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John Wooden is an American icon. Since he announced his retirement thirty years ago, "Coach" remains one of our country’s most popular and heroic figures. What John Wooden accomplished as basketball coach at UCLA will never be repeated - eighty-eight victories in a row, ten national championships - but what makes his legacy even more amazing is how he did it: with honor, integrity and grace.
In his research for How to Be Like Coach Wooden, Pat Williams recounts well over 800 ...
John Wooden is an American icon. Since he announced his retirement thirty years ago, "Coach" remains one of our country’s most popular and heroic figures. What John Wooden accomplished as basketball coach at UCLA will never be repeated - eighty-eight victories in a row, ten national championships - but what makes his legacy even more amazing is how he did it: with honor, integrity and grace.
In his research for How to Be Like Coach Wooden, Pat Williams recounts well over 800 interviews. The result is an inspiring motivational biography about a great hero of basketball and one of the most amazing leaders in history. How to Be Like Coach Wooden is the next dynamic book in the How to Be Like "character biography" series, which focuses on drawing out important lessons from the lives of great men and women. In this book, readers will learn from Coach Wooden, a beacon of honesty, goodness and faith. Wooden cared about winning in basketball, but he cared more about winning in life.
BUILD ON A SOLID FOUNDATION
When the whirlwind passes by, the wicked is no more. But the righteous has an everlasting foundation.
If You Want to Be Like Coach: Be a Person of Character
It was his life that changed my life.
—Swen Nater, coached by Coach Wooden at UCLA
I have a problem. How do I even begin to sum up a giant of a man like John Wooden? That's the question that gnawed at me as I began working on this book.
How do I sort through thousands of wonderful stories about John Wooden and decide which ones don't make the final cut?
How do I even begin to tell you about the impact this incredible man has had on just about everyone who has had the privilege of knowing him?
Well . . . I could begin by telling you that John Wooden is one of only three people ever to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and a coach. (The other two are Lenny Wilkens and Bill Sharman.)
I could mention that he was a first-team All-American for three straight seasons at Purdue University in the early 1930s—the first college basketball player ever to receive such an honor.
I could start by telling you that he was the NCAA College Basketball Coach of the Year six times! But instead I think I'll start back in 1948.
That was the year a young coach by the name of Wooden had put together a pretty good basketball team at Indiana State University. That team included a young man by the name of Clarence Walker. Walker wasn't one of the starting five, but he came off the bench to help Indiana State win an invitation to the NAIA basketball tournament in Kansas City. Thirty-two teams were invited, and one of them would emerge as the small-college national champion.
But there was a problem.
Walker was black.
Remember that this was just the year after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and was subjected to death threats and verbal abuse for breaking the 'color barrier' in Major League Baseball. Racism was rampant in Indiana and most of the rest of the nation.
Tournament officials called Wooden and told him that his team was invited, but Walker wasn't. 'We've never had a black person play on the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium floor,' they said—only they didn't say 'black person.'
Now that tournament was a big deal, especially to a young man just starting out in his coaching career. But John Wooden didn't even have to think about it.
'If I can't bring Clarence, we're not coming,' he said.
Fine. Indiana State was disinvited from the tournament. That's where the story might have ended, except for the fact that the national newswires got wind of the story. An article appeared in the New York Times, and it came to the attention of officials at Manhattan College, the consensus pick to win the tournament that year. (Manhattan still has a fine basketball program, as was shown by their first-round upset of Florida in the 2004 NCAA tournament.) Manhattan's coach called the NAIA offices and said, 'If Indiana State can't come with that young man, we're not coming either.'
Faced with the loss of their biggest draw, tournament officials backed down, and Clarence Walker became the first black to play basketball on the floor of Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium.
Stan Jacobs, who played on that Indiana State team with Walker, says he will never forget his coach's courage. He remembers that Walker wasn't one of the stars on that team. 'But Coach's decision wasn't based on how the outcome would affect him. His action was motivated by only one thing—his own personal character and his decision to do the right thing.'
John Wooden is a man of impeccable character. He has always followed his own advice to 'be more concerned with your character than with your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.' I love the way Wooden's former star center Bill Walton put it:
John Wooden represents the conquest of substance over hype, the triumph of achievement over erratic flailing, the conquest of discipline over gambling, and the triumph of executing an organized plan over hoping that you'll be lucky, hot or in the zone. John Wooden also represents the conquest of sacrifice, hard work and commitment to achievement over the pipe dream that someone will just give you something or that you can take a pill or turn a key to get what you want.
As Coach always said, 'The true athlete should have character, not be a character.' What is character? Coach says, 'It's how you react to things—sensibly, without getting carried away by yourself or your circumstances. A person of character is trustworthy and honest, and for a dollar, he or she will give you a dollar.' He also said, 'I believe ability can get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there.'
