Coach John Wooden, in his prime
The Coach Says...
Hall of Famer
John Wooden was honored
Wednesday, July 29th, as the
greatest coach in American
sports history by the "Sporting
The legendary UCLA coach,
known for his subtle yet brilliant
tactics, was feted by family,
friends, former colleagues and
former players at a Sherman
Wooden, now 98, received an
overwhelming nod in a poll of
118 well-known coaches and
experts from various field assembled
by the magazine.
Wooden's closest competitor was
former Green Bay Packers coach
Vince Lombardi, who got 20
To John Wooden
by lyle e davis
“On the 21st of the month, the best
man I know will do what he always
does on the 21st of the month. He'll
sit down and pen a love letter to his
best girl. He'll say how much he misses
her and loves her and can't wait to
see her again.
Then he'll fold it once, slide it in a little
envelope and walk into his bedroom.
He'll go to the stack of love letters
sitting there on her pillow, untie
the yellow ribbon, place the new one
on top and tie the ribbon again. The
stack will be 240 letters high then,
because the 21st will be 20 years to
the day since Nellie, his beloved wife
of 53 years, died.
In her memory, he sleeps only on his
half of the bed, only on his pillow,
only on top of the sheets, never
between, with just the old bedspread
they shared to keep him warm.
There's never been a finer man in
American sports than John Wooden,
or a finer coach. He won 10 NCAA basketball championships at
UCLA, the last in 1975. Nobody
has ever come within six of him.
He won 88 straight games between
January 30, 1971, and January 17,
1974. Nobody has come within 42 since.
So, sometimes, when the Basketball
Madness gets to be too much -- too
many players trying to make Sports
Center, too few players trying to make
assists, too few coaches willing to be
mentors, too many freshmen with outof-
wedlock kids, too few freshmen who
will stay in school long enough to
become men -- I like to go see Coach
I visit him in his little condo in
Encino, 20 minutes northwest of
Los Angeles, and hear him say things
like "Gracious sakes alive!" and tell
stories about teaching "Lewis" the
hook shot. Lewis Alcindor, that is . .
. who became Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
There has never been another coach
like Wooden, quiet as an April snow
and square as a game of checkers;
loyal to one woman, one school, one
way; walking around campus in his
sensible shoes and Jimmy Stewart
He'd spend a half hour the first day
of practice teaching his men how to
put on a sock. "Wrinkles can lead to
blisters," he'd warn. These huge players
would sneak looks at one another
and roll their eyes. Eventually, they'd
do it right. "Good," he'd say. "And
now for the other foot."
Of the 180 players who played for
him, Wooden knows the whereabouts
of 172. Of course, it's not hard
when most of them call, checking on
his health, secretly hoping to hear
some of his simple life lessons so that
they can write them on the lunch bags
of their kids, who will roll their eyes.
"Discipline yourself, and others won't
need to," Coach would say. "Never
lie, never cheat, never steal," and
"Earn the right to be proud and confident."
If you played for him, you played by
his rules: Never score without
acknowledging a teammate. One
word of profanity, and you're done
for the day. Treat your opponent with
He believed in hopelessly out-of-date
stuff that never did anything but win
championships. No dribbling behind
the back or through the legs. "There's
no need," he'd say.
No UCLA basketball number was
retired under his watch. "What
about the fellows who wore that number
before? Didn't they contribute to
the team?" he'd say.
No long hair, no facial hair. "They
take too long to dry, and you could
catch cold leaving the gym," he'd say.
That one drove his players bonkers.
One day, All-America center Bill
Walton showed up with a full beard.
"It's my right," he insisted. Wooden
asked if he believed that strongly.
Walton said he did. "That's good,
Bill," Coach said. "I admire people
who have strong beliefs and stick by them, I really do. We're going to miss
you." Walton shaved it right then and
there. Now Walton calls once a week
to tell Coach he loves him.
It's always too soon when you have to
leave the condo and go back out into
the real world, where the rules are so
much grayer and the teams so much
As Wooden shows you to the door,
you take one last look around. The
framed report cards of his greatgrandkids,
the boxes of jellybeans
peeking out from under the favorite
wooden chair, the dozens of pictures
He's almost 90 now. You think a
little more hunched over than last
time. Steps a little smaller. You hope
it's not the last time you see him. He
smiles. "I'm not afraid to die," he
says. "Death is my only chance to be
with her again."
Problem is, we still need him here.”
“The Life of Reilly”
The above column appeared in
the March 2000 issue of Sports
Illustrated. Rick Reilly is a senior
‘The Coaches Coach’
Cont. from Page 1
writer for Sports Illustrated, and
has been voted National
Sportswriter of the Year eight
This is the type of adulation, an
almost reverential feeling of
admiration for John Wooden.
While I’m not a big fan of basketball,
I’m a big fan of great
people - people who are not only
wise, but kind, considerate, well
That’s John Wooden.
I have a good friend who is a
professional screenwriter in the
Los Angeles area. His name is
Mel Sherer. He has written many
screen plays, comedy routines,
and pilots. When he heard we
were going to do a profile on
John Wooden, he wrote:
“I was lucky enough to know and talk
with Coach Wooden back when I was
at UCLA. I was on the track and
football teams, so I always was in the
Men's Gym, which was the facility we
had at the time for our conditioning,
etc. I'd see Coach on the stairs or in the
locker room or just walking on campus
and I'd say "hi." He'd always stop
and chat. He did that with everyone he
knew, I guess, if he had a few
moments. I'd want to talk basketball.
