“The Coach” – Coach John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood

Rich Clarkson/Sports Illustrated, via Getty Images

John Wooden won 10 national championships as coach of the U.C.L.A. Bruins, and is generally considered the greatest coach in college basketball history.

UCLA’s Coach Wooden was called home at age 99; 1910 – 2010.  He was an amazing man!

Wooden passed away of natural causes at UCLA’s Ronald Reagan Medical Center.  The headlines read Coach, Mentor, Legend, and should have added great husband and all around lover of people who loved him in return.  His children and grandchildren said he retained his unique sense of humor to the end.

As his UCLA family mourns and the sports world talks of his legendary effect on basketball and its players and fans; politicians, religious leaders, educators and those who knew and loved him also speak of Wooden’s strident efforts to teach his players – not to mention the people who heard him speak or read his books – about how to live a considered and decent life.  “He was as conversant with Shakespeare and the Bible as he was with basketball,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said in a statement. “He could and did quote poetry and biblical verse from memory until his dying day.”

Former UCLA star Jamaal Wilkes said that playing for Wooden “felt like Dorothy going to Oz.” Much of what the coach told his team took a while to sink in. Widely regarded as the best college basketball coach of all time, Wooden won 620 games in 27 seasons as the UCLA head coach, including an 88 game winning streak and four undefeated seasons. Most impressively, he won ten national championships.  He is also only 1 or 2 men in the college basketball hall of fame as a coach and a player.  Long before he was the “Wizard of Westwood,” and perhaps the greatest coach in collegiate basketball history, John Wooden was the “India Rubber Man,” so named for bouncing back from his aggressive tumbles on the court.

Yet with all that, basketball was only a small part of the effect he had on the world.  He was loved and respected by all who knew him and many who only knew of him. His players loved him. “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 Bill Walton in 2000 in UCLA Magazine. “That’s how special it was to have played for John Wooden and UCLA.”

Wooden built his teams around the fast -break offense and he innovated with the full-court zone press defense, nicknamed “The Glue Factory” when he unveiled it in the 1963-64 season. That Bruins team went undefeated and won the NCAA championship; Coach Wooden’s first. A dynasty like Wooden’s would be almost impossible now, because the best players seldom spend more than a year or two in college before turning professional. No N.C.A.A. men’s basketball coach has won more than four championships since Wooden retired.  Only one of Wooden’s eight successors, Jim Harrick, in 1995, won an N.C.A.A. championship with the Bruins, who have managed to retain an air of the elite among basketball programs largely on Wooden’s legacy.  A legacy that will probably stand forever.

Wooden’s last season as UCLA head coach was the 1974-1975 season. Through the years, Wooden’s legacy has only grown as he became an accomplished author of books that applied his teaching on basketball to life lessons, including his pyramid of success. His unabashedly folksy and common sense style resonated decades after his greatest coaching triumphs.  Wooden retired after U.C.L.A.’s 1975 championship victory over Kentucky. He was a slight man hugely popular for his winning record and his understated approach, who ultimately became viewed as a kind of sage for both basketball and life, a symbol of both excellence and simpler times.

Wooden was a dignified, scholarly man who spoke with the precise language of the English teacher he once was. He always carried a piece of paper with a message from his father that read:

“Be true to yourself. Make each day a masterpiece. Help others. Drink deeply from good books. Make friendship a fine art. Build a shelter against a rainy day.” 

Wooden said he lived by that creed, and few players tested him. One who did was Walton, a gifted 6-foot-11 center with flowing red hair who went on to play for 10 seasons in the N.B.A. At the start of Walton’s senior season, in 1973, his U.C.L.A. teams had won 75 consecutive games and 2 N.C.A.A. titles. But when Wooden walked into the locker room before the first practice and saw Walton’s just-trimmed but still long hair, he said:  “Bill, that’s not short enough. We’re sure going to miss you on this team. Get on out of here.”  Lore has it that, Walton jumped onto his bicycle, raced back to the barber shop where his hair had been defiantly ‘just’ trimmed the day before, and got his head almost shaved and rode back. He made the last half-hour of practice. Mr. Wooden’s trademarks as a coach were conditioning, drilling, and the “Pyramid of Success,” a formula for clean living that admitted of no facial hair or profanity. While rival coaches spoke behind his back of “Saint John,”  Wooden lectured his players on the virtues of self-control and industriousness. He spouted pithy slogans like “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”  Coach Wooden leaves as much of a legacy in inspiring quotes and deeds as he in basketball and that is saying a lot. Two of his famous quotes are:  “Failure is not final, but failure to change might be.”  and “You can’t live a perfect day until you do something for someone who will never be able to repay you.”