* * *
You're not supposed to put a halo on anyone . . . but if I were to put a halo on anyone's head, it would be John Wooden.
—Former Angels pitcher Dean Chance
* * *
Lorenzo Romar, head coach at the University of Washington, smiles as he remembers something that happened when he was head coach at Pepperdine in the early 1990s. 'I took the whole staff to visit Coach Wooden at his condo,' Romar recalls. 'We spent four hours with him. He called me the next day and said, 'One of your coaches had seventy-five cents slip out of his pocket into my sofa. I want to get it back to him.''
Seventy-five cents? That wouldn't be a big deal to anybody—except a man of absolute character like John Wooden.
Dozens of others who've known Coach over the years can tell you similar stories: Those who played for him, those who coached against him, those who've known him as friend or teacher—most can give you one example after another of John Wooden's honorable character.
Tony Luftman, UCLA student manager in 1984–85, said, 'John Wooden is a genuine person in an era of self-promotion and hype. He remains a humble man who doesn't seek attention and doesn't promote himself. He proves that nice guys can finish first.' Luftman pauses for a moment and then adds, 'People should try to be like Coach. Some famous people aren't really worthy of emulation, but Coach is.'
Joe Wootten, basketball coach at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia, is the son of legendary prep coach Morgan Wootten. Because of his father's long involvement in the game of basketball, the younger Wootten has known John Wooden since he was a boy. When I asked him for his thoughts about Coach, he told me, 'His life refutes the argument that to be successful in life you have to look the other way and cut corners. He has achieved the ultimate level of success in his career, and he never compromised his values to get there.' He told me that whenever he's around Coach, he feels 'surrounded by goodness. He gives you a great sense of peace and calmness.'
As I write this, Coach Wooden is ninety-five years old. He's getting up there by anyone's standards. He tires out quickly and doesn't get around so well. Yet at a book signing a few weeks ago, he signed autographs for three hours straight. Afterward, he was exhausted, and his hand and shoulder were killing him. Someone asked why he hadn't just cut the session short. Coach looked surprised that anyone would even ask a question like that. The answer was simple: He didn't want to disappoint anyone. That's the kind of man he is.
AN INDIANA BOY
John Wooden was born in tiny Hall, Indiana, on October 14, 1910. If you know anything about Indiana, it won't surprise you to learn that John Wooden began playing basketball at a young age. Whenever someone mentions Indiana, the first things I think of are small-town gymnasiums packed to the rafters on Friday or Saturday nights in the winter—rocking with the noise of crowds that are larger than their hometown's entire populations. Perhaps basketball was invented in Massachusetts, but I'm positive that no state has had a more passionate love affair with the game than has Indiana.
Coach remembers that when he was about eight years old (in 1918, when basketball was still a relatively young game), his father made a hoop out of an old basket and nailed it to the wall at one end of the hay loft in the barn. He and his brothers used a basketball made out of rags stuffed into a pair of their mother's hose. From that time on, John Wooden's plans for the future involved basketball.
Despite the fact that Joshua Wooden made it possible for his boys to play basketball, and encouraged them in the sport, he never gave them any particular advice about the game itself. He didn't teach his sons how to make a set shot. He never talked to them about their dribbling or passing skills. He didn't spend any time with them showing them how to hit a layup or a swisher from the free-throw line.
John says of his father, 'He seldom attended games and was only slightly interested in results. His concern and guidance were deeper.'
Coach was eleven when he first began playing basketball for Centerton Elementary School, under the guidance of Coach Earl Warriner, who also served as principal of the school. The court they played on wasn't much by today's standards. It was outdoors, with a hard-packed dirt floor, and even though it was swept clear of branches, leaves and rocks before every game, there were still many occasions when the basketball took 'a bad hop' off some obstacle or another. Coach remembers that in the late fall, it would sometimes begin to snow during the middle of a game. Never mind. The game continued until the snow got too deep to dribble the ball.
Basketballs in the 1920s weren't easy to dribble anyway. For one thing, they were heavier leather balls that rarely held their round shape. A ball would often go flat during a game—and sometimes it would go flat two or three times. When that happened, the players would have to remove the laces, inflate the ball by blowing into it (this being before the day of bicycle pumps and air needles) and then retie the laces. Coach laughs when he recalls how, when he was starring for Purdue, 'I received considerable attention for my dribbling skills. Learning with a lopsided basketball on a dirt court with potholes and patches may have been why I became a pretty fair dribbler.'
Whatever the reason, he became such a good player that Coach Warriner began talking about the possibility of Wooden playing college basketball. Coach now recalls that in those days, he didn't even know what 'college' was. But if there was a way to keep playing one of the games he loved, that was fine with him. (Baseball was his other passion, and Coach was so good that he was the starting shortstop for the town team at the age of fourteen.)
