Big Ten Icons: John Wooden
John Wooden cast such a giant shadow as a college basketball coach that his comparably impressive achievements as a player are easily overlooked. Indeed, when Wooden died at age 99 earlier this year, his incomparable run of 10 national championships over a 12-year stretch at UCLA led the tributes. Seven of those titles came in succession as the Bruins became the gold standard in the college game. The period also featured an 88-game winning streak, four undefeated seasons, a 38-game NCAA tournament winning streak and a 140-2 record at Pauley Pavilion, UCLA’s home court.
There’s no question that John Wooden’s name warrants prominent inclusion in any discussion of America’s best-ever coach, in any sport. His basketball accomplishments are cast in an even more impressive light by the character that framed them. Wooden was a devoted family man, married to his wife Nell for 53 years. Wisdom, integrity and genuine humility were at the core of his philosophy of life, as well as his approach to basketball. He was revered throughout the coaching fraternity, known as “Coach” to even its most senior members, for whom he personified what the profession could be.
And “Coach” worked better than “Player” as a title, even a player who was a three-time college All-American and the consensus Player of the Year. In some parts of basketball-crazy Indiana, he’s still known as “Purdue’s John Wooden.”
John was the second oldest of Joshua Wooden’s four sons, born on Oct. 14, 1910 and schooled in his father’s abstemious ways. “His common-sense wisdom and profound decency set me on the right path,” Wooden often said. Upon John’s graduation from grammar school, Joshua Wooden presented him with a “Seven-Point Creed,” a list of guidelines to a fulfilling life, such as “Be true to yourself” and “Make each day your masterpiece.” His son kept a copy of that list with him for the rest of his life.
John favored baseball as a youngster, but basketball had become his sport of choice by the time he enrolled at Martinsville High School. He excelled at it, leading the Artesians to three consecutive appearances in Indiana’s state championship game, a junior-year victory bookended by sophomore and senior-season losses. The latter, to Muncie Central, “still hurts,” Wooden would say years later.
Even then Indiana high schools were a fertile breeding ground for college talent, and Kansas, Indiana and Notre Dame were among the schools that recruited Wooden. He chose Purdue, in part because he found Coach Ward “Piggy” Lambert’s up-tempo style appealing — throughout his career he would favor a fast-paced game. Wooden was a good fit for it, a quick, strong and fearless 5-foot-10 guard who came to be known as “the Indiana Rubber Man” for the way he threw his body around.
There was substance to match his style. Wooden averaged 8.9 points as a sophomore and made All-America and All-Big Ten for a Boilermakers team that won 13 of 15 games and was a perfect 10-0 in conference play. His scoring average “slipped” to 8.2 as a junior as Purdue went 12-5 overall and finished second in the Big Ten at 8-4, but Wooden repeated as an all-conference and All-America selection.
In his senior year, it all came together. Wooden averaged a remarkable 12 points a game and was the unofficial player of the year as the Boilermakers rolled to a 17-1 record, an 11-1 Big Ten mark and the consensus national championship in those pre-NCAA tournament days. He tied the school record with 21 points in the season finale against the University of Chicago and was college basketball’s first three-time All-American, but he was just as proud of the Big Ten Medal of Achievement he won in recognition of his academic and athletic excellence.
“I loved my years at Purdue, both on the court and in the classroom,” Wooden said.
Upon graduating in 1932, he made two decisions that would greatly impact his own life and thousands of others: He married Nell Riley, whom he’d met in his freshman year at Martinsville, and he embarked upon a life in coaching. The marriage lasted 53 years, the coaching career 40. One was as successful as the other.
Wooden’s first job, teaching English and coaching hoops at Dayton High School in northern Kentucky, produced the only losing season of his career — an aberration, to be sure. Moving on to South Bend Central, he began perfecting the style he would use to dominate the game: fast-paced, share-the-ball offense, relentless pressure defense, meticulous attention to detail.
After three years of military service with the Navy in World War II, Wooden decided to try college basketball and realized immediate success at Indiana State Teachers College, now Indiana State. His first Sycamores team won a conference title in 1947 and qualified for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics tournament, but Wooden chose not to go — NAIA rules in effect at the time barred African-American players from the tournament, and Wooden decided he’d rather not play if it meant playing without guard Clarence Walker. The resultant publicity led to a policy change. Indiana State qualified for the tournament again in 1948 and reached the title game, losing to Louisville — with Walker in the lineup. Social awareness, born of his father’s example, always would inform John Wooden’s philosophy.
Los Angeles in its post-World War II boom era was an unlikely destination for an Indiana farm boy, but Wooden-to-UCLA almost didn’t happen; the University of Minnesota also sought him for its coaching job, only to have a blizzard disrupt communications between Minneapolis and Terre Haute, Ind. John and Nell preferred the familiarity of the Midwest to the mysteries of the West Coast, but when a deadline passed without an offer from Minnesota, they opted for California.
“If fate hadn’t intervened, I never would have gone to UCLA,” Wooden once said.
Minnesota officials pleaded with him to reconsider after reaching him, but Wooden had given his word to UCLA and would not go back on it. He was not an immediate hit in Westwood; the Bruins were 22-7 in 1949, Wooden’s first season, but West Coast college basketball was the province of the USF Dons and the Cal Bears in those days. It wouldn’t be until 1962 before UCLA won an NCAA tournament game. Once they started, they didn’t stop.
They won back-to-back NCAA titles in 1964-65 with a small team, fueled by the standout guard play of Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich and a smothering full-court press. They won five titles with centers Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton as the focal points. In between came the forward-sparked run of Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe. The one constant: John Wooden.
He was a teacher, a philosopher and a father figure as well as a coach, a pillar of wisdom and good counsel at a time when racial tensions and anti-Vietnam War sentiment sparked unrest on college campuses throughout the nation. His lessons transcended the court and prepared his players for productive lives after basketball:
*Be quick, but don’t hurry.
*Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.
*Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.
*Be more concerned with your character than your reputation. Your character is what you really are; your reputation is what others think you are.
*Talent is God-given; be humble. Fame is man-given; be grateful. Conceit is self-given; be careful.
John Wooden was the first man elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and as a coach, an honor he shares with Bill Sharman and Lenny Wilkens. He won 81 percent of his games at UCLA (620-147), and college basketball’s Player of the Year award bears his name. But Wooden was proudest of the lasting impact he had on his players’ lives; he remained in close contact with dozens of them long after they left Westwood.
“Coach Wooden was like Abe Lincoln or Winston Churchill in the way he influenced people,” said Hall of Fame broadcaster Dick Enberg, UCLA’s radio voice during the Wooden era. “He was the closest thing to a perfect sportsman I’ve ever encountered.”