Wooden, John (1910—)

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Wooden, John (1910—)

John Wooden coached the UCLA Bruins basketball team for 23 years, ten of those years ending with the NCAA championship. Wooden won his first title in 1964, then again in 1965. After a year out of the winner's circle, Wooden's team achieved seven consecutive national titles (1967-73). In 1975, "The Wizard of Westwood" (a nickname Wooden despised) won his last title.

Wooden finished his 23-year career with a.804 winning percentage, fourth all-time behind Jerry Tarkanian, Clair Bee, and Adolph Rupp. Included among his many accomplishments are an 88-game winning streak, 38 straight NCAA Tournament wins, and 19 conference championships. As a coach, as Curry Kirkpatrick noted in a 1998 Sport article, he was considered "the best who ever coached, any time, any sport."

Wooden coached some of the best college players of their time, including Lew Alcindor (who later would be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Bill Walton, Sidney Wicks, and Walt Hazzard, as well as Hill Street Blues star Mike Warren.

Wooden's life started in the Midwest, in Martinsville, Indiana. It was there he met his beloved wife, Nellie, who died in 1985 after 53 years of marriage, leaving John Wooden despondent for quite a while. He dedicated They Call Me Coach to her, writing, "Her love, faith, and loyalty through all our years together are primarily responsible for what I am." Later in the book, reminiscing about Nellie again, he called her death "the ultimate tragedy."

Wooden was considered one of the greatest Indiana schoolboy players in history, quite an accomplishment considering the long history of great high school basketball in the Hoosier state. He had a brilliant athletic career as a guard at Purdue University, and he has been called at times the "Michael Jordan of his day" because of his accomplishments as a Boilermaker.

Wooden decided to retire after 1975 upon recognizing that his professional responsibilities in addition to coaching, such as acting as liaison with athletic boosters, began to wear on him. He noted in his first book, They Call Me Coach, "As the years passed, … the pressure of the crowds at our regular season games and especially at our championship tournaments began to disturb me greatly. I found myself getting very uncomfortable and anxious to get away from it all."

His name has not been forgotten after his retirement. An annual event entitled the John Wooden Classic was established to ensure that Wooden's legacy would not be forgotten as time passed and that he would "not become a footnote in American sports history." The strength of his talent in basketball was recognized again when he became the first man elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and as a coach. In addition, each year since 1977 the top college basketball player has been presented the John R. Wooden award by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. (One critical factor that Wooden demanded before he agreed to attach his name to the award was that the recipient be a good student, stressing that the primary reason athletes are in school is to earn an education.)

By the end of 1990s, Wooden remained active in basketball camps, which he has enjoyed since his retirement in 1975. He took particular pleasure in teaching kids the fundamentals of basketball. In They Call Me Coach, Wooden noted that during his camps scrimmages are "the least important part of what we teach." Instead, they emphasize complete attention to the fundamentals of the game. In Wooden's second book, Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations On and Off the Court, former UCLA player and assistant coach and current Louisville basketball coach Denny Crum commented, "Coach Wooden was first of all a teacher. I believe he takes more pleasure from teaching than from all the recognition he amassed during his illustrious career."

Wooden's simple style and unique expressions have become well known in the sports world. Some "Woodenisms" include, as listed in Wooden: "What is right is more important than who is right;" "Don't let making a living prevent you from making a life;" "Much can be accomplished by teamwork when no one is concerned about who gets credit;" "It is what you learn after you know it all that counts;" and "Discipline yourself and others won't need to."

—D. Byron Painter

Further Reading:

Kirkpatrick, Curry. "Same as He Ever Was." Sport. January1998, 70-76.

Wooden, John, with Jack Tobin. They Call Me Coach. Lincolnwood, Illinois, Contemporary Books, 1988.

Wooden, John, with Steve Jamison. Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations On and Off the Court. Lincolnwood, Illinois, Contemporary Books, 1997.