He will tell you proudly that when he was growing up, there was no question that Indiana's high school basketball teams were the best in the country. He remembers, 'There were dozens of high school gymnasiums in the state that seated more than any college gymnasium in the country. There was a time that Amos Alonzo Stagg held a national high school tournament, but they wouldn't let Indiana high school teams in.' They were too good!
CHARACTER CAME EARLY
If I were writing a book on John Wooden, I would call it Old School Is a Good School. He was an old-school guy and believed in old-fashioned ideals—treat elders like they should be treated, be thoughtful of others, go to class and make something of yourself.
—Sports announcer Jim Karvellas
Beginning when he was a small boy, John Wooden's parents taught him to be honest, fair and hardworking. He spent much of his childhood on a small farm, where he and his brothers, Billy, Daniel and Maurice, were kept busy milking cows, cleaning out horses' stalls, weeding crops, picking tomatoes and doing whatever else needed doing. None of the boys complained that it wasn't fair for them to do all that work while attending school. Their father led by example. In addition to working the farm, he had a second job as a rural mail carrier.
When John graduated from grade school, his father gave him a piece of paper, on which he had written these words to live by:
1) Be true to yourself.
2) Make each day your masterpiece.
3) Help others.
4) Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible.
5) Make friendship a fine art.
6) Build a shelter against a rainy day.
7) Pray for guidance, count and give thanks for your blessings every day.
Coach says he carried that piece of paper in his wallet for years, until it began to wear out. Before his father's words became too faded to read, he made copies for himself and others. He says he has always done his best to live by his dad's creed.
As Coach's old friend Larry Rubin said, 'John Wooden has always been guided by strong principles, a deep religious philosophy that has always been more important to him than any immediate gain.'
In preparation for writing this book, I conducted hundreds of interviews with Coach's friends and former players and asked what they admired most in the man. Over and over again, I heard, 'Coach was a man of character.' When I asked, 'What do you mean by that?' I got answers like the following:
1) Coach always tries to do the right thing.
A leader's most powerful ally is his or her own example. Leaders don't just talk about doing something; they do it. Swen Nater told me once, 'Coach, you walked the walk.' He meant that I led by example.
During his third year as a high school basketball coach, John Wooden was forced to suspend his team's best players and cocaptains when they failed to show up for a game. The boys both claimed they had been sick and in bed, but several people reported seeing them having fun at a dance the night of the game.
Coach told them, 'It sounds to me like that dance was more important to you than the game or the team.' Then he informed them that they were off the team—for the rest of the season. The boys didn't take the news well. In fact, one of them threatened that his father—the school's vice-principal—would have Wooden fired. Coach listened calmly and said that even if it cost him his job, he wasn't going to change his mind. Far from firing him, the vice-principal later thanked Coach Wooden for taking a tough stand. 'That was the best thing that ever happened to that headstrong son of mine,' he said.
Looking back on that tough situation and the hard decision he had to make, Coach says, 'The incident gave me confidence in standing up for my beliefs. I was trying to do more than build a winning team; I was trying to build character. And building character is always the right thing to do.'
In a late-season game at Notre Dame in 1973, Coach became upset by the play of Irish All-American John Shumate. Wooden thought Shumate was roughing up his center, Bill Walton, so he stormed down to the Notre Dame bench and told Coach Digger Phelps how he felt about it. 'If he doesn't knock it off, I'll send Swen Nater in for Walton and he won't take that.'
Phelps shot back, 'It's a two-way street.'
A few days later, after Wooden had a chance to think about things, he wrote Phelps a note:
I owe you and John Shumate an apology and I hope you will accept it in the spirit it is offered. I acted hastily without thinking clearly and taking all things into consideration and, as usual, actions from emotion are seldom with reason.
P.S. Please convey my feeling to John. He is a fine young man and an outstanding basketball player and I did him an injustice.
That heartfelt apology is typical of John Wooden's determination to do the right thing at all times. When he was coaching at UCLA, he sometimes lost his cool. He complained when a close call didn't go his way. But when he realized he'd made a mistake, he was quick to admit it. When an apology was necessary, he gave it.
2) Coach measures his words carefully.
If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep the whole body in check.
Coach remembers that one of the worst whippings he ever got was for swearing at his brother—who had just thrown a shovelful of horse manure in his face as the two of them worked in their father's barn. The brother was punished, too, but to this day, Coach still thinks he got the worst of it. Perhaps that's why no one I know has ever heard him say anything stronger than 'Goodness gracious sakes alive.' And he won't say that unless he's really upset.
