When I heard that Coach John Wooden had died last week, it was like I had just lost my coach, and I never had the pleasure of playing for him.
I would guess I had plenty of company.
Coach Wooden was a better human being than he was a coach. I would think most of us would want to be associated with a man who epitomized the human spirit.
He cared more about winning lives than winning games. But games he did win; he won 10 national championships in a span of 12 seasons at UCLA. He won 885 games, including 218 in high school and 47 at Indiana State. In 27 seasons at UCLA he won 620 games, losing only 147, for a winning percentage of .808.
Among those 10 national championships he won seven consecutive titles. Coach Wooden had 38 consecutive NCAA tournament victories that included back-to-back consecutive 30-game winning seasons in 1971-72 and 1972-73.
He is the only men’s coach to have four 30-0 seasons, but it was the 19 conference championships he said “I am most proud of.”
Coach Wooden was born in Halls, Indiana, but he never played by the discrimination laws of the state. In 1947 his Indiana State basketball team was invited to play in a tournament in Kansas, but he turned down the invitation when he discovered the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball (NAIB), the conference sponsor, would not allow his only black player, Clarence Walker, to participate.
Remember, this was before Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers kicked down the doors of discrimination in Major League Baseball. This was also before the late Red Auerbach and owner Walter Brown of the Boston Celtics drafted the first black player to play in the NBA. This was a bold act by Coach Wooden; the State of Indiana was the stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan.
He was not only a stand-up human being with integrity; he also understood the definition of loyalty. That same year, Wooden’s alma mater Purdue University wanted him to return to campus and serve as an assistant to then head coach Mel Taube until Taube’s contract expired. Wooden would then take over the program.
Citing his loyalty to Taube, he declined the school’s offer. Taking the job as Taube’s assistant would have effectively made Taube a “lame duck” coach.
The following year (1948), Coach Wooden would again lead his team to the conference title. The NAIB reversed its policy banning African-American players, and he coached his team to the NAIB National Tournament final, losing to Louisville. In losing, he really won; he looked racism square in its unfocused eyes and walked away with a victory. This was the only championship game a Wooden-coached team ever lost.
That year, Walker became the first African-American to play in any postseason intercollegiate basketball tournament.
John Wooden was inducted into the Indiana State University Athletic Hall of Fame on Feb. 3, 1984. Wooden was “The Real Deal” before he arrived on the UCLA campus.
In the 1947-48 season, another characteristic of this great man came to the surface—he was a man of his word.
Before he took over as the head coach at UCLA, Coach Wooden had negotiated for a three-year contract with the University of Minnesota. UCLA had actually been his second choice. His wife Nell wanted to remain in the Midwest.
The inclement weather in Minnesota prevented him from receiving the scheduled phone offer from the Golden Gophers. He thought that they had lost interest, so Coach Wooden accepted the head coaching job with the Bruins instead.
Officials from the University of Minnesota contacted Wooden right after he accepted the position at UCLA, but he declined their offer because he had given his word to the Bruins.
Despite his success, Coach Wooden reportedly did not initially enjoy his position at UCLA, and his wife did not favor living in Los Angeles. As fate would have it, Mel Taube left Purdue in 1950. Wooden’s inclination was to return and finally accept the head coaching job there.
He was ultimately dissuaded when UCLA officials reminded him that it was he who insisted upon a three-year commitment during negotiations in 1948. With that in mind, Wooden felt that leaving UCLA prior to the expiration of his contract would be tantamount to breaking his word and thus decided to again pass on the job at Purdue.
Today’s coaches and athletes who are only devoted to a dollar bill could learn from Coach Wooden as it relates to the definition of Man. He was devoted to One Woman and One School, and his word was his bond. This is unheard of today in the world of sports.
His wife Nell was the love of his life. They were married in 1932, and she died of cancer in 1985. He remained devoted to her even decades after her death.
Since her death, he had kept a monthly ritual (health permitting)—on the 21st, he visited her grave and then wrote a love letter to her. After completing the letter, he placed it in an envelope and added it to a stack of similar letters that accumulated over the years on the pillow she slept on during their life together.
In mourning Nell’s death, Wooden was comforted by his faith. He was a Christian for many years, and his beliefs were more important to him than basketball: “I have always tried to make it clear that basketball is not the ultimate.” There is only one kind of life that truly wins, and that is the one that places faith in the hands of the Savior.
Wooden’s faith strongly influenced his life. He read the Bible daily and attended the First Christian Church. He said that he hopes his faith is apparent to others: “If I were ever prosecuted for my religion, I truly hope there would be enough evidence to convict me.”
I met Coach Wooden somewhere in the ’80s and was introduced to him by playground basketball and broadcast legend Sonny Hill. When I met Coach Wooden at the Capitol Center in Landover, Maryland, he was a member of the Board for the annual McDonald’s High School Basketball Classic.
Sonny introduced me as a sports talk show host and youth advocate. Coach Wooden seem more impressed with my work with at-risk children than my duties as a sports talk show host. Our conversation was centered on my work with children. I found him to be an “Officer and a Gentleman.” He was very humble and not full of himself.
I invited him to be my guest on Inside Sports, and he gave me his home number to contact him directly. The next weekend Coach Wooden was my guest.
I remember the show had a rough start because I had to cut NFL legend Jim Brown’s interview short. When I called Coach Wooden, he was not ready to come on and he promised to call back in 15 minutes.
I had already scheduled Jim to come on after Coach Wooden, but now I had to bring Jim on first. Five minutes into the Jim Brown interview Coach Wooden calls ready to go on the air. On one line I have a temperamental superstar and a gentle giant on another line.
I took a deep breath and went to a commercial break and explained my dilemma to Jim, and to my surprise he said, “No problem, we can do this next week.” It was evident that Jim also had a lot of respect for Coach Wooden.
Coach Wooden and I talked for 30 minutes, and there was little talk about the game of basketball. The conversation was about the “Game Called Life.”
I called Sonny Hill that night and thanked him for making the connection and told him about the mix-up with Jim Brown.
He said, “Coach would have understood and re-scheduled for the following weekend if his schedule permitted. He is that type of human being.”
The media called him “The Wizard of Westwood,” a name he disliked with a passion.
When I look back and think of all Coach Wooden’s qualities—integrity, loyalty, keeping his word, and a one-woman man, I would call him “The Saint of Westwood.”