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John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood

Monday, July 19, 2010

In June 2010, the sports world and America lost one of its greatest coaches, and one of its finest gentleman, when John Wooden of UCLA passed away at age 99.

Wooden retired from coaching basketball at UCLA after the 1975 season, but he never was very far out of the public's eye, and its admiration. Over the years, whenever there was discussion about the greatest coaches ever, regardless of sport, Wooden's name was sure to be prominently mentioned.

John Wooden was born in 1910 in Hall, Indiana, but grew up in Martinsville, Indiana, where he led his high school basketball team to the Indiana State finals three consecutive years, winning the trophy in 1927. He also managed to have considerable success while running track and playing baseball. He was a three-time Indiana All-State selection in basketball, which is quite an achievement in a state where basketball is almost a religion.

After high school Wooden was heavily recruited by most of the schools in the Big 10, but chose Purdue because of his admiration for Purdue Coach, "Piggy" Lambert. Again, Wooden was successful. He led Purdue, playing an aggressive up-tempo style, to the school's only National basketball championship, in 1932. He was the first player to be selected as a three-time consensus All-American.

While at Purdue he earned the nickname of "Indiana Rubber Man," for his suicidal dives to the floor for the ball, and his ability to bounce right back up. That same year Wooden won the Medal for Academic Achievement, as an English major. Years later he would place that honor among his favorites, on a par with his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, as both a player and a coach, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1932 he married his high school sweetheart, Nell (Riley), "the only girl I ever went with."

After graduation he accepted a job as coach and English teacher at Daytona, Kentucky, High School. His first basketball team went 6-11, the only losing season in the storied career of this legendary coach. In addition to his teaching duties, Wooden joined a semi-professional basketball team, which barnstormed throughout the Midwest. While playing with this team, he once made 134 consecutive free throws without a miss. For this feat the owner of the team gave him a $100 bill -- the largest bill he'd ever seen.

During World War II Wooden joined the Navy. He served as a senior physical trainer for combat pilots. Upon receiving his discharge from the Navy in 1946, Wooden accepted a position as Athletic Director and Coach of the basketball and baseball teams at Indiana State Teachers College at Terre Haute, Ind., now Indiana State U.

In his first season at ISTC his team earned an invitation to the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball Tournament, but Wooden declined the invitation, because they did not allow black players to participate, and Wooden had a reserve player who was black.

The next year, the Sycamores, with a 27-7 record, were again invited to the tournament. This time, with a change of rules, the Sycamores accepted, and Clarence Walker became the first African-American to compete in a post season tournament.

After two seasons at ISTC, with a 44-15 record, Wooden received considerable attention from the larger Universities. He had whittled down his choices to Minnesota and UCLA. Both Nell and John preferred to stay in the Midwest and had chosen Minnesota, but a snowstorm, and a downed telephone line prevented Minnesota's call to Wooden from being completed. Thinking that UM had lost interest, Wooden chose UCLA and would not renege on his word when UM later tried to hire him.

The basketball facilities at UCLA were dismal -- an old pavilion (capacity 2,500) that basketball shared with the wrestling team and the gymnastic team. The expected new gym (Pauley Pavilion) did not come for 17 years. John Wooden himself, regularly mopped the basketball floor, in the old gym, before practices so that gymnastic chalk would not cause his players to slip and possibly sprain (or break) an ankle.

The UCLA talent level was worse. Players had a laid-back attitude and favored a slow, deliberate offense. Wooden quickly changed all that. Using much the same personnel that had floundered, Wooden instilled confidence in his players, and adapted a style of play that they could use. The team began to win. Wooden never swore. Instead, using correct grammar, and good English sentences, he could point out mistakes in a way that would make a player cringe -- and improve. One of his favorite expressions was "Goodness gracious sakes alive!" He said it so that the player knew he'd better shape up.

Over 27 seasons at UCLA Wooden's teams won 620 games against 147 losses. UCLA won 10 NCAA titles in Wooden's last12 years, including 7 in a row. Much of this success came during the 1960s and '70s, a time of rebellion on college campuses in America. Wooden's stars included such free spirits as Lew Alcinder (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton among many others . These stars learned to use their skills to the greater good of the team, and accepted Wooden's brand of discipline, eventually cherished the experience of being coached by such a man. The result was a 27 year record that is not likely to be repeated in this age of parity in college sports and the multitude of college stars giving up years of collegiate eligibility for NBA riches.

John Wooden was a religious, and an extremely modest man, and was definitely not all that interested in money. His highest yearly salary at UCLA was $35,000. During his time at UCLA he was offered the head coaching job at the Los Angeles Lakers, at 10 times his UCLA salary. He turned down the offer.

In the 35 years following his coaching career, Wooden remained busy. At times he served as "Color Man" for NCAA Basketball Tournaments and conducted regular basketball camps for young people. These were always popular, but his main emphasis was as a "Teacher of Life," as a motivational speaker for colleges and businesses.

Over a lifetime in coaching Wooden developed his Pyramid of Success, a self-help course that he introduced to scores of corporations, colleges, and individuals (athletes and others) after his retirement from coaching.

Wooden and his wife, Nell shared their love of basketball, and each other over the 53 years of their marriage. They shared a remarkably close relationship. He would locate her in the stands before a game, and give her a little wave of his program and a wink. She returned the gesture with a thumbs-up sign. After her death, in 1985, Wooden wrote her a letter each month, adding each to a growing pile of letters on her pillow.

Wooden's family values prevailed throughout his lifetime. In his home, on a wall covered with honors, his Presidential Medal of Freedom was partially obscured by his daughter's childhood tribute to her dad on a long ago Fathers. Day.

Through his many motivational appearances, John Wooden has become one of the most widely quoted coaches -- for example, 1. Adversity is the state in which man most easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then. 2. Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be. 3. If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything. 4. Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do. 5. Success comes from knowing you did your best with the talent you possessed. John Wooden: Oct. 14, 1910-June 4, 2010

Source: Los Angeles Times, 6/5/10, John Wooden, Pyramid (Google)


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-- Posted by greb on Sun, Jan 16, 2011, at 12:55 AM


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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By