All achievers

John Wooden

Basketball's Coaching Legend

We're all absolutely equal in having the opportunity to make the most of what we have.

John Wooden's parents. (Courtesy of John Wooden)
John Wooden’s parents. (Courtesy of John Wooden)

John Wooden was born on his parents’ farm near Centerton, Indiana. Life was difficult for the Woodens. Their farm had neither running water nor electricity and money was often in short supply. In later years, Coach Wooden credited his success to the habits of discipline and hard work he learned on the farm. Rural America did not share in the prosperity enjoyed by large cities in the 1920s. In 1924, the Woodens, like many farm families, went bankrupt and lost their farm. The family moved to Martinsville, a small town which, like so many in Indiana, took great pride in the performance of its high school basketball teams. Wooden, who had shown a gift for the game from grade school days, soon became a star player on his high school team. The team went to the state championship three years running, and won it twice. While still in high school, John met Nellie Riley. By his own account, it was love at first sight, and the two teenagers decided to marry as soon as John finished college.

Johnny Wooden, star of Purdue University basketball squad in 1930. (Courtesy John Wooden)
Johnny Wooden, star of Purdue University basketball squad in 1930.

John Wooden entered Purdue University in Indiana to study civil engineering, but became an English major instead. In college basketball, he earned a reputation as a fearless player of dazzling speed. He made All-American three years running and won a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame. After graduation in 1932, he was offered a spot on the Celtics professional basketball team, but passed it up to begin a teaching career and marry his beloved Nellie. His first post was in Dayton, Kentucky, where he not only taught high school English, but coached all of the school’s athletic teams. The basketball team had a losing season, the only one in Wooden’s entire career.

The following year, John and Nellie settled in South Bend, Indiana, where he taught English and coached the basketball team of South Bend Central High School. In 11 years of coaching high school basketball, Wooden’s teams won 218 games, losing only 42. The young coach served as a physical education instructor in the United States Navy during World War II. Appendicitis kept him from shipping off for the South Pacific. A Japanese kamikaze plane struck the ship Wooden was to travel on, killing the officer who had taken his place.

John and Nellie Wooden at home in Terre Haute, Indiana, 1948. John Wooden had just been hired as head basketball coach at UCLA. (AP Images)
1948: John and Nellie Wooden at home in Terre Haute. Wooden was just hired as head basketball coach at UCLA.

After military service, Wooden, like many other teachers he knew, was not re-hired at his old job. He quickly found work, however, at Indiana State Teachers College, later known as Indiana State University. He coached basketball at the school, resuming his string of winning seasons.

In 1948, Wooden accepted an offer to coach the UCLA Bruins. At the time, the team was considered the weakest in the Pacific conference. The university had not provided the team with the facilities usually considered essential; the Bruins lacked a home court to play in, and had to share practice facilities with the school’s other teams.

UCLA Bruins (L to R) Mike Lynn, Lucius Allen, Mike Warren and Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Adul-Jabbar), with coach John Wooden, celebrate after beating North Carolina to win the 1968 NCAA championship. (AP Images)
UCLA Bruins (left to right) Mike Lynn, Lucius Allen, Mike Warren and Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), with Coach John Wooden, celebrate after beating North Carolina to win the 1968 NCAA championship.

Wooden’s Bruins astonished the skeptics by winning 22 out of 29 games in his first season as coach. The following year, they took 24 out of 31 and won their conference championship. Under Wooden’s tutelage, the Bruins maintained their high win-loss ratio, and won the Pacific conference titles again in 1952, 1956, 1962 and 1963.

In 1964, Wooden achieved a long-sought-after goal. His team had a perfect season, and won the NCAA championship. The following year, they won the title again, losing only two games in a 30-game season. What they lacked in size, the 1964 and ’65 Bruins made up for in speed, discipline and an extra-keen will to win that has been the hallmark of all of Wooden’s teams. The break-up of this winning lineup may have cost the Bruins the championship in 1966, but they came back with a vengeance in 1967, and held the championship for the next seven years.

