American college basketball coach
He always described himself as merely a teacher, but John Wooden was much more than that. The self-effacing "Wizard of Westwood," college basketball's most successful coach, led UCLA to 10 NCAA men's basketball championships, including seven in a row, and once led the Bruins to eight consecutive victories. He is one of two individuals to be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both player and coach. As a college coach, his record was 620-146 at UCLA and 667-161 overall, including two seasons at Indiana State in the 1940s.
"Sometimes, when the Madness of March gets to be too much—too many players trying to make SportsCenter, too few players trying to make assists, too many coaches trying to be homeys, too few coaches willing to be mentors, too many freshmen with out-of-wedlock kids, too few freshmen who will stay in school long enough to become men—I like to go see Coach Wooden," Rick Reilly wrote in Sports Illustrated. "I visit him in his condo in Encino (California), 20 minutes northwest of L.A., and hear him say things like 'Gracious sakes alive and tell stories about teaching 'Lewis' the hook shot. Lewis Alcindor, that is. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ." Wooden never had a losing season as a high school or college coach. His top players included Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton , Keith Wilkes (later Jamaal Wilkes), Gail Goodrich, and Sidney Wicks. Wooden got such headstrong players as Abdul-Jabbar and Walton to buy into his system. Many ex-players regularly stay in touch with him.
"Indiana Rubber Man"
Wooden took interest in basketball around the age of eight, when he would shoot at a tomato basket with a makeshift ball consisting of his mother's hosiery stuffed with rags. Wooden, known for his playmaking and defensive abilities, went on to lead Martinsville, where he was raised, to the Indiana state high school championship in 1927. At Purdue University, where he sparked the Boilermakers to the 1932 national championship, he was called the "Indiana Rubber Man," because he would bounce right back up after diving on to floor. He was 1932 national collegiate player of the year.
The Wooden Way at UCLA
He took over at UCLA for the 1948-49 season, and while the first national championship did not arrive for another 15 years, the Bruins were successful right away under his tenure. UCLA won 20 or more games six times in his first 15 seasons.
Wooden, according to the Basketball Hall of Fame's Web site, "began laying the groundwork for what would become the dynasty of all dynasties. He believed in lengthy practices for conditioning and endless drills to perfect fundamental skills." He even lectured his players about putting socks and sneakers on properly, to avoid blisters. Many of his players shot "bank shots," off the backboard. In addition, Wooden was ever the teacher at home, frequently writing slogans on his sons' lunch bags: "Be quick, but don't hurry" (later the title of one of his books).… "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.… Never mistake activity for achievement."
The coach outlined his philosophy on coaching and life in his Pyramid of Success, which puts conditioning, skill,
and teamwork at his core. He also preached that basketball is a game of threes: forward, guard, center; shoot, drive, pass; and ball, you, man. Years later, well into retirement, Wooden admitted the one thing he missed about coaching was the practices. "(I miss) the teaching; where you establish a rapport with players. I loved to teach."
Early Championship Years
Ironically, given how UCLA rode such big men as Abdul-Jabbar and Walton to dominance, the Bruins' first championship team had no player taller than 6-foot-5. The Bruins raced to an undefeated season in 1963-64, but skeptics said the two teams ranked right behind ULCA, Michigan and Duke, did not have the necessary size and experience to flourish.
UCLA compensated for its smallness with a stifling zone press defense—Wooden's players had the conditioning to handle it effectively. The NCAA tournament semifinals, the zone press enabled the Bruins to score 11 straight points to erase a 75-70 Kansas State lead with 7:28 remaining, and UCLA prevailed 90-84. In the championship game, the zone press was UCLA's trump card again as the Bruins erased a first-half deficit and beat Duke, 98-83.
