Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


How I remember Coach John Wooden

Life is filled with intriguing human intersections in which peoples’ paths cross and sometimes recross years later in seemingly random ways. This is one reporter's remembrance of a close encounter with Coach John Wooden

By Ross AtkinStaff writer / June 5, 2010

In this 1948 file photo, John Wooden, newly announced head basketball coach at UCLA, is shown with his wife, Nell, at their home in Terre Haute, Ind. Wooden, college basketball's gentlemanly "Wizard of Westwood" built one of the greatest dynasties in all of sports at UCLA and became one of the most revered coaches ever.

AP Photo/File

Enlarge

This is one reporter's remembrance of a close encounter with Coach John Wooden in a condensed version of a Monitor blog post from 2006.

Skip to next paragraph

----------

Life is filled with all sorts of intriguing human intersections in which peoples’ paths cross and sometimes recross years later in seemingly random, yet meaningful ways.

John Wooden and Birch Bayh surely knew this feeling at this month's National Collegiate Athletic Association convention in Indianapolis. The two distinguished Hoosiers (one of whose lives fleetingly intersected with my own – more on that later) were honored as co-recipients of the Gerald R. Ford Award in the capital of their home state of Indiana, which also serves as the home of the NCAA.

Because the convention marked the beginning of the NCAA's centennial, receiving the award carried special significance. Both men were deeply moved by standing ovations in recognition of their ongoing leadership and support of the intercollegiate athletic community.

Wooden's contributions to the world of sports are far more widely known to the general public.

As the gentlemanly coach of UCLAs men's basketball team, he led the Bruins to 10 national championships, including seven in consecutive years, from 1967 to 1973. During that stretch, UCLA set the all-time NCAA winning streak with a run of 88 straight victories.

Bayh, who served in the US senate from 1962 to 1980 before the current tenure of his son, Evan, is not a sports figure in the same way, yet his impact on participation by girls and women is immense. He is often call the "father of Title IX," after the landmark 1972 legislation that mandates equal opportunity for both genders in federally-funded education programs, including sports.

Both men graduated from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., although years apart - Wooden in 1932, when he co-captained the Boilermaker basketball team that was voted the national champion, and Bayh in 1951. Wooden was from small-town Martinsville; Bayh from more citified Terre Haute, roughly 50 miles away.

As befits two Hoosiers, basketball connects them. Wooden's first college coaching job was in Terre Haute at Indiana State University, which today is most famous for being Larry Bird's alma mater. Bayh's father coached there as well and later became a referee. Occasionally, the elder Bayh officiated games that Wooden played in.

After being saluted at the NCAA awards banquet, the two compared notes about the home state, which Wooden visits once a year even now that he's in his mid 90s.

-------------------

My personal recollection of the Wizard of Westwood, as Wooden was known, dates to 1977. Two years after retiring, he came to Boston to speak at a coaching clinic. I arranged an interview at the sprawling suburban hotel where the clinic was held. When I called from the lobby to announce my arrival, Wooden said he'd come down to meet me. I wasn't enthusiastic about the prospect of conducting such an important interview in such a public place, but who was I to argue?

Fortunately, the lobby was very quiet at first, as the coaches were off learning their Xs and Os.

Permissions