He'd ask me about how my classes
Many years later ... I think about 25
or so, my friends and I organized a
reunion of many of the guys from our
dormitory floor at school. We invited
Coach Wooden to attend. To our
absolute surprise and overwhelming
delight, he accepted. We spent the entire
afternoon talking with him over lunch,
about his life (Nell had died), his theories,
what he felt was important. He
wanted to know about us. What a
great man he is. What a truly great
man. He'd be the last to say it, of
course. If you're looking for a hero to
pattern yourself after, look no farther
than Coach (I mean Teacher) John R.
Wooden. In my life, when faced with a
difficult situation, I just think: What
would Coach Wooden do? I'm not kidding.
If you ever, and I hope you do,
have a chance to talk to the man,
please do it. You'll understand how his
teachings and the way he lives his life
are so inspirational to those who know
him. Without a doubt, he is the greatest
person I have ever known.”
And that’s how people feel about
this inspirational man.
President George W. Bush thinks
rather highly of John Wooden as
well. He awarded Wooden the
2003 Presidential Medal of
Freedom at the White House
July 23rd, 2003. If he never
coached one game of basketball
in his life, John Wooden would
still be a very, very special man.
But, fortunately for the sports
world, he did coach a game or
two. Quite a few in fact.
John Wooden is the only person
to be inducted into the National
Basketball Hall of Fame as both
a player and a coach. Coach
Wooden ended his coaching
career of 40 seasons retiring in
1975 with 885 wins and only 203
John R. Wooden is a record-setting
college basketball coach and
exceptional teacher whose
UCLA Bruins won 10 National
Championships in 12 years. His
teams reflected his discipline,
character, and work ethic. His
Pyramid of Success has inspired
John Wooden was a fabulous
player before becoming the most
successful coach in college basketball
history. He enjoyed an
All-State career at Martinsville
High School in Indiana, and at
Purdue University was called the
"Indiana Rubber Man" for his suicidal
dives on the court. An
excellent play maker and aggressive
defender, Wooden was a
three-time Helms Athletic
Foundation All-American and named College Player of the
Year in 1932, the year he and fellow
Hall of Famer Charles
"Stretch" Murphy led Purdue to
the national championship.
Wooden, who cites Ward
Lambert, his Purdue coach, as
being his greatest coaching influence,
enjoyed a brief but successful
semi-pro career before
turning his complete attention to
The John Wooden-coached
UCLA teams scaled unprecedented
heights that no future
organization in any sport is likely
to approach. Under the masterful
guidance of Wooden, the
Bruins set all-time records with
four perfect 30-0 seasons, 88
consecutive victories, 38 straight
NCAA tournament victories, 20
PAC 10 championships, and 10
national championships, including
seven in a row.
After graduation from college,
Wooden pursued a career in
coaching. He spent two years at
Dayton (KY) High School and
nine years at South Bend (IN)
Central High School, compiling
a 218-42 record. Wooden then
coached at Indiana State
University, where he recorded a
two-year 44-15 mark. Wooden's
big break came in 1948, when he
accepted the head coaching position
at UCLA. Although he
would not win his first national
title until 15 years later, Wooden
began laying the groundwork for
what would become the dynasty
of all dynasties. He believed in
lengthy practices for conditioning
and endless drills to perfect
Considered one of the finest
teachers the game has ever seen,
Wooden's approach rested on
the idea that basketball is a game
of threes: forward, guard, center;
shoot, drive, pass; ball, you, man;
conditioning, skill, teamwork.
The latter was taught by coach
Lambert at Purdue and forms
the three blocks at the core of
Wooden's own Pyramid of
Success. The Pyramid is a wellknown
by-product of the
Wooden coaching era. The principles
outlined in it form the
basis of Wooden's outlook on
life and explain much of his success
on and off the court. His
ability to instill these principles
upon his players made Wooden a
master of developing talent. His
premier players included All-
Americans Walt Hazzard, Gail
Goodrich, Lew Alcindor, Lucius
Allen, Mike Warren, Sidney
Wicks, Curtis Rowe, Henry Bibby, Bill Walton, Keith Wilkes,
Richard Washington and Dave
Some of John Wooden’s quotes:
Ability may get you to the top,
but it takes character to keep you
Nothing will work unless you do.
There are many things that are
essential to arriving at true peace
of mind, and one of the most
important is faith, which cannot
be acquired without prayer.
You cannot attain and maintain
physical condition unless you are
morally and mentally conditioned.
And it is impossible to be
in good moral condition unless
you are spiritually conditioned.
“I always told my players that our
team condition depended on two factors
-- how hard they worked on the floor
during practice and how well they
behaved between practices.”
It's not so important who starts
the game but who finishes it.
Sports do not build character.
They reveal it.
Success is peace of mind, a
direct result of self-satisfaction
in knowing that you did your
best to become the best that you
are capable of becoming, and
not just in a physical way: seek ye
first the kingdom and His righteousness
and all these things will
be yours as well.
Young people need models, not
Now 98, he is still a keen observer
of the game.
John Wooden was born on
October 14, 1910.
The rest, as they say, is history.