That title gave the Bruins national visibility in an era that preceded all-sports cable networks, 24-hour access to game stories and the Internet. West Coast results seldom made the following day's morning newspapers in the East. Two seasons after repeating as champions in 1965, the Bruins corralled the nation's most prized recruit, Alcindor, out of Power Memorial High School in New York. With Alcindor in the middle, the Bruins sported an 88-2 record from 1968 through 1970 and won three consecutive national titles. One of the losses was a memorable 71-69 defeat to the University of Houston and its standout player, Elvin Hayes, before 52,693 at Houston's Astrodome (basketball games in domed stadiums are commonplace today, but were a rarity in the late 1960s). But UCLA avenged its defeat later that year, routing the Cougars 101-69 in the NCAA semifinals.
Stood His Ground
"He believed in hopelessly out-of-date stuff that never did anything but win championships. No dribbling behind the back or through the legs. 'There's no need,' he'd say. No UCLA basketball number was retired under his watch. 'What about the fellows who wore that number before? Didn't they contribute to the team?,' he'd say. No long hair, no facial hair. 'They take too long to dry, and you could catch a cold leaving the gym,' he'd say." Reilly wrote, "You played for him, you played by his rules. Never score without acknowledging a teammate. One word of profanity, and you're done for the day."
Wooden held his ground during the protest era of the 1960s and 1970s, even with All-American players such as Alcindor and Walton. Walton, a counter-culture figure who once suggested to Wooden that smoking marijuana might alleviate pain in his chronically injured knees, showed up at practice one day with a full beard. "It's my right," Walton said, to which Wooden responded, "That's good, Bill. I admire people who have strong beliefs and stick by them. I really do. We're going to miss you." According to Reilly, Walton "shaved it right then and there. Now Walton calls once a week to tell Coach he loves him." Wooden explained that, "[a]t one time, I required players to wear slacks and a sport coat while traveling. But then our university president at UCLA, and the professors, too, started wearing turtlenecks and jeans, so I changed my expectations. I only required that they be clean and neat. I never relaxed my feeling about beards or goatees, but I did relax a little bit about the hair. I never wanted it too long, but as time went by I let them wear it a little longer than I had before."
Wooden also had to handle the constant presence of athletic booster Sam Gilbert. The late Gilbert, a Los Angeles-area businessman, was considered a father figure to many players and sat courtside during Bruins' home games at Pauley Pavilion. "Gilbert did plenty," Rob Miech of CBS SportsLine.com wrote in March of 2000, "… to befriend key players from the juggernaut program of the land in a relationship that has been described as mutually beneficial to himself and UCLA." Rival coaches such as Jerry Tarkanian and Dale Brown called UCLA's program corrupt, citing cash and gifts from Gilbert to players, though the NCAA investigated and cleared Wooden's program. "I had no relationship with him (Gilbert) and I tried to make sure my players tried to be very, very careful," Wooden told Miech. "Wooden's bosses," Miech wrote, "… must have been pleased that the dynasty wasn't prematurely dismantled because of player unrest with the strict and stern coach. It's that father-figure image the players found in Gilbert, not Wooden."
|1910||Born in Martinsville, Indiana|
|1928||Graduates from Martinsville High School; enrolled at Purdue University|
|1932||Marries Nell, his high school sweetheart|
|1932-34||Coaches at Dayton (Ky.) High School|
|1932-39||Plays for four professional teams in the Midwest|
|1934-43||Coaches at Central High School, South Bend, Ind.|
|1943-46||Lieutenant in U.S. Navy|
|1946-48||Coaches at Indiana State|
|1948-75||Coaches at UCLA|
|1985||Wife Nell dies|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1927||As a player, leads Martinsville High School to Indiana state championship.|
|1930-32||Three-time Helms Foundation All-America at Purdue|
|1932||Helms Foundation Player of the Year; Big Ten Medal for Proficiency in Scholarship and Athletics|
|1932-43||Overall high school coaching record 218-42|
|1947||Coached Indiana State to conference title|
|1948-75||Coached UCLA to 620-147 record, four undefeated seasons, an 88-game win streak and 10 national championships, including seven straight|
|1961||Enshrined in Basketball Hall of Fame as Player|
|1964||NCAA College Basketball Coach of the Year 1964, 1967, 1969, 1970, 1972, 1973|
|1970||The Sporting News Man of the Year|
|1973||Sports Illustrated Man of the Year|
|1973||Becomes one of two persons enshrined in Hall of Fame as player and coach (other is Lenny Wilkens)|
|1977||Los Angeles Athletic Club establishes John R. Wooden Award for college basketball player of the year|
|1994||John R. Wooden Classic basketball tournament established in his honor|
|1995||Receives Reagan Distinguished American Award|
|1999||ESPN names him Greatest Coach of the 20th Century|
Win Streak, Dynasty Over
UCLA, meanwhile, kept racking up championships. One of Wooden's favorite teams was the team of 1969-70. "The team without," he said. "People ask, 'the team without what?' No, the team without whom? Without Kareem." Regular-season losses were rare, and after an 89-82 defeat to Notre Dame midway through the 1970-71 season, the Bruins would not lose another game for more than three years. The winning streak ended at 88 in January of 1974, when Notre Dame, ironically, defeated the Bruins 71-70 at South Bend, Indiana.
