John Wooden: A lesson in greatness

I got a lesson in greatness on March 24, 1974, the day after UCLA’s incredible streak of seven straight NCAA basketball championships came to an end in Greensboro, North Carolina. Because there was a consolation game in those days at the Final Four, all four coaches were at the Sunday press conference. Coach John Wooden took his turn before Al McGuire, whose Marquette Warriors would face North Carolina State the next night, and he spent the entire press conference talking about what a marvelous game North Carolina State had played to beat his Bruins and how excited he was to be able to watch the championship game between State and Marquette.

There wasn’t the first hint of bitterness or even a slight tone of disappointment. When it came time to talk about what his Bill Walton-led team had and hadn’t done in their 80-77 double overtime loss to David Thompson and North Carolina State on Saturday, Coach Wooden only had praise for his team playing as hard as they could and giving their best effort. He said something to the effect that sometimes two teams play the best they can and unfortunately, one of them has to lose but it doesn’t diminish the greatness of the effort.

Coach Wooden was so genuine and so sincere that it prompted Al McGuire to open his press conference to open by saying, “I just want to congratulate Coach Wooden for showing so much class. If it had been me, I would have been obnoxious.”

There wasn’t an obnoxious bone in John Wooden’s body. Even though they were the most dominant college team of any sport in any era in history, Wooden demanded that his teams show a winner’s grace at all times and rather than complain about a loss, praise the other team instead.

John Wooden won 664 basketball games and lost 162 in his collegiate coaching career. He was 44-15 in two years at Indiana State before taking the UCLA job. In his 17th season at UCLA he won his first NCAA championship, the first of 10 over a 12-year span, an unprecedented record in collegiate team sports. The tenth national championship came on the last game he ever coached when the Bruins beat Kentucky, 92-85.

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The 1974 Final Four was my fourth encounter with John Wooden. My first was in 1972 when I was writing for the Savannah Morning News. One of my weekly assignments was a feature story on someone famous who wasn’t from Georgia. When I told my boss, Marcus Holland, I wanted to do a story about John Wooden he laughed and said, “Good luck getting him on the phone.”

To my surprise, when I called Coach Wooden at his office, the secretary put him through to me and for the next 30 minutes he talked very little about basketball and more about the things that it takes to be successful, not just in basketball but in life. At one point he said that I should always remember that success is never final and failure is never fatal. When I told him that my grandfather had been telling me that same thing for years, Coach Wooden laughed warmly and told me that his dad had told him that and it was something he would never forget.

He asked me to send him a copy of my story, which I did, and about two weeks later, I got a handwritten note on UCLA stationary thanking me for saying such kind things about him.

A year later after UCLA beat Memphis State for the NCAA title in St. Louis to cap a second consecutive 30-0 season, I met Coach Wooden in person for the first time. When I introduced myself, I was floored that he remembered my name and remembered the story I had written. He encouraged me to write good stories about deserving athletes that describe the effort and determination it takes to succeed, telling me he was dismayed that too many writers wanted to write very negative stories.

In December of 1973 I was the sports editor of the Evening Telegram in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. I flew into St. Louis on a Saturday, arriving just in time to watch unbeaten UCLA embarrass unbeaten North Carolina State at the old Checker Dome. After the game, Coach Wooden was his usual gracious self, praising North Carolina State while thanking his team for playing at such a high level. When I got a chance to speak to him briefly, he shook my hand and reminded me once again to write good stories about deserving athletes. 

In March, UCLA came to Greensboro for the Final Four and nobody expected the mighty Bruins to lose. They had won seven national championships in a row and they had already beaten semifinal opponent North Carolina State. I got a chance to watch UCLA practice on Friday afternoon, the first time I had ever seen a UCLA practice and I was shocked at what I heard and saw.

Coach Wooden never once raised his voice the entire hour. He told his team he wanted intensity, the same kind of intensity in practice that they would show in the game the next day. There was more time devoted to fundamentals than anything else. Players were only allowed to shoot the same kind of shots they would shoot in the game; i.e., if you couldn’t make 20-footers with consistency, you didn’t shoot them in practice or in a game.

When the practice was over, Coach Wooden told his team that North Carolina State was going to be a tough opponent but he trusted that they would give their best effort so no matter the outcome they could be proud of what they had done. No rah-rah. No yelling. No screaming. Just a calm voice asking his team to play hard and do their best.

What a concept.

The next day, North Carolina State rallied from 11 points behind to send the game into overtime. In the second overtime, the Wolfpack rallied back from 11 once again and they were down seven in the second overtime when they staged one last rally to win by three (80-77). Throughout the game, Coach Wooden sat calmly with a program rolled up in his hand. He never once screamed at the officials or at his team. During time outs, he was the picture of calm.

But somehow, North Carolina State won that game. David Thompson was magnificent and Monte Towe played one of the best games I’ve ever seen a point guard play. When the game was over, Norm Sloan could barely contain himself. Norm wanted this one so badly because he always coached with a chip on his shoulder, hoping people would recognize that he was a very good basketball coach.

Coach Wooden had no chip on his shoulder and I’m not sure he ever thought of himself as great. I think he believed that he was successful and certainly he was, but I always got the impression that he was far too humble to ever think of himself as a great coach.

* * *

A year later, Coach Wooden coached his last game and went out on top with a championship. He spent the next ten years devoted to the only girl he ever dated or kissed, his lovely wife Nell. Friends who knew Coach Wooden tell me that every week for the 53 years they were married, Coach Wooden got down on his knee and asked Nell if she would marry him once again on the weekly anniversary of his marriage proposal. She, of course, said yes.

When Nell died in 1985, Coach Wooden wrote a love letter to her on the monthly anniversary of her death. He wrote her poems and told her how much he loved her and how he longed for the day when they would be united once again in heaven.

* * *

Coach Wooden once said, “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.”

He is a man whose character spoke far more than all the wins and championships combined. Friday night when Coach Wooden passed away at age 99, he and Nell were reunited for the first time in 25 years. Heaven’s gain was our loss for we have truly lost a great, great man.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.