Sports do not build character; they reveal it...
- John Wooden
John Wooden, the "Wizard of Westwood," is simply the greatest college basketball coach that has ever lived. His coaching tenure at UCLA included ten NCAA championships in twelve years, a 620-147 record, an eighty eight game winning string from 1971 to 1974, and an astounding 149-2 record at Pauley Pavilion.
I have worked on this writeup for several months, and it has been difficult to write. You see, John Wooden is my hero; if there is one person I can name that I look up to, admire, and respect, it is John Wooden. Before I get into the reasons behind this, though, let's review Wooden's life and career.
Don't mistake activity for achievement...
- John Wooden
Wooden as a youth
John Wooden was born on October 14, 1910 in Martinsville, Indiana. He was a very quiet youth and was active in the local church. In the third grade, he learned of a new sport rapidly gaining popularity across the nation, basketball. Using a pair of his mother's hose stuffed with rags as a ball, young John would shoot at a tomato basket his father had nailed to a wall in their barn. This sparked a lifelong passion for the sport of basketball.
Wooden, the basketball player
In high school, Wooden was the star of the Martinsville High team. He played on their state championship team in 1927, as well as their state finalist teams in 1926 and 1928. For all three years, Wooden was named to the all-state basketball team, and earned his letter in the sport for all four years of high school.
Not straying far from home, Wooden went to Purdue University, where he again was the star of the basketball team. He was known for his defensive intensity (he was referred to as the "Indiana Rubber Man" for his penchant for sacrificing his body for plays) in the day where the game was a decidedly low-scoring affair, and the Purdue team usually kept their opponents under 25 points a game during Wooden's four year tenure there. Wooden was a three time All-American, All Big Ten, and All Midwestern player (1930-1932), and he led the Boilermakers to the national title in 1932. Wooden later cited that his coach at Purdue, Ward Lambert, was his greatest coaching inspiration.
From 1932 to 1939 he played semi-pro basketball with various teams with strong success, but he had begun to realize that his true passion was coaching, and in 1939, Wooden retired to focus exclusively on coaching. In 1961, Wooden was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player.
It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.
- John Wooden
Wooden, the coach
Wooden's coaching career started at Dayton High School in Kentucky in 1932, where he coached until 1934, where he got a job at Central High School in South Bend, Indiana, which was much closer to home. He stayed at South Bend until 1943, after which he retired to consider his directions in life. Wooden compiled a record of 218-42 as a high school coach. Wooden returned to the family farm and considered taking up farming, but when the coaching position at Indiana State University became vacant in 1946, Wooden took it.
Wooden spent two seasons at Indiana State (1946 to 1948), during which he led Indiana State to a record of 47-14. In his first season, Indiana State won their conference title, but in his second season, they went to the finals of the NAIA invitational basketball tournament. However, when the coaching position at UCLA (which was already a top university in the college basketball realm) became available in 1948, Wooden took the job and left for Los Angeles, California.
Wooden's teams throughout the 1950s were strong, but not remarkable. He seemingly spent the 1950s honing his coaching style. However, from 1964 to 1975, Wooden's UCLA teams dominated the sport of college basketball in a way never seen before or since. In this run, Wooden's teams won ten out of twelve national titles, had four undefeated seasons (including two in a row), and a string of 88 straight victories. Wooden lead the UCLA team to 19 conference championships during his tenure, and was named coach of the year six times; in addition he was named The Sporting News' sportsman of the year in 1970 and Sports Illustrated's sportsman of the year in 1973. Perhaps the most amazing statistic is the record that Wooden built up on UCLA's home court, Pauley Pavilion: 149-2.
In 1975, Wooden retired from active coaching, but went on to give countless seminars, speeches, and camps over the remainder of his life. He still lives in Los Angeles, California today. The Wooden Award, given to the best college basketball player each year, is named after him; there is also a college basketball tournament called the Wooden Classic in his honor.
On Wooden's plaque at Pauley Pavilion, the first word used to describe him is "teacher."
Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.
- John Wooden
John Wooden, the man
Perhaps most notable, though, are Wooden's personal achievements. Below are listed just a few:
He was able to racially integrate the UCLA basketball team early in his tenure and became known for his ability to effectively relate to and coach people from an exceptionally wide variety of backgrounds who all went on to great success. Among these: Bill Walton, Lew Alcindor, and Gail Goodrich.
He married Nell Wooden in 1932 and remained committed to her faithfully until her death on March 21, 1985.
He has spent his entire life as a Christian, but without being confrontational about it.
Also notable is Wooden's philosophy of coaching, life, and personal success, which he calls the pyramid of success.
The Pyramid of Success
Wooden's philosophy of coaching and life is known as the Pyramid of Success, and it's something I strongly believe in and have adapted to my own life. The pyramid consists of five layers of personal traits and attributes, which build on top of the layer below to build you into a better person.
The base level consists of industriousness, friendship, loyalty, cooperation, and enthusiasm. These are the foundations of all that is to come. As a result of these traits, one can achieve their ambitions and become a truly sincere person.
The next level consists of self-control, alertness, initiative, and intentness. When committed to these, you will be adaptable to situations that you face, and honesty will become a part of your nature.
Next comes condition, skill and team spirit / teamwork. These traits bring about reliability and resourcefulness naturally.
