UCLA Coach John Wooden dies at 99 (6/2010)

Posted on June 5, 2010

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He was by almost every account not only the most influential coach basketball has produced.

But the man whose methods of coaching — he preferred to refer to it as “teaching” — have been emulated by those who aspired to be “coaches” in every other sport as well in the more than 35 years since his final UCLA team played a game. John R. Wooden’s autobiography is called “They Call Me Coach” and never has a book been more aptly titled. But beyond the 10 national championships — including seven in a row — that his final 12 UCLA Bruins’ clubs won during a period of dynasty that is almost without equal in the history of sports in general, beyond the roster of some of the greatest players in the game’s history (the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton) and on-court drills and style of play that helped propel that UCLA dominance, Wooden proved to be much more than since the Bruins beat Kentucky in that 1975 championship game. He became an absolute American icon, whose sphere of influence transcended the world of basketball.

In more or less the same way that Abraham Lincoln is looked upon as more than “just a President”, Thomas Edison “just an inventor”, Bob Hope “just a comedian”, Arthur Miller “just a playwright” or John Wayne “just an actor”, Wooden has long been embraced as much more than “just a basketball coach”. Much, much, much more . . .

University of Washington basketball coach Lorenzo Romar is one generations of athletes whose perception of the game — and how it should be played and coached — was shaped in large part by watching Wooden’s UCLA teams play. As a youngster growing up in Compton, Romar would watch KTLA’s tape-delayed broadcasts of UCLA games late into school nights, mesmerized by the likes of Abdul-Jabbar (known as Lew Alcindor as a Bruin), Sidney Wicks and Walton.

“My friends and I would catch a bus to Westwood, so we could walk on the (UCLA) campus and into Pauley Pavilion, hoping maybe we’d get to see Coach Wooden,” Romar reminisced from Seattle.

Romar went on to graduate from Pius X High and Cerritos College, and played at Washington four years after Wooden retired. But he eventually began a relationship with Wooden that strengthened when Romar was a UCLA assistant in the early 1990s under Jim Harrick.

Sure, there were plenty of discussions about the “Xs and Os” of coaching but there were also the conversations that turned to topics beyond basketball — about life, and how to approach its intricacies with the same discipline, work ethic and positive attitude that were such integral parts the way he taught and coached basketball. His “Pyramid of Success” became a foundation for the countless numbers of organizations, groups and work forces — with nary a connection to “sports” — that he addressed across the country.

“I believe that if he had never coached a basketball game in his life,” Romar continued, “he would have been nearly as successful in almost anything he would have attempted, although he probably wouldn’t have been as well known. “He was a master psychologist — he had to have been in order to mesh players with so many diverse backgrounds and personalities as well as he did — who was so well versed in history and literature and current events.”

In the midst of UCLA’s dominance, Wooden was receiving hundreds of letters per week from coaches and aspiring coaches from every part of the basketball world. One of those came from a young assistant coach at the University of Marquette in Milwaukee,

“We were thinking about using some of the `two-guard front’ that was a big part of UCLA’s half-court offense,” Rick Majerus, now the head coach at Saint Louis University and among the best “teachers” the sport has. “I sent a pretty detailed letter, with 13 questions about all aspects of the offense. He didn’t know me from Adam but I was hoping one of his assistants might send me some material about the offense.” A few weeks later Majerus received a UCLA basketball envelope in the mail. Inside was the letter he had sent Wooden, “with hand-written answers above each of the questions,” Majerus said from his office. “They were precise and concise answers, talking about the timing of every cut made in the offense, the spacing needed between players — every facet was explained.” The answers had been provided by Wooden, who clipped a short note to the letter thanking Majerus for writing and wishing him “good luck”. “I’ll never forget that,” Majerus added.

Majerus had multiple opportunities to visit with Wooden since receiving that letter and — like so many other coaches and non-coaches alike — “got to know” Wooden through his interviews, speeches and books. “He was so rock solid and genuine in what he believed as far integrity, work ethic, religion and marriage (Wooden’s wife of 53 years, Nell, died in 1985),” Majerus said. “He had sort of a `mid-American, Everyman’ appeal that cut across racial, economic and geographic boundaries.”

Brian Gimmillaro’s Long Beach State women’s volleyball teams have won nearly 700 matches. He has never coached basketball he believes Wooden’s “teachings” are a huge part of his success as a volleyball coach. “There is no question that he was the greatest coach ever, in any sport,” Gimmillaro said.

“He never vacillated in his beliefs about the hard work, discipline and organization that were needed to be a good coach.” Gimmillaro knew Wooden had a great love of baseball but he didn’t realize the reach of his sports knowledge until he had an opportunity to meet him during a luncheon. “We had just gone undefeated (while winning the 1998 NCAA title, led by Misty May, and winning all 36 matches),” Gimmillaro said. “He asked me `how many games did you lose?’ — so I thought, `He knows volleyball, because he knows the difference between matches and games’. “So I told we had lost just six games and he smiled and said, `So, tell me how it was you guys lost six games?”

Bill Shumard was at that lunch as LBSU’s athletic director and is now the President and CEO of the Southern California chapter of the Special Olympics — an organization for which Wooden played a big role in fund-raising. “I think we raised more than $1 million during the 10 golf tournaments and dinners that were part of the John R. Wooden Classic (in Anaheim every December),” Shumard said. “I think the way he treated our athletes best exemplified the kind of man he was. He talked with them and showed them so much respect and treated them with such dignity.” Even when he was well past 90 years old, “Coach was sharp as a tack whenever he addressed groups,” Shumard said. “People hung on his every word.”

Like Lorenzo Romar, Ben Howland grew up in Southern California, listening to KMPC radiocasts and KTLA telecasts of Wooden’s Bruins. When he was hired as UCLA’s coach in 2003, Howland got the greatest perk of all that went along with the job — he had regular access to visit with Wooden. “I can’t begin to express how lucky I’ve been to have the opportunity to have a relationship with Coach,” Howland said.

And Howland would concede that he is just one member of a very large club in that regard — most of which never met the man but who will continue to be influenced by both his words and deeds, and pass on that influence to generations to come.

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