Coach for Life: The Legacy of John Wooden

Former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden waves before the start of  the NCAA national championship game in Seattle, in this April 3, 1995  file photo. Wooden, the peerless U.S. college basketball coach who  became known as the "Wizard of Westwood" while...

By Stephen Walker, PhD, CC-AASP, USOC Registry of Sport Psychologists

Few men have achieved both success and been respected for character like John Wooden.  His passing this month leaves a void in many people’s lives but his legacy and “Pyramid of Success” will transcend his passing for many years to come.  Wooden is without peer as the most successful coach in NCAA Basketball – having won 10 Championships with teams known as much for their character as their prowess on the court.

As I understand it, the 21st of June this year was the first time John Wooden didn’t sit down and pen a love letter to his best girl, his wife Nellie, who he missed dearly until joining her on June 5th, 2010.  He had said numerous times that he was not afraid to die because he clearly believed death was his only chance to be with her again.

John and Nellie Wooden.

Wooden was a throwback to days of honor, where rules of conduct were clear and had meaning.  He was so devoted to Nellie it is reported that he slept 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.  John Wooden was said to be “as 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 morals.”  The story has been told many times about how 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 roll their eyes at one another, yet eventually do it right.  “Good,” he’d say. ” And now for the other foot.”

Wooden holds a record that will likely never be beat.  Between January 30th, 1971 and January 17th 3 years later – his teams won 88 consecutive games.  No coach has come to within 42 of that run since.  It is also reported that of the 180 players who he coached, he knew the whereabouts of 172 of them.  Those who played for him knew that they would play by his rules – or they wouldn’t play.  Never score without acknowledging a teammate….one word of profanity, and you’re done for the day….treat your opponent with respect.  He expected his players to dress and look professional while representing the team which also meant no long hair, nor facial hair.  One day, his All-American center (Bill Walton) came back to school from his summer in home state Oregon with a full beard and declared to his coach that it was his right to wear it.  Apparently Wooden asked if he believed that strongly about it and Walton said he did.  Whereupon the coach is reputed to have said, “That’s good, Bill, I admire people who have strong beliefs and stick by them, I really do.  We’re going to miss you this year.”  Walton eventually postponed his bearded debut until his professional playing career commenced – and earned yet another All-American distinction, and, National Championship at UCLA later that year.

I’m not sure, but it makes you wonder how much better our world might be if John Wooden had mentored a few of our Congressmen, Presidents and Supreme Court Justices.  One thing for sure is that those who had the opportunity to learn how to wear their socks properly under his supervision will never forget the man, nor experience a joy in their lives that will matter much more.  For as principled a man as Wooden was, he loved his players, appreciated who they were, rejoiced in their personal joys, and grieved with them in their losses.  As one well-known public speaker once said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  John Wooden was one of those who cared.

Wooden was often asked about the attributes he sought in his players…”The most important attribute in any sport is quickness.  Yet, quickness must be under control.  If it isn’t under control, you have a lot of activity without achievement. I don’t want activity without achievement,” said Wooden.  “To have quickness under control, you have to be balanced, emotionally and mentally balanced. To have the physical balance, you have to be mentally balanced… Balance is keeping things in perspective, not letting yourself get too high or not letting yourself get too low,” said Wooden.  His penchant for saying things that made his players think…enabled them to learn both the game and balance in their lives simultaneously.  “Be quick, but never hurry” was one such paradoxical lesson.

No article on John Wooden’s legacy would be complete without a few more of his valued sayings.  Here are a few to ponder – as well as – live by:

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

“Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”

“If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.”

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts”.

“Never mistake activity for achievement.”

“Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”

“Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”

“You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.”

Podium Sports Journal featured a Podcast interview with Dr. Andrea Becker, who conducted a qualitative study about excellence in coaching and the characteristics of the most successful coaches, one of whom was John Wooden.  Click here to hear Dr. Becker’s Podcast .  If you’d like to read more about what others had to say about John Wooden’s passing visit Webcognito or Bruin Nation.

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