John Wooden: They Called Him Coach

“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.” Coach John Wooden

Friday night marked the passing of a great man.  Coach Wooden was described as “about as perfect a sports personality as there ever was”, by sportscastor Dick Enberg. But sports fans aside, this man’s lessons reached far beyond the basketball court.

Hall of famer Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and one of Wooden’s many student athletes remembers, “He set quite an example. He was more like a parent than a coach. He really was a very selfless and giving human being, but he was a disciplinarian. We learned all about those aspects of life that most kids want to skip over. He wouldn’t let us do that.”

Another coach very familiar with winning, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, praised the man by saying, “Many have called Coach Wooden the ‘gold standard’ of coaches. I believe he was the ‘gold standard’ of people and carried himself with uncommon grace, dignity and humility”.

UCLA was actually Coach Wooden’s second choice back in 1948. The University of Minnesota also wanted him and he and his wife preferred the Midwest. A snow storm in Minnesota prevented Wooden from getting the scheduled phone offer from the Golden Gophers, so he accepted a job with the Bruins because he thought Minnesota had lost interest. When the University of Minnesota finally made contact with Wooden, he turned down their offer because he had already given his word to the Bruins.

Coach Wooden also became well known to the world beyond basketball, for his nuggets of life wisdom and his Pyramid of Success.

  • Failure is not fatal but failure to change might be
  • Ability is a poor man’s wealth
  • It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen
  • Don’t measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability
  • What you are as a person is far more important that what you are as a basketball player
  • You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you
  • Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful
  • Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do
  • Never mistake activity for achievement

It took 16 years for UCLA to win their first championship under Coach Wooden.  When asked about this in an interview later in life, he replied, “I’m a slow learner, but once I learn something, I know it pretty good”.  In fact in his 29 years as a head coach he never had a losing season, but these days if you aren’t winning championships, your job is in jeopardy.

Ironically on the day Coach Wooden passed away, the NBA team with the best record in the league (who didn’t make it to the finals) fired their coach, their GM resigned and their star player (and league MVP) is considering a move to a different team that will pay more money and is perceived to have a better chance of winning it all. Coach Wooden felt one of his strongest traits was patience. Luckily, it was a trait UCLA shared AND benefitted from.

John Wooden was paid $35,000 a year salary and he never asked for a raise.  He turned down an offer to coach the Los Angeles Lakers which probably would have been ten times what UCLA was paying him. These days it seems like loyalty is determined by the highest bidder.

None of the dozens of All Americans who played for Coach Wooden can remember even one time when he ever used the words “winning” or “losing”, but his record speaks for itself:

  • UCLA won 620 games in 27 seasons
  • 10 NCAA titles during his last 12 seasons, including seven in a row from 1967 to 1973
  • Record winning streak of 88 games and four perfect 30–0 seasons
  • Won 38 straight games in NCAA Tournaments
  • Record 98 straight home game wins at Pauley Pavilion
  • NCAA College Basketball’s “Coach of the Year” in 1964,1967, 1969, 1970,1971, 1972, and 1973
  • 1967, Henry Iba Award USBWA College Basketball Coach of the Year
  • 1972, he received Sports Illustrated magazine’s “Sportsman of the Year” award (shared with Billie Jean King)
  • Final game in Pauley Pavilion on March 1, 1975, in a 93–59 victory over Stanford
  • Announced retirement following a 75–74 NCAA semi-final victory, over Louisville and before 10th national championship game victory over Kentucky
  • Named to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach in 1973, becoming the first to be honored as both a player and a coach

Born in 1910 and just four months shy of 100 at his death, he’d been retired for 35 years, yet almost reverently the title Coach usually accompanies the name John Wooden. His last team walked off the court after winning UCLA’s 10th straight title under his guidance back in 1975. Coach Wooden’s records still stand and probably always will, but when it comes to remembering this great man the accolades show his character and his reputation are one and the same.


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