Stan Jacobs, whom I quoted earlier, said, 'John Wooden never uttered a curse word in his life.' Jacobs says, 'John Wooden has the highest degree of character and value structure of anyone who has ever crossed my path.' Jacobs relates that he grew up in a 'tumultuous' family. 'The good family memories I have, frankly, were when I went to John Wooden's home,' he says. 'You know, I'm not a Christian, but I have Christian values—and I certainly got them there.'
Former University of Virginia coach Terry Holland recalls that during his days as a college player he attended summer basketball camps at Campbell College in North Carolina. 'I was most impressed with the consistency of his character,' Holland says. 'While the other coaches were drinking and playing cards, Coach would come out in his pajamas and just watch. Press Maravich would be cussing up a storm, and Coach would say, 'Now, Press, you shouldn't be talking like that.' He wasn't judgmental about it, but genuinely concerned. Coach was always the same and didn't alter his behavior based on who he was with or what he was doing.'
Dutch Fehring, who played with Wooden at Purdue, and then went on to become line coach for the UCLA football team, told me: 'John Wooden always had empathy for other people. I have never heard him bad-mouth anyone. He always had respect for his teammates and his opponents.'
That's another thing he learned, at a very early age, from his father. 'My dad was a wonderful person,' Coach says. 'I never heard him speak an ill word of anybody, never blamed anybody for anything. I never heard him use a word of profanity.'
He remembers, 'Dad would read to us every night from the Scriptures and poetry, and I think that created a love of poetry, which I've always had. I can still close my eyes and hear him reading 'Hiawatha.'
'I think that his reading to us caused all four sons to get through college, though he had no financial means to help and there were no athletic scholarships. All four sons graduated from college, all majored or minored in English, and all got advanced degrees. I think Dad had a lot to do with that.'
3) Coach is a man of absolute integrity.
John Wooden had his own value system and didn't let anything affect him. He was always consistent to his values and lived his life with conviction. He was a man of total honesty.
John Wooden says he learned about the importance of integrity from a frosty bottle of cream soda: He and his grade-school chum Freddy Gooch had walked to Breedlove's general store on a hot, sticky summer day. By the time they got there, they were so thirsty, and Freddy charged a nickel bottle of pop to his parents' account. John knew he didn't have permission to do anything like that, and he also knew his parents couldn't afford to waste a nickel. But it was so very hot! And Freddy's soda looked so cold and refreshing.
Unable to resist temptation, young Wooden gave in and got a bottle of pop for himself—and it sure tasted good. But even as the last gulp was making its way down his throat, he began to regret what he had done. He remembers that he was overcome with guilt—and fear of a hard whipping from his father. He slowly made his way home and confessed what he had done, prepared for the worst possible consequences.
'But Dad and Mother understood my being tempted, and they just explained firmly why my actions were wrong. Believe me, that made a big impression on me, and I never did anything like that again.'
Coach's deep integrity is illustrated by how he came to be head coach at UCLA. It seems that he didn't really want to move to Los Angeles at all. He was a midwesterner by birth and by heart, and he preferred to stay there. In addition to applying for the coaching vacancy in Westwood, he had also interviewed for the head coaching job at the University of Minnesota.
Both schools were supposed to call him on the same day to tell him whether or not they were going to offer him a job. Minnesota was supposed to call first, and UCLA an hour later. Coach had set it up that way, because it would allow him to accept the Minnesota position if it were offered, and then say, 'Thanks, but no thanks,' to UCLA. Only Minnesota's telephone call didn't come as scheduled. Thus, when UCLA contacted him and made an offer, Coach accepted. He remembers, 'About an hour later, I got a call from Minnesota.' University officials told him they hadn't been able to get through because an 'unseasonable' snowstorm had interrupted telephone service. 'I said, 'I'm sorry, I've committed myself. I can't back out now.''
In a world where contracts are loaded with fine print and legalese that no mere mortal can understand, John Wooden has always been a man of his word. He is a 'promise keeper' of the highest order.
Ken Weiner, senior associate athletic director at UCLA, tells this wonderful story that illustrates Coach's commitment to integrity: 'During the 1970s, an administrator for the athletic department issued a stern reminder that telephones were for official use only. When Coach went through his own telephone bills, he found three personal calls out of the dozens he had made. He dutifully wrote out a check for $1.50 to cover the cost of those calls, saying that he wanted to 'clear his ledger.' Can you imagine a person of Coach's stature being concerned about a dollar and a half? That's integrity!'
Former UCLA student manager George Morgan told me, 'The John Wooden at practice was the same John Wooden in the locker room. The John Wooden in the locker room was the same John Wooden on the campus. The John Wooden on the campus was the same John Wooden at home. There was only one of them.' That's as good an example of integrity as I've ever come across.