The Wizard of Westwood coached many of basketball’s greats including Lew Alcindor (Karim Abdul Jabbar), Sidney Wicks, Bill Walton, Kiki Vanderweghe, Jamaal (Keith) Wilkes, Gail Goodrich, Walt Hazzard, Keith Erickson, Henry Bibby, Lucius Allen, Richard Washington, Dave Meyers, and Marques Johnson, but ask anyone who played for him and they will tell you that they were coached by the greatest, and not just in the game of basketball. “He was almost a mystical figure by the time I got to U.C.L.A.,” said Johnson, a starter on Wooden’s final team. “I couldn’t really sit down and have a conversation with him about real things just because I had so much reverence for him — for who he was and what he had accomplished.”  Johnson added, like many of Wooden’s players, they grew closer to the coach in the decades after Wooden retired and visited him often.

See:  John Wooden’s Principles Prevail in a Cynical Era. In his autobiography, “Giant Steps” (Bantam, 1983), Abdul-Jabbar recalled his first meeting with Wooden. “Coach Wooden’s office was about the size of a walk-in closet,” he wrote. “I was brought in, and there was this very quaint-looking Midwesterner. I’d heard a lot about this man and his basketball wisdom, but he surely did look like he belonged in a one-room schoolhouse.” The Coach wrote several books including:  Coach Wooden’s Leadership Game Plan for Success: 12 Lessons for Extraordinary Performance and Personal Excellence, A Game Plan for Life: The Power of Mentoring, Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organization [WOODEN ON LEADERSHIP], Inch and Miles: The Journey to Success, & Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success Playbook: Applying the Pyramid of Success to Your Life [COACH WOODENS PYRAMID OF SUCCE] There are monuments all of Los Angeles to Coach Wooden including a high school and an extension school, but the greatest monuments are those he built in all our hearts.

Coach Wooden outlived his wife and childhood sweetheart, Nell, by 25-years, the only woman he ever dated.  He wrote her a love letter every single day of their lives together, and he continued writing her on the 21st of every month even after she passed on in 1985.  What a great tribute to not only their marriage but to the institution of marriage and what a great legacy of information and love those letters leave, should his family agree to publish them.

Anne Meyers-Drysdale said, “I’m crying inside, but my heart is happy that he’s with Nellie. And I think that’s what he’s wanted all along — didn’t know it’d be this hard because I’d been expecting it. I just know that he’s at peace and that’s what we were all hoping for. The fact that he was with us 99 years is very impressive and he knew what was going on. The stories were always incredible. You could never spend enough time in his presence — he just made you feel like a better person. So, love him, miss him, but I know he’s happy.”  “Well, he’s my papa. My brother David played for him and I didn’t play for him — I wasn’t one of his boys — but certainly felt like I was one of the family, which I know a lot of people did. So he will always be with me, my children are very close to him too. The whole family’s been great but I’m grateful for the fact that every time I spent with him, deep down — it could have been the last time, but — I just always cherished every moment I had with him.”

In this 1948 file photo, John Wooden, newly announced head basketball coach at UCLA, is shown with his wife, Nell, at their home in Terre Haute, Indiana Wooden, college basketball’s gentlemanly “Wizard of Westwood” built one of the greatest dynasties in all of sports at UCLA and became one of the most revered coaches ever.  AP Photo/File

Seems the Wizard of Westwood could have been the Sultan of the Cyclones.  “I visited Ames one time in 1940 or ‘41,” Wooden said. “Iowa State offered me the (basketball coaching) position there prior to World War II.”,  He also missed taking the basketball couching job with Minnesota because of phone line problems during a storm.  UCLA has Mother Nature, God or the Guardian Angel for UCLA, take your pick, to thank for bringing the Wizard to Westwood.  The story goes that Mr. Wooden already had decided to accept the Minnesota coaching job and was waiting for a phone call at 6 pm from the athletic director but a bad snowstorm prevented the AD from getting to a phone.  Mr. Wooden had a 7 pm phone appointment with the UCLA AD so not knowing of the snowstorm he accepted the UCLA position and the rest is history.  Looking back, I imagine UCLA’s premier coach would say things happen as they should.

