Baseball BeatJune 05, 2010
John Wooden, 1910-2010
By Rich Lederer

John Wooden died Friday night of natural causes at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. He would have turned 100 on October 14.

While Wooden is generally recognized as the greatest basketball coach ever, he was much more than a coach. He transcended the sporting world and was nearly as legendary for serving as a role model and teaching his midwestern values as the 10 national championships his UCLA teams won in 12 years (including seven straight from 1967 to 1973). Wooden amassed a record of 885-203 (.813) as a college coach, winning 88 consecutive games and 38 NCAA tournament games in a row.

Wooden is one of only three members elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach and as a player. (The other two are Bill Sharman and Lenny Wilkens.) He went to Purdue, winning All-America honors three times and leading the Boilermakers to the 1932 national championship. Wooden coached at the high school level and at Indiana State before being hired by UCLA in 1948, where he remained until retiring after winning his last championship in 1975.

John%20Wooden%20Autograph.jpgAlthough I went to USC, Wooden's influence was so far reaching that I grew up rooting for UCLA during the 1960s and early 1970s. My first college basketball memories were watching Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich, and Keith Erickson lead the Bruins to an undefeated season and the school's first NCAA basketball title in 1964. I was hooked and followed Wooden's teams, which included All-Americans Lew Alcindor, Mike Warren, Lucius Allen, Sidney Wicks, Bill Walton, Henry Bibby, Keith Wilkes, and Dave Meyers, closely thereafter.

UCLA only lost 19 games spanning a dozen years from Wooden's first championship in 1964 to his last championship in 1975. These losses were so infrequent that many of them (such as the loss to Houston in the first nationally televised college basketball game in 1968, USC's dramatic upset using a slow-down offense in 1969 at Pauley Pavilion, Notre Dame ending UCLA's 88-game winning streak in 1974, and North Carolina State defeating the Bruins in the semi-finals in 1974) stand out in my mind four decades later. But I'll never forget the big wins, including many net-cutting ceremonies that are indelibly etched in my memory.

Wooden was active in retirement, writing books, giving speeches, and attending as many UCLA home games as possible. Nell, his wife of 53 years, died in 1985. He was a devoted father, grandfather, and husband, writing love letters to his deceased wife right up until the very end. A religious man who read the Bible daily, Wooden didn't smoke, drink, or curse (although he was known to berate referees using words like "dadburn it" or "goodness gracious sakes alive"). He admired his father Joshua, regularly quoting his "two sets of three: (1) never lie, never cheat, never steal and (2) don't whine, don't complain, don't make excuses."

Upon graduation from grammar school, his dad gave him the following Seven-Point Creed:

  • Be true to yourself.
  • Make each day your masterpiece.
  • Help others.
  • Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible.
  • Make friendship a fine art.
  • Build a shelter against a rainy day.
  • Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day.

Wooden later developed his "Pyramid of Success," consisting of philosophical building blocks for winning at basketball and in life. I had the privilege of attending a breakfast featuring Wooden as the keynote speaker at the Pyramid on the campus of Long Beach State University about 15 years ago. Coast Federal Bank, the sponsor of the event, handed out "John Wooden's Pyramid of Success" (shown above), which he generously autographed afterwards. In his mid-80s, Wooden spoke for nearly an hour without the benefit of a TelePrompter or any notes or cards. He explained his Pyramid, shared his wisdom, and recited many poems off the top of his head. The morning was educational, inspirational, and unforgettable.

Coach taught his players fundamentals, teamwork, and sportsmanship. He was more pleased by his players’ success in life than on the basketball court. Almost all of his players graduated, with dozens becoming lawyers, teachers, doctors, or ministers.

Wooden impressed upon the rest many lessons of life, including some of my favorite Wooden maxims (from Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court):

  • The best way to improve the team is to improve ourself.
  • Big things are accomplished only through the perfection of minor details.
  • Discipline yourself and others won't need to.
  • I will get ready and then, perhaps, my chance will come.
  • If you don not have the time to do it right, when will you find the time to do it over?
  • The smallest good deed is better than the best intention.
  • The man who is afraid to risk failure seldom has to face success.
  • Time spent getting even would be better spent trying to get ahead.
  • It is what you learn after you know it all that counts.
  • Goals achieved with little effort are seldom worthwhile or lasting.
  • Tell the truth. That way you don't have to remember a story.
  • Don't let making a living prevent you from making a life.
  • Although there is no progress without change, not all change is progress.
  • Do not permit what you cannot do to interfere with what you can do.
  • Be more concerned with your character than your reputation. Character is what you really are; reputation is what you are perceived to be.
  • Much can be accomplished by teamwork when no one is concerned about who gets credit.
  • Don't permit fear of failure to prevent effort. We are all imperfect and will fail on occasions, but fear of failure is the greatest failure of all.
  • The time to make friends is before you need them.
  • Nothing can give you greater joy than doing something for another.
  • Do not mistake activity for achievement.
  • You can do more good by being good than any other way.
  • Treat all people with dignity and respect.
  • Acquire peace of mind by making the effort to become the best of which you are capable.

Oh... and Wooden's favorite sport? Baseball. He coached baseball in college and was offered the job to manage the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1960s.

Farewell, Mr. Wooden. You will be missed but never forgotten.

[There are videos and links to numerous articles at ESPN Los Angeles.]


Thanks for sharing that, Rich.

Coach Wooden is one of the all-time class acts and true gentlemen in sports history.