Wooden, John Robert

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WOODEN, John Robert

(b. 14 October 1910 in Hall, Indiana), one of the most successful coaches in the history of college basketball, who was the first man to be named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.

Wooden was one of four sons of Joshua Wooden and Roxie Rothrock Wooden, rural Indiana farmers. His first home lacked both electricity and indoor plumbing, and his earliest attempts at basketball were made using a rag "ball" constructed by his mother and a tomato basket nailed to a barn wall. His father was a great moral influence, and Wooden wrote and spoke of him throughout his life, quoting his philosophical maxims, especially his saying, "Make each day your masterpiece." In 1924 the family moved to Martinsville, Indiana, where Wooden played on the Martinsville High School team for three years (with the nickname "Martinsville Rubberman"), earning All-State recognition each year; he also played baseball and ran track.

Wooden graduated from high school in 1928. He then traveled to West Lafayette, Indiana, and enrolled at Purdue University, where he played on the basketball team as a five-foot, ten-inch guard for Coach Ward "Piggy" Lambert. Noted for his hard drives to the basket, Wooden was named an All-American in each of his final three years as a Boilermaker. He was also named the national College Player of the Year as a senior and received the Big Ten Medal for excellence in athletics and scholarship that year. Wooden graduated in 1932 with a B.S. in engineering and married Nellie C. Riley, his high school sweetheart, on 8 August 1932. The marriage endured fifty-three years until her death in 1985; they raised a son and a daughter.

Offered $5,000 to play with the famous Boston Celtics, Wooden instead took a job teaching and coaching at Danville High School in Kentucky; in 1933–1934 he suffered his only losing record in a season as a coach. He returned to Indiana in 1934 to teach and coach at Central High School in South Bend while playing semiprofessional basketball with the Kautsky Grocers in Indianapolis. After the United States entered World War II, Wooden served as a fitness officer, lieutenant second grade, in the U.S. Navy from 1943 to 1946. After the war he took a job as the head basketball coach at Indiana State Teachers College in Terre Haute, where in two seasons he compiled a record of 47–14. Wooden declined an invitation to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics postseason tournament in Kansas City when he learned that his African-American reserve player Clarence Walker would not be permitted to play. Wooden earned his M.A. at Indiana in 1947.

Wooden's success at Indiana State made him marketable, and he hoped to land the vacant Big Ten head coaching position at the University of Minnesota. However, telephone transmission trouble meant that Minnesota lost out to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), whose call got through first. In 1948 Wooden joined the historic midwestern migration to southern California, signing a three-year contract with the Bruins. Speaking to UCLA alumni upon his arrival, he told an audience, "The fast break is my system." Wooden's success was immediate. His first team in Westwood, the Los Angeles neighborhood housing the school, went 22–7, and his 1949–1950 team achieved a 24–7 record while winning the Pacific Coast League. After three seasons playing in the tiny campus gym, which seated only 1,000 people, the Bruins became nomadic for the next fourteen years, playing in various Los Angeles venues until the opening of Pauley Pavilion in the mid-1960s. The Bruins won league titles again in 1952 and 1956, but were overshadowed in California by the University of San Francisco teams of the mid-1950s, which won sixty consecutive games and back-to-back national titles under Coach Phil Woolpert, and the University of California Golden Bears under Coach Pete Newell, who won the 1959 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament and then lost in the final game in 1960.

Wooden's competitiveness showed often as he yelled at both officials and opposing players, clutching a crucifix in one hand and a rolled-up program in the other. Wooden never cared for recruiting, but his breakthrough came when Walt Hazzard of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, came west to play for the Bruins. Wooden reached his first Final Four in 1962, losing to the eventual champion Cincinnati in the semifinals. In 1964 Wooden achieved his first national championship as the Bruins prevailed 98–83 over Duke University. With no player taller than six feet, five inches tall, UCLA won via its fast pace and constant pressure, made possible by superior conditioning that especially showed in the waning minutes of their games, the 2–2–1 zone press, and the leadership of Hazzard and his teammate Gail Goodrich. The Bruins successfully defended their title in an undefeated season in 1964–1965, beating the University of Michigan 91–80 in the final.

In autumn 1965 the seven-foot, one-inch recruit Lewis Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) arrived on campus from New York City and led the freshman team to a 75–60 victory over the defending national champions. Wooden's 1966–1967 team started four sophomores from the previous year's unbeaten freshman team (freshmen were ineligible for varsity competition). He demonstrated his coaching flexibility in designing a low-post offense to take advantage of Alcindor's skills. Alcindor began his varsity career by scoring fifty-six points, a school record, against the crosstown rival Southern California. The Bruins won their third national title in four years, 79–64 over the University of Dayton, and finished 30–0. Dunking was outlawed after this season because of Alcindor. The Alcindor era concluded with two more NCAA championships, making an unprecedented three in a row. The rise in interest in college basketball was seen on 20 January 1968 when the University of Houston edged the Bruins 71–69 before an Astrodome audience of 52,693, an NCAA record, in the first regular-season college basketball game ever nationally televised. The Bruins went 88–2 during the Alcindor years.

But even with Alcindor's graduation in 1969, the beat went on in Westwood. With a mission to show there was more to UCLA basketball than one superstar, the 1969–1970 Bruins again won the national title, 80–69 over Jacksonville University, and made it five in a row in 1971. Some began to call the NCAA "The UCLA Invitational," Wooden was referred to as the "Wizard of Westwood," more and more people were becoming interested in his motivational system (dubbed the "Pyramid of Success"), and the UCLA mystique was at its height. The Bill Walton era began in 1971, freshmen now being eligible. The six-foot, eleven-inch center from San Diego helped stretch the Bruins winning steak to a new record of eighty-eight (ended at the University of Notre Dame but avenged a week later) and two more national titles, making that particular streak an unbelievable seven straight. The end finally came in the 1974 national semifinals against North Carolina State University, the eventual champions, in double overtime. Walton graduated, but Wooden's 1974–1975 team, with only one returning starter, again returned to the Final Four. After a narrow and difficult victory in overtime over the University of Louisville, coached by Wooden's former player and longtime assistant Denny Crum, at the press conference following that game, Wooden suddenly and shockingly announced that he had just decided his next game, the 1975 final, would be his last. The Bruins responded by defeating the University of Kentucky 92–85, to give Wooden a final NCAA title, his tenth.

Even in his nineties, Wooden remained active in retirement into the twenty-first century. He sometimes criticized showmanship and lack of team play, but coaches and players continued to seek out his opinions on all aspects of the game. He was a highly successful coach before his teams began their amazing streak of national championships. His many titles and impeccable integrity, founded on a strong and open Christian faith, aroused interest in his system and ideas, which were traditional. He was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1961 and as a coach in 1973, the first person so doubly honored. Wooden defined success as "peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming."

Wooden's autobiography, They Call Me Coach (1972), written with Jack Tobin, appeared in a revised edition in 1988. A collection of the coach's thoughts appears in Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations On and Off the Court (1997), written with Steve Jamison. A long interview with Billy Packer is found in Packer with Roland Lazenby, Fifty Years of the Final Four (1987). Neville Johnson, The John Wooden Pyramid of Success (2000), includes an interview with Wooden. Arnold Hane, "Winning: With Nice Guys and a Pyramid of Principles," New York Times Sunday Magazine (2 Dec. 1973), is a cover story regarding Wooden's "Pyramid of Success."

Lawson Bowling