Then, in the 1974 Final Four at Greensboro, North Carolina, the championship run ended. North Carolina State, which had lost to UCLA by 18 points during the regular season, overcame a seven-point deficit in the second overtime of a semifinal game and the Wolfpack eliminated the Bruins, 80-77. UCLA's title streak ended at seven. Wooden, however, had one last hurrah. In his final game as coach, the Bruins defeated Kentucky 92-85 at the San Diego Sports Arena for the 1975 title, making it 10 championships in 12 seasons. Looking back to the start of the season, Wooden said: "To say I thought we would win (the title) back then would be stretching a point." UCLA had advanced in the semifinals by beating Louisville 75-74 on Richard Washington's basket with four seconds remaining. Louisville Coach Denny Crum was a former Wooden assistant.
In Memory of Nell
Wooden's home in Encino is also a shrine to his late wife, Nell, who died on March 21, 1985—the first day of spring after a lengthy bout with cancer. According to Jack Wilkinson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, some relatives and friends worry that Wooden has never fully recovered. According to Wilkinson, the one-bedroom condo is essentially the same since Nell died. "I've never changed anything," Wooden said. "Not even the furniture. I should," he smiled. "The furniture's wearing out." Wilkinson also writes, "John Wooden, continues to sleep on the left side of the bed, as he did when Nell was alive. On the right side lies Nell's robe, along with two framed photos of her, some flowers and a figurine. At the foot of the bed is a gold-and-blue UCLA blanket, inscribed with 'John' and 'Nell.'Atop it sits Nell's old California blue license tag: Ma Ma 7. That's what the seven Wooden grandchildren—and the 10 great-grandchildren—called her. Ma Ma, to John's Pa Pa. And on Nell's robe rests a stack of dozens of letters. 'I write her a letter on the 21st day of each month,' Wooden said. Handwritten love letters on the monthly anniversary of Nell's death. 'I might say, 'It's been 16 years, nine months and so many days since you were released from pain and taken to heaven. But you are with me always," Wooden said. 'Then I'll talk with her about some of the children and grandchildren, what they're doing, what's new.'"
"To an outsider," Wilkinson writes, "Wooden's behavior might seem obsessive, almost macabre. But spend three hours in the home he once shared with Nell, and it's clear this great man was blessed with what everyone craves: The one true love of his life." Wooden wrote in his 1997 book, Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections on and off the Court, "I had a successful basketball career, but I believe I had an even more successful marriage."
"Modesty may be Wooden's most enduring quality (He loathes the moniker Wizard of Westwood—'I'm no wizard,' he states emphatically.)," David Greenwald wrote in UCLA Today, a staff and faculty newsletter. "John Wooden stands out as a stalwart man of integrity, someone who taught his players first and foremost to respect themselves, their opponents and each other."
"When I left UCLA in 1974 and became the highest-paid player in the history of team sports at that time, the quality of my life went down," wrote Walton, who played on National Basketball Association championship teams in Portland and Boston during an injury-plagued pro career. "That's how special it was to have played for John Wooden and UCLA."
