They called Coach John Wooden the Wizard of Westwood, but there was no magical method to what he accomplished. In and of themselves, were some of the feats he achieved magical? Of course, but the process by which he succeeded was all about a blueprint that any man, woman or child can follow: All it took was hard work and a set of core values that never, ever wavered.
It’s because of the way he led the UCLA Bruins to 1o titles that Coach John Wooden’s memory will forever live on in basketball lore, not because he did win all those titles. You know you’re one hell of a man when you’ve won 10 national championships, yet those rings are nowhere close to your claim to fame.
Coach John Wooden passed away last night, 99 years young, and I will remember him for everything but those 10 championships. To Coach Wooden, coaching wasn’t a venue through which to garner victories and earn a living, it was a platform to help mold the lives of young men. Basketball wasn’t about winning NCAA titles, it was about instilling values in his players and helping them become something greater by the time they left his program than they were when they got there. And I’m not talking about improving their basketball skills, either: I’m talking about Coach Wooden encouraging and demanding that his players be better people.
I never met the Coach Rick Reilly once called the best man he knows, but I’ve read about him enough to understand just how special Coach John Wooden was. According to Reilly, Coach Wooden knew the whereabouts of 172 of the 180 men he coached even decades after he had retired from coaching basketball. Do you know how difficult it is to keep tabs on all those players? I have had far too many coaches in my basketball career — from my freshman year in high school to my sophomore year of college I had a new coach every single season — but I doubt a single one of them knows my whereabouts now… and I’m only 22 years old, just a few years removed from playing for all those coaches. But Coach Wooden knew where 172 of the 180 players he coached were, decades after his retirement and probably half a century or longer since he coached some of those players? That’s special.
But it wasn’t just that he kept in touch with his players, it was the lessons he taught them. Coach Wooden preached respect and loyalty above all else, and he lived his life just as he taught the youngsters who came through his program. Coach Wooden taught his players to acknowledge teammates after making a basket. He would kick someone out of practice, or even a game, for saying one cuss word. He never allowed a single player’s number to be retired while he was coaching at UCLA, telling Reilly, “What about the fellows who wore that number before? Didn’t they contribute to the team?”
In a heartfelt thank-you note to Coach Wooden written ten years ago, Bill Walton wrote,
Coach Wooden is a humble, private man who has selflessly given up his life to make other people’s lives better. …
With John Wooden, there was never an end to anything. His ability to always be about what’s next, always about the future, enables him to lead an incredibly active, constructive, positive, and contributing life to this very day.
Now 89 years young, John Wooden is still our coach in so many ways. And just as if it were 30 years ago and we were leaving Dykstra hall early in the morning on yet another of life’s journeys, he is there with us to this very day. Pushing, shaping, molding, challenging, driving us to be better. To be faster. Now, as then, this is not done in an overbearing fashion, but always in the lowest key imaginable. John Wooden teaches by example. He never asks or expects anyone to do anything that he hasn’t already done himself. He teaches by creating an environment that people want to be a part of, where we want what he has to give.
My favorite thing I’ve ever read about Coach John Wooden can be found in that same piece by Walton. It reads, “The joy and happiness in John Wooden’s life comes today, as it always has, from the success of others. He regularly tells us that what he learned from his two favorite teachers, Abraham Lincoln and Mother Theresa, is that a life not lived for others is not a life.”
Wouldn’t the world be a better place if every coach, every person, were like that? I look around the coaching landscape and I see weasels like John Calipari, weasels who leave programs behind to deal with NCAA violations brought on by nobody but themselves; weasels who stoop to embarrassing lows to sneak wins and ensure better contracts; weasels who care little about their players except when it comes time to win a basketball game. When Calipari and other coaches like him pass away, they will be remembered. People will remember the wins and they’ll remember some of the losses, but nobody will mourn those men like we now mourn Coach Wooden. Nobody will think to themselves, “Man, I wish I were a lot more like Cal.” Hardly anybody will believe the world is a worse place without John Calipari. But it undoubtedly will be without Coach John Wooden.
To compare Coach Wooden to any other coach is unfair to both men. His life illustrated the drastic impact sports can have on an entire life, not just the win and loss columns. Sports, when taught the right way, can instill values and cultivate unselfishness. Teammates can be brothers and sisters, coaches can be parents. Sports can be used to teach so many things that have nothing to do with athletics — teamwork, camaraderie, reliability, attention to detail, accountability. To Wooden, wins weren’t the be-all, end-all, but merely a sign that his team was doing things the right way. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told the Boston Globe, “He just used sports as a means to teach us how to apply ourselves to any situation.”
Some might think that Coach Wooden’s death means he won’t be around college basketball anymore. Whoever thinks that is dead wrong. Next year, when you see Duke’s players pointing to each other after an assist, there’s Coach John Wooden. When you hear that Bob Hurley Sr. remains at St. Anthony High School to coach basketball for a meager salary despite numerous offers to escape the impoverished high scool and coach a Division One school, there’s Coach John Wooden. When the next Butler reaches the Final Four, an undersized but attentive team outworking and out-preparing every opponent standing in its path, there’s Coach John Wooden.
Coach Wooden said he didn’t fear death, because when he did he would finally get another chance to be with his beloved wife, Nell. Now he gets to be with her for the rest of eternity.
Just don’t think he won’t still be here with us.