Any long-time observer of college basketball knows that one school and one coach stand out above all others. In the 1960s and 1970s the John Wooden-led UCLA Bruins won ten championships in twelve seasons. Their level of achievement is so remarkable that it will probably never be equaled. Forty years after his last championship, the ghost of John Wooden still reverberates at the university.
Among the many biographies we have at the library is a new one about the legendary coach called “Wooden: A Coach’s Life.” It was written by Seth Davis, a college basketball writer for Sports Illustrated and analyst for CBS during March Madness. It reads like the definitive biography and does much to separate the man from the myth.
Several of Wooden’s titles were predictable. Two of the most dominating centers in the history of college basketball, Lew Alcindor (aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton, played on five of his national championship teams. But he also won with players who weren’t nearly as tall or intimidating. It was clearly Wooden’s system that allowed UCLA to achieve such consistent success. The winning tradition admittedly helped bring in top tier talent as well.
The legend of John Wooden only grew following his retirement in 1975 after winning his tenth and final championship. He was still a regular attendee at UCLA home basketball games sitting with his familiar rolled-up program intently watching the action. He lived for 35 more years, finally dying at the age of 99 in 2010. His image is one of total integrity, a calm demeanor and a father figure to his hundreds of players. Like most legends the perception doesn’t quite mesh with the reality.
It must be noted that much of the Wooden legend is true. He was a very successful coach, a devoted family man, highly educated and maintained a close relationship with many of his former players. But he did not have a calm demeanor, took several years to achieve the pinnacle of success, wasn’t a mentor to all his players and missed out on several opportunities to make a statement on civil rights. He also turned a blind eye to an overzealous UCLA alumnus who was providing illegal benefits to his players.