Wooden cast such a huge shadow over UCLA that successors found the coaching job too much of a hot seat. None of his first five successors—Gene Bartow, Gary Cunningham, Larry Brown, Larry Farmer and Walt Hazzard—held the job more than four years. Jim Harrick coached eight years and produced the one post-Wooden title in 1995, but left a year later amid a scandal. Steve Lavin, who succeeded Harrick, feels comfortable in the position. "Lavin is reminded every day of Wooden because 10 national championship banners hang inside Pauley Pavilion," the Associated Press wrote in November, 2002. "Instead of shying away from Wooden's legacy, Lavin has embraced it."
Where Is He Now?
John Wooden, a widower since 1985, lives in a condominium in Encino, California, and occasionally attends UCLA home games. Chronic knee pain has limited his mobility.
Wooden, who has always disdained showboating, says the dunk has encouraged such behavior and favors banning it. Ironically, the NCAA had prohibited the dunk for a few years after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's first varsity season, in a move many felt was aimed at the dominant Abdul-Jabbar. He also favors moving back the 3-point line.
Asked if he were coaching today, Wooden said: "You have to adjust as time goes by. I certainly know that I adjusted as time went by. But my basic philosophy of the game would not change at all. I never taught under the shot clock. I never taught under the 3-point goal. Those things would make me make changes in my style of play, but my basic philosophy would not change one bit. "I'm often asked what I would do about tattoos. I'm glad I don't have to [decide]. They say you have to change with the times. The way some players [look], I wouldn't even recruit them."
Wooden, after retiring, did not attend another Final Four until 1995, in Seattle, when UCLA won its only post-Wooden championship. He frequently speaks to the UCLA team. Among his favorite contemporary coaches are Roy Williams of Kansas, Mike Montgomery of Stanford and Mike Krzyzewski of Duke.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY WOODEN:
(With Bill Sharman and Bob Seizer) The Wooden-Sharman Method: A Guide to Winning Basketball, New York: Macmillan, 1975.
(With Jack Tobin) They Call Me Coach: The Fascinating First-person Story of a Legendary Basketball Coach. Revised edition, Waco, TX: Word Books, 1985.
(With Steve Jamison) Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections on and off the Court, Lincolnwood, IL: Contemporary Books, 1997.
Practical Modern Basketball, new introduction by Bill Walton, 3rd. ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999.
Quotable Wooden, Nashville: TowleHouse, 2002.
Biro, Brian D. Beyond Success: The 15 Secrets to Effective Leadership and Life Based on Legendary Coach John Wooden's Pyramid of Success, New York: Berkley, 2001.
Chapin, Dwight and Jeff Prugh. The Wizard of West-wood; Coach John Wooden and his UCLA Bruins, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973.
Heisler, Mark. They Shoot Coaches, Don't They?: UCLA and the NCAA since John Wooden, New York: Macmillan, 1996.
Reilly, Rick. "A Paragon Rising Above the Madness." Sports Illustrated (March 20, 2000): 136.
"10 Burning Questions for John Wooden," ESPN.com, http://espn.go.com/page2, (January 4, 2003).
Basketball Hall of Fame, John Wooden Biography, http://www.hoophall.com/halloffame/Wooden.htm, (January 4, 2003).
Greenwald, David. "Happy Birthday, Coach John Wooden," UCLA Today, http://www.today.ucla.edu, (January 4, 2003).
"John Wooden, Coaching Legend," Reference.com, http://www.reference.com, (January 4, 2003).
"John Wooden Fact Sheet," Sports America, Inc., www.sportsamericainc.com, (January 4, 2003).
Walton, Bill. "John Wooden, Simply the Best," UCLA Today, http://www.today.ucla.edu, (January 4, 2003).
Wilkinson, Jack. "Visiting the Wizard of Westwood," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, http://www.accessatlanta.com, (January 20, 2002).
"Wooden's Influence Seen in Tradition Field," Sporting News, http://www.sportingnews.com/cbasketball, (November 29, 2002).
Sketch by Paul Burton