Claremont, Calif. — ''I'm going to interview Coach Wooden!'' Even so, high school student Damon Dennis did not dream of the educational surprises in store. Of course, he was proud as well as excited: John Wooden is the legendary UCLA basketball coach with all-time college championship records. It hadn't been easy for Damon to get an appointment.
''Retired coach'' is a misnomer. Wooden crowds the hours. He is much in demand and continues to demand much of himself.
''Ask Coach Wooden whether he treated all his players alike,'' I suggested. Damon was writing a biographical study of Wooden for a course entitled Individual Humanities. Finally, the hour (it turned into 21/2) arrived. The student and the ex-coach met at Wooden's southern California home.
The young man returned inspired, but he shaped his report to my interests: ''John Wooden used to be an English teacher!' Damon said. 'And he originally prepared his 'success pyramid' for use in his English classes!''
''What did he tell you about treating his players - and students - alike?'' I asked.
''Coach Wooden said he used to say he treated them all alike - but later he realized that he was treating them differently,'' Damon replied.
As Coach Wooden reflected on his actions as a teacher, he evidently perceived that justice as well as high achievement demands a special approach to each individual. Sameness, I remarked to Damon, can be an enemy to human equality.
The student gave me this example from his interview with Coach Wooden: ''Speak harshly to one player, or student, and he wilts. But speak gently to another, and he fails to respond, or may even perceive weakness and irresolution.''
Wooden made it especially clear that he considered each one of his players more important than the team as a whole. The education of each young man came first. That included, of course, ability to function well as a team player.
Is it true that the best coaches, like teachers, are artists?
And we remembered, Damon and I, that Coach Wooden had practiced his winning ways during the 1960s. His relationships as a white coach with star black players proved his remarkably successful communication of individual respect in trying times.
Coach Wooden sought to bring to his players not only their maximum skill as athletes but also their maximum growth as individuals.
Another longtime legend in another college sport, Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, a quite different style of man, who practiced his teaching skills in a different region, expressed a similar policy toward his college players:
''I don't treat everybody alike. I just treat everybody fairly.''