His nephew and niece, Ron and Judy Sherbert, told me, 'You can always trust that John Wooden will be the same person. Always! He's never in a bad mood or displays an attitude. When he talks with you, he looks right in your eyes. We believe he can see your inner person.' They also wrote that one of the important things they have learned from their Uncle John is that 'What counts is how you act, not how you react. We have never seen him react—let himself be provoked.'
Vaughan Hoffman, who played basketball under Coach Wooden from 1961 to 1965, had two serious knee injuries in high school. During his junior year, he had to have cartilage removed from the knee and underwent a lengthy rehabilitation period. Then, the following spring—just prior to graduation, and after accepting a scholarship to play basketball at UCLA the following season—he injured the knee again and had to have a second surgery.
Hoffman told me, 'Coach Wooden came to see me in the hospital and said, 'Vaughan, if you can still play, you have your scholarship—and if you can't play, well, then you can be our student manager.''
'He's a treasure,' Hoffman says, 'because he always sticks with his values.' He adds that he and his teammates learned as much about life from Coach as they did basketball. 'We learned lessons about discipline, honesty, trustworthiness and being smart. He taught us to stick with our convictions and that life is about the journey as much as it is about the destination.
'He is a unique human being.'
4) Coach strives to be a man of humility.
Years ago, I wrote a major magazine piece on John Wooden. I spent seven or eight long sessions with him, and when I finished, I was in a deep depression. I thought, I can't go back because I have enough material, but I miss the man. John Wooden makes you want to be a better man. He's a breath of fresh air.
—Sportswriter Bill Dwyre
John Wooden is justifiably proud of what his UCLA basketball teams accomplished. But he is quick to share the credit, pointing out that it was his players who won all those games and championships, not him.
Columnist Adrian Wojnarowski, writing in Basketball Times, tells of a visit to Coach's apartment in Encino, California:
To insist to Wooden what most sensible sports minds consider fact—that he's history's greatest coach—invites a disapproving grimace, an understanding that he isn't interested in contributing to such a consensus. Wooden rises to his feet and instructs a visitor to walk with him to a mantle, insisting, 'I want to show you something.' He grabs a small wooden box, flips back the lid and cups a bronzed medallion in his hands. An award the Big Ten delivered him as a Purdue graduating senior in 1932, representative of the top student-athlete in the conference.
'It's my most prized accomplishment,' Wooden says, 'because only I was responsible for it. All the coaching awards, I had just a small part in them. Those belonged to my players. . . . This, though, I was responsible for earning.'
Coach has always believed in sharing the credit. He says, 'If a player scored off a pass, I wanted him to point to the man giving the assist until they made eye contact in a gesture of thanks and acknowledgment. I started that with my high school teams. I also wanted a gesture of thanks done for a good pick-up, for help on defense or for any other good play.'
Former University of North Carolina Coach Dean Smith says that when he heard about the 'pointing rule' from Coach, he instituted it at Chapel Hill. 'We even had the Bobby Jones Rule. One game back in the early seventies, Bobby missed a layup after a beautiful pass from George Karl. Bobby still pointed to him. To this day, the Carolina players point to the passer even after a missed layup.'
In 1995, when a reporter called Wooden 'a legend,' he replied, 'I'm no legend, and I'm embarrassed by that.' He went on to say, 'I don't like false modesty. I'm proud of the fact that I was fortunate to have a lot of wonderful players who brought about national championships and that I'm a part of that. But I'm also realistic, and I know that without those players it wouldn't have happened.'
On another occasion, after a particularly flowery introduction, Coach said, 'I hope the good Lord will forgive my introducer for over-praising me, and me for enjoying it so much.'
Longtime college basketball coach Bob Burke told me a story that speaks volumes about Coach's humble spirit: 'Back in the 1960s, I was working on the staff at the Campbell University summer camp. On the first day, I went out early to get oriented, and there was John Wooden, championship coach, sweeping the floor all by himself.'
5) Coach has his priorities straight.
John Wooden was noted for his honesty and fairness to people. He never bent the rules to win an extra game or two. There was never anything under the table. The more UCLA won, the more Wooden went under the microscope. The closer you looked, the better John showed up.
—Dutch Fehring, former
UCLA assistant football coach
During the late 1960s, when the UCLA basketball program was at the height of its success, Jack Kent Cooke tried to hire John Wooden to coach his Los Angeles Lakers.
Coach went to Cooke's house at the invitation of Lakers' general manager Fred Schaus, where he found Cooke sitting behind a huge desk in his study. They sat in silence, just looking at each other, for several minutes before Cooke finally said, 'Why do you want to coach the Lakers?' Wooden replied simply that he didn't want to coach the Lakers. He had come to Cooke's house because Schaus had asked him to.
