Saturday, June 5, 2010

John "Coach" Wooden, 1911-2010

John Wooden was and will be the greatest basketball coach ever, a truly gracious gentleman who would bring tears to every family values Republican and created a motivational pyramid of success Fortune 500 companies follow.

John Wooden died Friday night at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. He was 99.

His life as a teaching lesson we can all live by.

He won seven straight NCAA national basketball championships, 10 in all and six more than the leading active and former coaches today. People forget he had only one losing season, his first when his Dayton, Kent., high school team went 6-10, and took 16 years at UCLA to win his first national title.

He accomplished it his way, with or without star athletes of which he had the best -- Lew Alcindor who he could never call Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Bill Walton, Keith Erickson, Gail Goodrich and Walt Hazzard who also changed his name to his Muslim faith which Wooden could never grasp.

Wooden was a stickler for preparation and the game's fundamentals, all the way down the ladder imploring his athletes how to put their socks on and tie their sneakers properly so they wouldn't develop blisters. He never swore.

When a player heard Wooden during practices scream "Goodness gracious sakes alive," it was more devastating than a Bobby Knight vulgar tantrum, throwing chairs and physically grabbing a player by his throat.

Wooden was an English major at Purdue and learned the language well. A veteran basketball coach in both college and the NBA, told authors of a book on Wooden:

"He never swore, but there was not a coach in the United States who could use the English language any better than he could. He was always technically and grammatically correct when he was chewing you out."

Among his pithy bromides heard repeatedly at UCLA basketball practices: 

"Failing to prepare is preparing to fail."

"Flexibility is the key to stability."

"Be quick, but don't hurry."

Not only was Wooden a great coach, he was one of those rare birds who was a three-time All-American basketball player at Purdue, including one national championship, who could coach better.

He may have been slow to make social adjustments such as calling his black players by the new names they took on as Muslim converts. But his true colors on respect for humans came in 1947 when his Indiana State basketball team was invited to the NCAA tournament if the lone black player on the squad stayed home. Wooden declined the invitation.

Only once in his storied career at UCLA did scandal fringe on Wooden's character. An avid and wealthy UCLA alumnus Sam Gilbert was charged with the program's NCAA "sugar daddy" violations for providing loans and gifts to athletes. Never accused, Wooden would lament later he suspected but didn't know the extent of the Gilbert dealings and had delegated scholarship and rules to then trainer Elvin "Ducky" Drake.

"Among the things Coach Wooden was good at," said Andy Hill, a former guard and later television producer, "was knowing what he didn't want to know."

After his retirement at UCLA in 1975, Wooden developed his pyramid of life formula. In an editorial memorializing the man in Saturday's Los Angeles Times, its editorial raved:

He refused flash and instead championed old verities: Industriousness, Friendship, Loyalty, Cooperation and Enthusiasm formed the foundation of his pyramid. Success, naturally, was its peak. There is no "bling," no trash talk or intimidation or boastfulness on Wooden's pyramid...
There, on the pyramid, in the third row in his definition of Team Spirit: "An eagerness to sacrifice personal interest for the welfare of all."
It is for such wisdom that we remember John Wooden. 

It is doubtful Wooden's achievements on and off the court will ever be matched. He flourished in a time that precedes NBA rules which allow drafting first-year players out of college, where his peers such as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski appear in commercials for Chevy and American Express, where agents and shoe company representatives hover as leeches around his players seeking profits and coaches who are run out of town at the first sign of program slippage.

What coach today would do what Wooden did in 1949, turning down a lucrative job offer to return to Indiana State compared to the $32,000 annual salary he received at UCLA where he honored the three-year contract he signed?

Who other than John Wooden would have lasted 13 years in a program that by contractual neglect the employer failed to correct a wrong by not paying retirement benefits?

In life, money was not the only thing for John Wooden. It was honesty and respect and that old midwestern ethos of doing what's right.

We'll miss you, Johnny as he was known only in his youth. Your legacy will withstand the test of time.

No comments: