---- — 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.
Growing up in the Bay Area, I saw Wooden coach several times against Stanford. By then he was already a living legend and his teams dominated just about everyone they played. One time Stanford outscored UCLA in the second half and the Stanford fans considered it a “moral” victory even though their team lost by double digits. From the stands. Wooden always looked like a dignified professor, quietly analyzing the action and never raising his voice.
The truth was he baited officials and “trashing talked” opposing players all the time. He never used profanity but that didn’t make him a saint. Several opposing coaches didn’t like him because his constant mouthing off juxtaposed with his sportsmanlike image.
Wooden wasn’t always a good communicator and soured some athletes on the program when they couldn’t understand why they weren’t playing. Many of his players found him unapproachable and the exact opposite of a father figure. He was not a man the players would visit to discuss a personal or academic problem.
Wooden took credit for designing UCLA’s patented 2-2-1 zone press defense when it was actually one of his assistants who suggested it. He never gave his underling enough credit for his innovative ideas and the assistant eventually quit because of it.
While Wooden never hesitated to recruit African American athletes, he didn’t always stand up for them during the age of segregation. On several occasions Wooden had chances to make a statement on civil rights but usually avoided them. There were occasions he wouldn’t let his team eat in a restaurant that refused to serve his black players but too often he looked the other way.
The coach also “buried his head in the sand” when it came to illegal benefits by a prominent booster. Players didn’t hide the fact they associated with this booster and many were ignorant that some of the benefits (e.g., buying their comp tickets at a premium) were in violation of NCAA rules. Wooden was aware of the booster but took the “Sergeant Schultz” approach. (“I see nothing. I hear nothing.”) He preferred plausible deniability.
Despite these flaws, Wooden deserves to be remembered as a positive role model. Most of his players stayed in touch with him during his retirement and most of those that had bitter experiences reconciled with him. He was always happy to have players visit and reminisce. He became much more approachable in retirement than during his coaching days.
It’s also hard to argue with his success even if it took 16 years to finally win an NCAA title. Once he reached the pinnacle he stayed there. It’s still mind-boggling to think that he coached five distinct nucleuses of players to ten NCAA titles in a 12-year span.
Seth Davis deserves a lot of credit for revealing the man behind the legend. John Wooden wasn’t perfect, but he was still an impressive human being. The man could also coach like no other. Those traits make for a pretty good legacy.
David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that all book and movie reviews are for titles that the Village Library has available to borrow.