Cooke was incredulous. 'Anyone would want to coach the Lakers.' The Lakers' owner thrust an offer sheet in Coach's direction. 'What do you think of that?'
'Nobody's worth that kind of money,' Coach said. But he still wouldn't take the offer.
'Well, then, how much do you want?'
Coach tried to explain that it wasn't about money. He didn't want to coach the Lakers because he didn't want to spend that much time on the road away from his wife, Nellie, and their children, Nan and Jim. Besides, he liked coaching and teaching on the college level. For John Wooden, coaching basketball had never been about money and never would be. Wooden left Jack Kent Cooke shaking his head in anger. Cooke simply couldn't understand why anyone wouldn't jump at the chance to take one of the most glamorous and highest-paid jobs in all of basketball.
When Coach was asked what his top priorities are, he replied, 'Faith, family and friends.' Then he smiled and added, 'Sometimes I put family first. That's not really the proper order, but I think the Lord understands.'
Are you surprised that basketball didn't make the list? It's not among the top three because Coach always tried to maintain an 'eternal perspective,' to see the bigger picture of what life is really about. That's why it didn't surprise me when Seattle Supersonics owner Howard Schultz told me, 'Coach told us he once passed on a top high school recruit because he heard the boy speak to his mother in a disrespectful manner.' John Wooden has always felt some things were more important than basketball-like respect for others.
Regarding his eternal perspective, Coach said, 'I often think of Socrates, who was unjustly imprisoned and facing imminent death. The jailers couldn't understand his serenity, and they asked, 'Why aren't you preparing for death?' He answered them, 'I've been preparing for death all my life by the life I've led.' There is something beyond here that's more meaningful.'
6) Coach never judged anyone by superficial characteristics such as the color of their skin.
[John Wooden's] awareness of, sensitivity to and rebellion against racism is his most heroic but least known contribution to sport, indeed America and the world.
—Neville L. Johnson,
John Wooden received many important 'life lessons' from his father's hands—lessons that helped shape him into the man of character he is. In his book, They Call Me Coach, he wrote, 'My dad did love his fellow man sincerely. He was honest to the nth degree and had a great trust and faith in the Lord. And he taught us many lessons in integrity and honesty which we never forgot.'
One lesson Coach learned from his dad was especially important: don't judge people by the color of their skin. Joshua Wooden was not a racist—and that's saying a mouthful for southern Indiana in the 1920s. In 1924, one out of every twelve residents of Indiana claimed membership in the Ku Klux Klan. In Morgan County, where Coach lived, the number was even higher, with more than one out of every four white male adults belonging to the Klan. Coach says simply that his father taught him and his brothers 'that no one is better than anyone else.'
Indiana high school basketball standout Davage Minor remembers that Coach had two black players on his South Bend Central High School team in 1951—a most unusual thing at the time. 'It was very hard to be black in the thirties and forties in Indiana,' Minor says. 'Wooden was just completely nonprejudiced in any way, shape or form, and that was a rare thing to see.'
Lucius Allen, who starred for Wooden at UCLA, is another who salutes Wooden for his unbiased attitude:
He was remarkable for his color blindness, especially because it was kind of a new thing. Mike Warren and I, when I was a freshman, were supposed to be pretty good jump shooters, but Coach Wooden would bless us with his presence on the court and challenge us to a shooting game. Mike and I had heard that Coach would take the guards out and just let them know that, you know, 'You guys might be pretty good players but old Coach here is still the best shooter out of anybody that ever blessed the halls of UCLA.' So Mike and I, we vowed that we were going to retire him. Needless to say . . . he just whipped us.
A few years ago, when someone asked Coach Wooden to recall some of his proudest memories, he mentioned the time when a newspaper reporter asked one of his players, Curtis Rowe, if there were racial problems on the team. Rowe shook his head and said, 'You don't know our coach, do you? He doesn't see color, he sees ballplayers.' Then he turned and walked away. 'That's what I'm proud of,' said Wooden.
Legendary black coach R. L. 'Bobby' Vaughan, who won more than five hundred basketball games at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, told me about attending a coaches' convention in Louisville in 1962. 'I remember it vividly,' he said. 'Those were the days before full integration, and the Brown Hotel refused to let the black coaches stay or eat there. Coach Wooden stepped forward and said that if we couldn't eat there, neither would he. He skipped the banquet and ate with us at a 'colored' restaurant. It was a true act of character. The truth of Coach Wooden's words, the genuineness of his life, the unselfishness of his actions—all of these things have been so valuable to me.'
The legendary 'Big O,' Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, told me, 'John Wooden got the cream of the crop of black athletes way before the other West Coast schools. These players were accepted at UCLA, and it paid off for John Wooden because he started winning championships.'
