LOS ANGELES— Legend and respected Basketball Coach John Wooden, who led UCLA’s men’s team to an unmatched 10 NCAA championships between 1964-1975. He is acknowledged to be the greatest college basketball coach ever.
“Many have called Coach Wooden the ‘gold standard’ of coaches,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I believe he was the ‘gold standard’ of people and carried himself with uncommon grace, dignity and humility.”
Wooden, the first person to be enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player (1961) and a coach (1973) was known as “The Wizard of Westwood” for the way he transformed the Bruins into a dynasty, winning 620 games and losing only 147 in 27 seasons.
Recently retired UCLA women’s volleyball coach Andy Banachowski said, “I learned so much as an educator from Coach Wooden. He led by example.”
Wooden and his UCLA dynasty won 19 Pac-8 basketball championships and an unprecedented seven consecutive NCAA national championships from 1966-1973. Included in the string was one of the most amazing winning streaks in all of sports. His UCLA teams won 88 games in a row.
Wooden retired from coaching following the 1975 season with a UCLA record of 620 wins and 147 losses. Only twice during his tenure did the Bruins lose home games at Pauley Pavilion.
“Coach leaves all of us a lasting legacy from a lifetime devoted to goodness,” said St. John’s coach Steve Lavin. Lavin, who worked in Wooden’s shadow at UCLA in the late 90s, was befriended his predecessor. “He was the best friend and mentor one could hope for.”
Wooden’s work did not end on the court. The man who never mentioned “win” to his players had his greatest success, in his eyes, with the maturation of his players into men. When asked what words he would like to be greeted with if he reached the gates of heaven, he said, “Well done.”
In 2003, President George W. Bush presented Wooden with the highest honor given to a civilian, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Wooden was not only the architect of the “pyramid of success” – a diagram designed to show how champions were built on the foundations of industriousness and enthusiasm. He built a following based on his loyalty to players.
“It’s kind of hard to talk about Coach Wooden simply, because he was a complex man. But he taught in a very simple way. He just used sports as a means to teach us how to apply ourselves to any situation,” former star center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said in a statement released through the UCLA Sports Information Department.
He was known for reciting his father’s “two sets of three” — “never lie, never cheat, never steal” and “don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses” — and a six-point creed so passed along by his father. The point Wooden used most in his coaching, he said, was “make each day your masterpiece.”
Still, Wooden was probably best known for his famed “Pyramid of Success”, a successful book, which he began developing in the 1930s. He related many times that it was, “The only truly original thing I have ever done.”
At the base of the five-level pyramid are industriousness, friendship, loyalty, cooperation and enthusiasm. The next levels up are self-control, alertness, initiative and intentness; condition, skill and team spirit; and poise and confidence. At the pinnacle is competitive greatness, which he defined as performing at one’s best ability when one’s best is required, which, he said, was “each day.”
“Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable,” Wooden said in explaining the pyramid.
Wooden also promoted his “12 Lessons in Leadership,” including Lesson 11: Don’t look at the scoreboard.
But while Wooden was upright in his approach to coaching, he also was practical. He famously began each season with a coaching session on dressing properly that included showing his players how to put on their shoes and socks the right way.
“This is a game played on your feet,” he said. “If you get blisters, you can’t play the game.”
Wooden was often called the “Wizard of Westwood,” a title that he did not like.
In a 2006 interview, he told Marina Dundjerski, director of the UCLA History Project, “I’m no wizard, and I don’t like being thought of in that light at all. I think of a wizard as being some sort of magician or something, doing something on the sly or something, and I don’t want to be thought of in that way.” He said he preferred being called simply ‘coach’.
“Coach is fine,” Wooden said.
A native of Hall, Indiana, Wooden was very proud of his Mid-Western roots and rural farm values. He had three basketball playing brothers.
He led his high school team to three straight Indiana state championship games. He was an All-America at Purdue with two Big Ten Titles and the 1932 National Championship.
After college and during World War II, Wooden served as a Lieutenant in the Navy aboard the USS Franklin with duty in the South Pacific.
After the war his first teaching and coaching job was at Dayton High School in Dayton, KY. He then went on to Indiana Teachers College (now Indiana State) for two years before heading to UCLA.
In later years he enjoyed writing poetry and playing with his grandchildren.
In his apartment, Wooden once hung a plaque that read: GOD NEVER CLOSES ONE DOOR WITHOUT OPENING ANOTHER.
He married his high school sweetheart, Nell, who died in 1989 after 53 years of marriage.
Wooden is survived by a son, James, of Orange County, Calif.; a daughter, Nancy Wooden, who lives in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley; three grandsons and four granddaughters; and 13 great-grandchildren.
Funeral services will be private and a public memorial will be held later.
(Raymond Rolak is a Michigan based sports broadcaster and spent time with Coach Wooden during 2003 in Westwood, CA.)