for the famous movie "Hoosiers."  He led Martinsville High School to the Indiana state basketball championship in 1927 before heading to Purdue, where he was an All-American from 1930-32.  The Boilermakers were national champions his senior season, and Wooden, nicknamed "the Indiana Rubber Man" for his dives on the hardcourt, was college basketball's player of the year.

But it wasn't until he headed west to Southern California that Wooden really made his mark on the game. Wooden's Bruins were 330-19, including four 30-0 seasons.  Will that feat ever again be matched in college basketball?  No one I know ever thinks it will.

Wooden was honest.  Awaiting a call from the University of Minnesota for its head coaching job which he really wanted, then thought he had been passed over when it didn't come, he accepted an offer from UCLA in Los Angeles.

Minnesota officials called later that night, saying they couldn't get through earlier because of a snowstorm, and offered him the job.  Though Wooden wanted it more than the UCLA job, he told them he already had given UCLA his word and could not break it.

Still, it would be 16 seasons before Wooden won his first NCAA championship with a team featuring Walt Hazzard that went 30-0 in 1964.  After that, the awesome players began arriving in bunches, and top players such as Alcindor, Walton, Sidney Wicks and Lucius Allen played year after year for him in Westwood.

Each would learn at the first practice how to properly put on socks and sneakers.  Each would learn to keep his hair short and face clean-shaven, even though the fashions of the 1960s and '70s dictated otherwise.

And each would learn Wooden's "pyramid of success," a chart he used to both inspire players and sum up his personal code for life.  Industriousness and enthusiasm were its cornerstones; faith, patience, loyalty and self-control were some of the building blocks.  At the top of the pyramid was competitive greatness.

Wooden never had to worry about his reputation.  He didn't drink or swear or carouse with other coaches on the road, though he did have a penchant for berating referees.  Because he taught his players to never swear and wanted to set the proper example for them, his outbursts usually sounded like this:

"Dadburn it, you saw him double-dribble down there!  Goodness gracious sakes alive!"

I love Jerry Sloan, the legendary coach of the Utah Jazz, but if you've ever sat close enough to the bench to hear one of his outbursts, well, suffice it to say he could take a page from Coach Wooden on vocabulary.  When Wooden was asked a few years ago who his favorite basketball player was -- the player he would consistently pay to see play -- his reply was simply, "John Stockton."  The man was always a good judge of talent and character.

Wooden would coach 27 years at UCLA, finishing with a record of 620-147.  He won 47 NCAA tournament games.  His overall mark as a college coach was 885-203, an .813 winning percentage that remains unequaled.

After the loss to Notre Dame that ended his 88-game streak , Wooden refused to allow his players to talk to reporters.

"Only winners talk," he said.  A week later, UCLA beat the Irish at home by 19 points.

A little more than a year later, Wooden surprisingly announced his retirement after a 75-74 NCAA semifinal victory over Louisville. He then went out and coached the Bruins for the last time, winning his 10th national title with a 92-85 win over Kentucky.

After that victory, Wooden walked into the interview room at the San Diego Sports Arena to face about 200 reporters, who let their objectivity as sports writers slip.  To the man, they all stood and applauded.

Long before that, though, the road to coaching greatness began after Wooden graduated with honors from Purdue and married Nell Riley, his high school sweetheart.

In a 2008 public appearance with Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, in which the men were interviewed in front of an audience, Wooden said he still wrote his late wife — the only girl he ever dated — a letter on the 21st of each month.  "She's still there to me," he said.  "I talk to her every day."

He coached two years at Dayton (Kentucky) High School, and his 6-11 losing record the first season was the only one in his 40-year coaching career.

He spent the next nine years coaching basketball, baseball and tennis at South Bend (Indiana) Central High School, where he also taught English.

"I think the teaching profession contributes more to the future of our society than any other single profession," he once said.  "I'm glad I was a teacher."

Wooden served in the Navy as a physical education instructor during World War II, and continued teaching when he became the basketball coach at Indiana State Teachers College, where he went 47-17 in two seasons.

In his first year at Indiana State, Wooden's team won the Indiana Collegiate Conference title and received an invitation to the NAIB tournament in Kansas City.  Wooden, who had a black player on his team, refused the invitation because the NAIB had a policy banning African Americans. The rule was changed the next year, and Wooden led Indiana State to another conference title.

It was then that UCLA called, though Wooden didn't take the job to get rich.  He never made more than $35,000 in a season, and early in his career he worked two jobs to make ends meet.

"My first four years at UCLA, I worked in the mornings at a dairy from six to noon then I'd come into UCLA," he told The Associated Press in 1995.  "Why did I do it?  Because I needed the money.  I was a dispatcher of trucks in the San Fernando Valley and was a troubleshooter.  After all the trucks made their deliveries and came back, I would call in the next day's orders, sweep out the place and head over the hill to UCLA."

After he enjoyed great success at UCLA, the Los Angeles Lakers reportedly offered Wooden their head coaching job at a salary 10 times what he was making, but he refused.

Nell, Wooden's wife of 53 years, died in 1985. He is survived by son, James, and daughter, Nancy Muehlhausen; several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

His was a life worth celebrating here on this page.  It is a life worth emulating everywhere.

Months ago I wrote about Ted Kennedy's death, suggesting that as debauched and fallen as he was he could still hope for a better life in the spirit world and a subsequent glorious resurrection.  I have a feeling John Wooden, believing as he did in eternal marriage, will embrace all the ordinances of salvation offered to him without reservation.  Everyone, whether they have ever heard about Mormons and the teachings of the Church, fundamentally believes in eternal love and marriage -- that love does not die in the grave, but continues, as Coach Wooden expressed it.

He will view those ordinances as being of even greater worth than 10 national championships.


  1. Haven't read the whole article yet, but saw the blurb about Stockton. I've heard complaints that he was quite aloof from the fans, but that's understandable, given the maturity level of the typical sports fan.

    My favorite memory of Stockton was before a game began. As the National Anthem was played, the players on both teams were less than exemplary. At best, they stood there with their hands folded behind their butts. The Mailman was fidgeting the whole time and walked away before the final note. Stockton was the only player on either team who stood at attention with his hand over his heart, just like the vast majority of the crowd in attendance.

  2. Our sons competed against each other in football and basketball. John was always the attentive father, and worked the sticks on the sidelines. Our daughter-in-law was a French tutor for his children. He's the real deal, but had no interest in the limelight whatsoever.