7) Coach tries to live by the Golden Rule.
Coach was a great coach because he was a great humanitarian. You'd run through a wall for him because you believed in him.
Ed Ehlers played basketball for John Wooden at Central High School in South Bend, Indiana. He recalls that, 'Every Christmas, John Wooden saw that each player on his team got a Christmas gift.' He'd also take the team out to dinner after every home game—at his own expense.
'One game I broke my nose,' Ehlers says. 'There was no medical insurance in those days. But Coach Wooden sent a doctor over to my house to check on me.' When that doctor determined that an operation was necessary, Coach paid for it.
Ask any of Wooden's former players what he was like as a coach and you'll probably hear the exact same thing. He was tough. He worked his players hard. He expected them to be ready when game day rolled around, and to work hard the entire game. At UCLA, he felt that opposing teams weren't supposed to be able to match the stamina of his Bruins for forty minutes, and most of them couldn't.
It wasn't a piece of cake playing for Coach. But as tough as he was, he also tried to be kind and supportive. He was never a 'get-in-your-face' coach, swearing at his players and belittling them for their mistakes, even if those mistakes took place at crucial moments in important games.
His daughter, Nancy Muelhausen, says, 'I see acts of kindness from Daddy every time we've gone out and people approach him. He's very kind, very interested and patient. It's because of the way he is. I don't see it as any particular, 'I think I'll do an act of kindness,' kind of thing. It's just the way he lives his life. He's just kind to people and considerate.'
My longtime friend Mary Garber was America's first nationally known female sportswriter. An excellent journalist based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, she often covered the summer basketball camps at nearby Campbell College. She says, 'The big name coaches would rotate every ten minutes to talk to the media. For some reason, I didn't get to talk to Coach before he moved on to the next station. He said, 'Let's sit together at lunch.'' Garber said okay, although she didn't think he really meant it. But, 'As I was walking to lunch, he called me by name and insisted that we eat together. He answered questions the whole time. I marvel at that experience.'
Former college coach Marv Harshman said, 'John Wooden never put anyone down and always looked for a way to compliment you. At the NCAA Final Four he might be in a coffee shop by himself when a high school coach would come by. John would invite him to sit down and then spend quality time with him. He was always so accommodating.'
Looking back on his career, Coach once said, 'There are coaches out there who have won championships with a dictator approach, among them Vince Lombardi and Bobby Knight. I had a different philosophy. I didn't want to be a dictator to my players or assistant coaches or managers. For me, concern, compassion and consideration were always priorities of the highest order.'
8) Coach has an attitude of service.
Coach Wooden's two life heroes are Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa. I asked him why and he said, 'Because of their consideration for others.'
—College coach Dustin Kearns
John Wooden was one of two coaches who came from the Midwest to join the UCLA staff in 1958. The other was Dutch Fehring, who left Oklahoma State to become an assistant football coach for the Bruins. Fehring stayed at a hotel during his first few weeks in Los Angeles, until his family was able to come from Oklahoma to join him.
In 2003, Fehring, now in his nineties, recalled the day his family arrived at Los Angeles International Airport—at 4 a.m. 'John Wooden got up with me to meet them at the airport. Now how many guys would do that for you?'
Don Landry, who is now retired from coaching, remembers an encounter he had with John Wooden at the Final Four in 1964. Landry was then an assistant coach under Scotty Robertson at Louisiana Tech. Tech had always been a relatively short team that tried to win by outrunning and outgunning opponents. But three seven-footers had been recruited to play for Tech starting with the 1964–65 season.
UCLA was on its way to winning a national championship with a seven-foot freshman center by the name of Lew Alcindor (who would later become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). So Landry and Robertson approached Coach and asked him for some advice on how to best utilize their new big men. Coach gave them more than a little advice. He spent ninety minutes discussing strategy with them in the lobby of the Shoreham Hotel in Washington. 'At that point,' Landry says, 'John Wooden became my hero.' He was surprised by the fact that Wooden, who by this time was already a national celebrity, would spend so much time to help out two relative strangers—strangers who were, after all, his rivals.
Landry says, 'I went on to be the head coach at Nicholls State, and after I retired from coaching I wrote John Wooden a letter and told him what he meant to me. I just thanked him for the kind of man he was and how he conducted his life. I got a beautiful letter back from him saying how touched he was and how appreciative. I have that letter in a safe deposit box, and my youngest son has already claimed it in the will.'
John Moon, a high school coach from North Carolina, had a similar experience. 'I worked the UCLA basketball camp for eight years and got to visit with John Wooden at his apartment. The first time I met him we spent four hours together. In fact, I missed my flight back home. When I left John, I felt I was a better person for having met him. I had the same feeling as when I leave church on a Sunday morning. I was so happy to see his compassion, kindness, sense of humor and mental excellence.'