A passage buried near the bottom of John Wooden’s obituary stands out: “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.'” That might be Wooden’s greatest legacy. Just imagine such a thing today. John Calipari greeting customers at Wal-Mart before heading into the gym. “Welcome to Wal-Mart. Let me point out some of the special deals we’re offering today to 6-foot-8 high school seniors who plan to attend Kentucky?” Jim Calhoun selling Lady Kenmore’s at Sears. “No, that’s the final price. I’m not taking one dime on my commission.” Rick Pitino working the late shift at a restaurant “Let me just clear off this table first …” “I’m not suggesting coaches should work two jobs to pay their bills or even limit themselves to $150,000 salaries (a rough modern equivalent for Wooden’s top salary) but in an era when so many universities are slashing budgets, it would be refreshing to see college coaches emulate Wooden just a bit…” Jim Caple – ESPN

The UCLA family is in mourning along with his two children, seven grandchildren and thirteen great grandchildren who will all miss him dearly.  Wooden was part of the UCLA scene until the end, often seen at games and available for interviews.  Even in retirement he remained a beloved figure and a constant presence at U.C.L.A., watching most games from a seat behind the home bench at Pauley Pavilion. Lines of well-wishers and autograph-seekers often snaked their way to his seat in Section 103B. Wooden always obliged his fans, until the university and his family requested that he be granted privacy in January 2008, when he was 97. At age 99, the Wizard of Westwood, as he was known, was frail but mentally sharp as a tack.  In an interview in 2009 with sportscaster Jim Hill, Coach Wooden spoke of the great life he was given by God and that although his days here on Earth were obviously growing short, he was looking forward to meeting his maker and continuing on to the next life.  So, although many of us are saddened by the Coach’s passing, at just short of 100 years young (October 4th was his birthday), he was ready to meet his God, see his beloved Nell, and no doubt to continue coaching from Heaven.  As Wooden often said, “It’s not so important who starts the game, boys, but who finishes it.”, and Coach Wooden finished his as the example he was throughout his life with style, grace and courage.  “Talent is God given.  Be humble.  Fame is man-given.  Be grateful.  Conceit is self-given.  Be careful.”, said the Wizard of Westwood, who could easily have been tempted by the later, but he understood and exemplified this triangle of truth!

Wooden, at his Encino home, reads from an assembled book of poems sent to him by one of his former players, Swen Nater.

On a fascinating side note, ‘Wooden Award’ chair, Richard “duke” Llewellyn, co-founder of the Wooden Award, died at age 93 of congestive heart failure, Friday morning, just hours before on the same day that Coach Wooden passed on.  Llewellyn and Wooden were close friends throughout the years and remained so despite a trademark dispute with the Los Angeles Athletic Club. Wooden used to attend the award ceremonies but stopped in 2006  (Reminds us a bit of similar passings of friends and rivals, Founding Father’s John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who died on the very same day, on July 4th, 1826.)

By Ask Marion, Marion Algier – a grateful member of the UCLA family that was lucky enough to be a student during the Wizard’s Hay Day~

About Ask Marion

I am a babyboomer and empty nester who savors every moment of my past and believes that it is the responsibility of each of us in my generation and Americans in general to make sure that America is as good or even a better place for future generations as it was for us. So far... we haven't done very well!! Favorite Quotes: "The first 50 years are to build and acquire; the second 50 are to leave your legacy"; "Do something that scares you every day!"; "The journey in between what you once were and who you are becoming is where the dance of life really takes place". At age 62 I find myself fighting inoperable uterine Cancer and thanks to the man upstairs and the prayers from so many people including many of my readers from AskMarion and JustOneMorePet... I'm beating it. After losing our business because of the economy and factors related to the re-election of President Obama in 2012 followed by 16-mos of job hunting, my architect-trained husband is working as a trucker and has only been home approximately 5-days a month since I was diagnosed, which has made everything more difficult and often lonely... plus funds are tight. Our family medical deductible is 12K per year for two of us; thank you ObamaCare. But thanks to donations from so many of you, we are making ends meet as I go through treatment while taking care of my father-in-law who is suffering from late stage Alzheimer's and my mother-in-law who suffers from RA and onset dementia as well as hearing loss, for which there are no caretaker funds, as I continue the fight here online to inform and help restore our amazing country. And finally I need to thank a core group of family, friends, and readers... all at a distance, who check in with me regularly. Plus, I must thank my furkids who have not left my side through this fight. You can see them at JustOneMorePet.
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3 Responses to “The Coach” – Coach John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood

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