Nearing the top, the fourth level consists of poise and confidence. From this will come the strength to fight for what you believe in and the integrity to do the right things.
At the top is competitive greatness, which is what these building blocks lead to. But the culmination of competitive greatness is faith and patience, the highest virtues that can be reached.
This philosophy is one that Wooden developed, believed in, tried to distill in all of his players, and shared with others. It's also highly intervowen with Christian doctrine, which is understandable given Wooden's understated Christian beliefs.
If you lose self-control everything will fall. You cannot function physically or mentally or in any other way unless your emotions are under control.
- John Wooden
Why did Wooden retire?
Wooden retired from coaching at age 65 at a time when many keep coaching well into their 70s. Why did Wooden retire, then?
1. He had nothing left to prove.
At his retirement, Wooden had won ten of the last twelve national basketball championships. He left coaching having won better than 80% of all of the games that he coached (a total 885-203 record), had four seasons without being defeated, and was pretty much recognized as unquestionably the top college basketball coach of all time. He retired at his peak.
2. He didn't like the direction that college basketball was going.
In 1968, Wooden's number-one-ranked Bruins, led by Lew Alcindor, lost 71-69 to second-ranked University of Houston, led by Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes. This game was the first-ever televised collegiate game was a showcase for Wooden and college basketball, as Wooden's legend was growing huge even then.
At the time, Wooden thought that television was a mere novelty, but by 1975, college basketball was slowly becoming a television sports staple. This was causing a great change in the timing of the games, with such interruptions as television timeouts and players showboating for the cameras and attention rather than focusing on the game. Wooden blamed (rightfully) the media corporations who were turning college basketball from sport into entertainment.
3. He wanted a change.
Every year from 1928 to 1975, Wooden was involved with playing or coaching basketball. He was finally ready to do something else for a while while he still had time.
Earn the right to be proud and confident.
- John Wooden
John Wooden and Me
I was born three years after Wooden stopped coaching. I wasn't around to see Wooden coaching; what I knew of him was first told to me by a basketball coach I had during my fourth grade year. I have only met Wooden once since then.
Regardless, Wooden's impact on my life has been great. He's become a model for me in how to lead a successful life, and his amazing success as a basketball coach, a sport which I hold very dear to my heart, makes him a standard bearer in many ways to me.
There are many things that are essential to arriving at true peace of mind, and one of the most important is faith, which cannot be acquired without prayer.
- John Wooden
There are so many things I can think of as reasons for my admiration of Wooden. His unparalleled success in his field. His repeated demonstration of understanding of others, even when their beliefs were completely foreign to him. His quiet reliance on faith throughout his career. His desire to be an educator in all aspects of life, not just basketball.
But I think a short tale of the one day I met Wooden will probably illuminate the idea more than any other.
I saw Wooden speak several years ago at a banquet in St. Louis, Missouri. Before the banquet began, I was about three blocks away from the hall where Wooden was to speak, sitting at a table, sipping an iced coffee and reading a newspaper, when I noticed that there was a basketball court across from me.
The court was in pretty poor shape; it was cracked in many places and the basketball rim was slightly bent and warped and without netting. But playing on this court was a handful of young boys, probably between the ages of eight and ten. They ran back and forth, playing a game.
My passion for basketball made my eyes stay fixed on their game. I noticed that there was a small boy, probably six years old, who was in the game trying to play, but was utterly outclassed by the others. They would block his shots, steal the ball from him at will, to the point that the boy was breaking down in tears while playing the game.
After a bit, I noticed that there was an elderly gentleman walking down the sidewalk. It was John Wooden, but I didn't realize it at the time; I had only seen pictures of Wooden from his coaching days, and I didn't make the connection at all. The man stopped and watched the boys play on the court for a while.
After a bit, the boy had his shot blocked again, and he stood over at the side in tears. The elderly gentleman slowly walked over to the boy and began to talk to him. The boy didn't know quite what to make of this, but the man was clearly calming the boy down, as the boy's tears began to dry up.
The boy and Wooden walked off to the side while the other boys kept playing. They sat down on a bench together. The two of them talked for a while, and Wooden started pointing at things happening in the game. After a bit, Wooden reached into his pocket, pulled out something that I couldn't see, and gave it to the boy. I don't know to this day what it was, but the boy looked over the small thing, then rolled it up in his sock.
The boy got up and reentered the game. Wooden slowly walked back to where he was standing before and watched. After a bit, the boy got his hand on the ball, and as quickly as he got it, he passed it back to the person who passed it to him. Another minute or so passed, and the boy passed off again. Again this happened several times. Finally, the boy catches a pass, and he sees his defender already sneaking out a bit to try to deflect the pass.
Boom! The boy cuts straight toward the basket, running right by his defender and putting the ball into the basket. After the layup, the boy looked over at Wooden, and shortly after that, Wooden began to walk back down the sidewalk slowly.
I couldn't see Wooden's face, but I'd like to believe that he had a smile on it.
I want to know more about John Wooden...
More than anything, take the opportunity to hear the man speak before he dies. He is in his early nineties, but can still be heard speaking quite regularly.
Barring that, I strongly recommend his "autobiography" Wooden, which is more of a series of anecdotes than a true life story. It is an extremely compelling read. Also of interest is a biography of Wooden entitled They Call Me Coach by Jack Tobin, which is probably the best biography on Wooden's life.