Former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden was an every-day Bible reader from Indiana who took some of the most challenging egos in the country and fit them into a championship mold of his own making. He did farm chores as a boy when they began before the sun came up and took hours to complete.
Gothic to the core, as rustic as a pitchfork, and with a haircut that always had a bunkhouse-bowl look to it, Wooden, who died Friday in Los Angeles, never looked the part of the spoiled, well-oiled cartel. He loved the concept of five players on court riding a bicycle with the same precision as the Flying Wallendas and hated the importance others placed on statistics.
Yet high up in every obituary you’ll read about the Wizard of Westwood is the fact that he won 10 NCAA basketball championships at UCLA. His Bruins also put together an 88-game winning streak between Jan. 30, 1971, and Jan. 17, 1974. Twenty-four of his players – and not just Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) and Bill Walton – made All-American.
When all-conference center Walton showed up for practice one day with a full beard and insisted that as much facial hair as he wanted was his right, Wooden didn’t argue. All John said was: “I admire people who have strong beliefs and stick by them. Bill, we’re all going to miss you!”
Twenty minutes later, Walton was so clean shaven that he could have made a commercial for any razor company in the world.
With Wooden, it was always: Get everybody in peak condition. Teach them the value of fundamentals. Drill them to play as a team and hit the open man on offense. Learn that defense is mostly hard work and can often be sustained game after game. Don’t put it all on your shooters, who are often in danger of losing their touch.
How to put on your socks
Wooden also paid rapt attention to the little things. For example, on the first day of practice John would spend half an hour teaching his players the proper way to put on a sweat sock.
“Wrinkles can lead to blisters,” he’d warn. “Be quick but don’t hurry,” was another of his wall mottos. Yet when fashions began to change, he did away with his mandatory coat-and-tie rule on road trips.
Years ago, at a dinner honoring Wooden, I asked John about the growing problem of athletes and drug testing.
“If they don’t want to be tested, don’t let them play,” said the man who holds the distinction of being a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. At Purdue he was considered a mid-size guard, a three-time All-American who was always willing to take a few enemy elbows en route to the basket. On defense, he was like a piece of barbed wire.
“Having worked with young people all my life, I can tell you for a fact that today’s kids are crying out for discipline,” Wooden said. “Unfortunately, they aren’t getting the discipline they need at home or from most of their teachers. Until we give them the proper standards to live by, we will continue to be a nation whose young people will be in and out of trouble.”
“Sometimes I wonder if most people even know what real discipline is,” he continued. “The purpose of discipline isn’t to punish but to correct. It’s not there to be used to antagonize an individual, but to help and improve him. It’s not yelling at someone, because that kind of approach never gets you anywhere. You can only get the response you want by acting fairly and rationally.”
Wooden’s teams, like the man who masterminded them, always came prepared. The emphasis was on discipline, hard work, aggressive defense, team play, and getting everyone on the court involved as a unit. Nobody on those UCLA teams ever stood around looking bored or used profanity in or out of the locker room.
Part of Wooden’s success as a basketball coach was always based on upsetting the tempo and style of his opponents.
He did this by creating a running team, by stressing that his players controlled both backboards, and by keeping team mistakes to a minimum. His teams were also known for the way they continually harassed the man with the ball and how they always seemed to play as hard at the end of a game as they had at the beginning. Unlike most coaches, he never considered scouting opponents a top priority.
Wooden on college basketball today
Asked about today’s brand of college basketball, Wooden replied: “To me it suffers from two things: too much physical contact that interrupts the flow of the game and too much individual showmanship. I’m interested in teamwork; in the rhythm of the game; in the beauty of watching a play unfold that eventually leads to a basket.”
“If you’re big enough and strong enough, anyone can slam-dunk,” he continued. “It isn’t hard, and it calls attention to the man doing it. What I see mostly are too many individuals out on the court and not enough team play. I see coaches who have stopped coaching so they can become actors and get the TV cameras turned on them. Most of them have forgotten what the game and their responsibilities are all about.”
Early on, when Wooden was laying the foundation for the future, UCLA didn’t really have a gymnasium it could call its own. Often John had to share space with the school’s Greco-Roman wrestlers, cheerleaders, trampoline artists, or pom-pom girls. On rare occasions the Bruins would even practice on parking lots.
Although Wooden refused to name the two National Basketball Association teams that tried to hire him as a head coach, he was not reluctant to explain how he arrived at his decision to stay with college basketball.
Why he didn't go with the pros
“I was interested in the pros at the time because it seemed like such a big thing,” said Wooden. Financially, as I told my family, it was a tremendous opportunity and I could do a lot more for them personally if I took the job.
“But I left the actual decision entirely up to my wife and children,” he added. “They talked things over among themselves and decided it would be best for me to stay at UCLA. Of course, I knew when I asked them what their answer would be.”
At the time, Wooden reportedly was earning $32,500 a year at UCLA.
Phil Elderkin is the Monitor's former sports editor.