All American – Coach John Wooden

John Wooden was a great basketball player before becoming the most successful coach in college basketball history. At Purdue University, he was an excellent playmaker and an aggressive defender. He was a three-time All-American and named College Player of the Year in 1932, the year he led Purdue to the national championship. He was the first of only three persons ever enshrined into both the Players' and Coaches' Halls of Fame.

The UCLA teams, coached by John Wooden, scaled unprecedented heights that no future organization in any sport is likely to approach. Under the masterful guidance of Coach Wooden, the UCLA Bruins set all-time records with four perfect 30-0 seasons, 88 consecutive victories, 38 straight NCAA tournament victories, 20 PAC–10 championships, and 10 national championships, including seven in a row. The 27 years he led the Bruins, they never had a losing season.

Around this time of year, when March Madness gets to be too much – too many players trying to make ESPN’s Sports Center, too few players trying to make assists, too few coaches willing to be mentors, too many athletes with out-of-wedlock kids, too few freshmen who will stay in school long enough to become men – it is always refreshing to think of Coach John Wooden, the "Wizard of Westood." Westood is the area of Los Angeles where UCLA is located.

Coach Wooden lives in his little condo in Encino, 20 minutes northwest of Los Angeles. You can hear him say things like "Gracious sakes alive!" and tell stories about teaching "Lewis" the hook shot. Lewis Alcindor, that is...who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. There has never been another coach like Wooden, quiet as an April snow and square as a game of checkers; loyal to one woman, one school, one way; walking around campus in his sensible shoes and Jimmy Stewart morals.

He'd spend a half hour the first day of practice teaching his men how to put on a sock. "Wrinkles can lead to blisters," he'd warn. These huge players would sneak looks at one another and roll their eyes. Eventually, they'd do it right. "Good," he'd say. "And now for the other foot."

Of the 180 players who played for him, Wooden knows the whereabouts of 172. Of course, it's not hard when most of them call, checking on his health, secretly hoping to hear some of his simple life lessons so that they can write them on the lunch bags of their kids, who will roll their eyes.

"Discipline yourself, and others won't need to," Coach Wooden would say. "Never lie, never cheat, never steal," and "Earn the right to be proud and confident." If 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. Treat your opponent with respect. 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?"

Coach Wooden did not permit long hair, nor facial hair. "They take too long to dry, and you could catch cold leaving the gym," he'd say. That one drove his players bonkers. One day, All-America center Bill Walton showed up with a full beard. "It's my right," he insisted. Wooden asked if he believed that strongly. Walton said he did. "That's good, Bill," Coach said. "I admire people who have strong beliefs and stick by them, I really do. We're going to miss you." Walton shaved it right then and there. Now Walton calls once a week to tell Coach he loves him.

Coach Wooden was a six-time Coach of the Year, and he dedicated his life to basketball. His premier players included All-Americans Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich, Lew Alcindor, Lucius Allen, Mike Warren, Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, Henry Bibby, Bill Walton, Keith Wilkes, Richard Washington and Dave Meyers. Despite the presence on his squad of such towering superstars, Coach Wooden always credited his team's success to the spirit of selfless teamwork he inculcated in all his players. "Always think of passing the ball before shooting it," he told them. Through his word and deed, he taught people how to be successful.

Coach Wooden, and his record, remain the standard by which excellence is measured. Here is some of the philosophy of Coach Wooden.

  • Adversity is the state in which man most easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then.
  • Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.
  • Consider the rights of others before your own feelings, and the feelings of others before your own rights.
  • Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.
  • Don't measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability.
  • It's what you learn after you know it all that counts.
  • Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.
  • You can't live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.

In this day of the outlandish athlete, many of whom are devoid of moral character, it is a genuine tragedy that the values of Coach Wooden are not taught by more modern coaches. Coach Wooden said, "Always try to be the very best that you can be. Learn from others, yes. But don't just try to be better than they are. You have no control over that. Instead, try and try very hard, to be the best that you can be. That you have control over. Maybe you'll be better than someone else and maybe you won't. That part of it will take care of itself."

John Wooden taught the ability to learn "how to learn." He promised this to all high school prospects as he recruited them to come to UCLA. While all the other schools were chasing high school recruits, promising basketball glory, material and individual success, John Wooden talked about the chance of coming to UCLA and being part of something special. The opportunity to train your mind, to learn how to think, to develop skills, to make decisions, to dream, to achieve peak performance. He believed that basketball, like life, is not a game of size and strength but a game of skill, timing and position. And that it’s not how tall you are, but how tall you play.

Does this coach remind you of a McKinley coach?