Fred Hessler, who was UCLA's radio announcer for years, once said, 'John Wooden tried harder than any man I have ever met to be like Jesus Christ.'
9) Coach Wooden is a hard worker.
It's so easy to relax, to cut corners, to let down after you've reached your goal, and begin thinking you can just 'turn it on' automatically, without proper preparation. It takes real character to keep working as hard or even harder once you're there.
Author Neville L. Johnson, put it this way:
John Wooden is no enigma; there's nothing mysterious about who he is and how he got to where he wanted to go. He worked hard to climb his mountains, which were the highest peaks around, doing so with an organized plan and a great joie de vivre, leading a happy and fulfilled life.
Bill Walton added that his college basketball coach is 'an incredibly fiery competitor who really wants to win, to be on top, to do it the right way, and he just works nonstop. He loves the competition—and he taught us how to win, how to rise to the occasion.'
Coach remembers that when he was a child, 'You had to work hard. Dad felt there was time for play, but always after the chores and the studies were done.'
He feels that his work ethic was what helped him become an All-American at Purdue, where he was known as 'The Indiana Rubber Man.' Explaining that nickname, he says, 'I always bounced off the floor if I went down.'
'I couldn't do much about my height, but I could do something about my condition. I always wanted to be in the best possible condition, and I hoped that others wouldn't work as hard at it as I did.' Most didn't.
Former UCLA student manager George Morgan said Coach carried that work ethic with him into game preparation at UCLA. 'Practices were focused,' he said. 'He had his teams as well prepared as anybody. His teams were so well prepared that it was hard for them to lose. It was the emphasis on fundamentals and doing simple things right all the time.' Dick Lynn, who played for Coach from 1964 to 1968, told me, 'Coach taught us to prepare to do our best and then to give our maximum effort. He also taught us to be gracious when we won and not to blame others when we lost.'
Eddie Sheldrake, who played for Wooden during Coach's first three years at UCLA, describes him as 'a tenacious, tough, hard-nosed, vicious competitor.' Sheldrake quickly adds, 'He's a gentleman—he's honest, straight, he's not going to do anything to cheat you, but he's going to do everything he can to beat you. . . . Let him guard you for a game, and you'd wish you never went on the basketball court. And that's the truth.'
10) Coach pays attention to the small details.
Good character is not given to us. We have to build it piece by piece.
—John Luther, author
You know how the story goes. 'For lack of a nail, the shoe was lost . . . for lack of a shoe, the horse was lost . . . for lack of a horse, the battle was lost . . . and so on.' The idea is that small things really do matter. As Jesus said, 'Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much' (Luke 16:10). As a coach, John Wooden always made sure that his players could be trusted with small things—like putting on their socks the right way.
He wrote, 'I believe in the basics: attention to, and perfection of, tiny details that might commonly be overlooked. They may seem trivial, perhaps even laughable to those who don't understand, but they aren't. They are fundamental to your progress in basketball, business and life. They are the difference between champions and near-champions.'
Then Coach added, 'There are little details in everything you do, and if you get away from any one of the little details, you're not teaching the thing as a whole. For it is the little things, which, taken together, make the whole.'
Yes, and here's why:
'Wrinkles, folds and creases can cause blisters. Blisters interfere with performance during practice and games. Since there was a way to reduce blisters, something the player and I could control, it was our responsibility to do it. Otherwise, we would not be doing everything possible to prepare in the best way.'
He said, 'When a player came to UCLA, I didn't ask him what size shoe he wore. We measured his foot. Why? Because when children are growing up, parents buy shoes bigger than their feet, knowing they are growing fast. The youngster might think he's a size fourteen when he's actually a size thirteen. Shoes that are a little too big let the foot slide around. This can cause a blister, especially if there's also a fold in the player's sock. I wanted the socks to lie smooth and the shoes to fit correctly.'
Says Coach, 'Little details are what make big things happen.' Or, as I've often heard it said, 'If you take care of the little things, the big things will take care of themselves.' In other words, if you don't tell little lies, you won't have to tell bigger ones later on. If you learn to resist even the smallest temptations, you'll be able to resist the big ones when they come your way.
Now, it could be that as you've read this chapter you've been thinking of times when you've fallen short of who and what you really want to be. All of us have many regrets in life. That's why, as we move on from the subject of character, I want to leave you with these words of wisdom from author Carl Bard: 'Though no one can go back and make a brand-new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand-new ending.'
©2007. Pat Williams with David Wimbish, Foreword by Bill Walton. All rights reserved. Reprinted from How to Be Like coach Wooden : Life Lessons from Basketball's Greatest Leader. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.
Posted June 20, 2010
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