March 25, 1972: UCLA coach John Wooden on court, walking past cheerleaders before a NCAA Final Four game versus Florida State at Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. (Photo by George Long/Sports Illustrated/Getty)

The seven-foot center Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) dominated the Bruins’ game for the first three seasons of their seven-year streak. Bill Walton was the dominant star of the 1973 and ’74 seasons, when UCLA set the all-time record for an unbroken winning streak: 88 consecutive games. In 1974, UCLA again won the Pacific conference title, but lost to North Carolina State in the NCAA semi-finals.

The Bruins bounced back in 1975, Coach Wooden’s last year, winning 27 out of 30 games, turning around a losing semi-final against Louisville in the closing minute of the game. In the final game of the tournament, UCLA defeated the University of Kentucky, 92-85.

March 23, 1972: UCLA coach John Wooden in a huddle with the team during a timeout at the NCAA playoffs in Los Angeles. (Photo by Rich Clarkson/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
March 23, 1972: John Wooden in a huddle with the team during a timeout at the NCAA playoffs in Los Angeles. (SI)

In all his years as coach, John Wooden prohibited his players from any use of profanity, and consistently avoided it himself. Still, in his first 12 years at UCLA, the coach developed a fearsome reputation among opposing teams for the fanciful harangues he directed at officials and opposing players from the bench. This habit was virtually the only aspect of his career for which the coach expressed any regret. In the championship years, fans and players alike noticed a distinct mellowing of Wooden’s behavior on the bench.

John Wooden graces the June 14, 2010 cover of Sports Illustrated to commemorate his death at the age of 99. He is hailed as the greatest college basketball coach the game has ever known. (© Sports Illustrated)
John Wooden graces the June 14, 2010 cover of Sports Illustrated to commemorate his death at the age of 99. Coach Wooden is heralded as the greatest college basketball coach the game has ever known. (Sports Illustrated)

One of Coach Wooden’s proudest moments, he later recalled, came when he overheard one of his players, an African American, reply to a reporter’s question about racial tensions on the team: “You don’t know our coach. He doesn’t see color. He just sees ballplayers.” Wooden remained close to many of his former players in his long years of retirement. He died peacefully in Los Angeles at the age of 99. His record of accomplishment remains unmatched.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1976

“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”

John Wooden coined his own definition of success. By the standards of the Basketball Hall of Fame, his own success was unprecedented. He was the first person in history to be enshrined there twice, once as a player for Purdue University, and again for his performance as coach of the Bruins of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

In Coach Wooden’s last twelve years as coach, UCLA won ten National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships. In the 27 years he led the Bruins, they never had a losing season. Their record of 88 consecutive winning games will probably never be surpassed.

Among Wooden’s players at UCLA were two titans of the game: six-foot-ten Bill Walton, and seven-foot-plus Lew Alcindor, who later became one of the great stars of the NBA under his Muslim name, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Despite the presence on his squad of such towering superstars, Coach Wooden always credited his team’s success to the spirit of selfless teamwork he inculcated in all his players. “Always think of passing the ball before shooting it,” he told them.

Despite the unparalleled success of his teams in the NCAA tournament, Wooden said his greatest satisfaction came from seeing his players go on to be productive members of society off the court.

Watch full interview

No conversation with John Wooden would be complete without talking about your famous Pyramid of Success. Is it possible to say what the most important building blocks are in that pyramid?

John Wooden: They’re all important, but the first two blocks that I chose were the cornerstones. If any structure is to have strength or solidity, it better have a strong foundation. Of course, the cornerstones anchor the foundation. One cornerstone is industriousness and the other one is enthusiasm. I think you have to work hard at whatever you’re doing. If you’re looking for the shortcut, the trick, the easy way, you can get by, perhaps, for a while, but you won’t be strengthening the talents that lie within you. I often use verse to make a point. Grantland Rice wrote a poem called “How To Be a Champion.” In part, he said:

You wonder how they do it and you look to see the knack,
You watch the foot in action, or the shoulder or the back,
But when you spot the answer where the higher glamours lurk,
You’ll find in moving higher up the laurel covered spire,
That the most of it is practice and the rest of it is work.

And there’s another verse or two that say essentially the same thing. There’s a lot of truth in that. And then, the other: enthusiasm. If you don’t like what you’re doing, how in the world can you do the best of which you’re capable? You can’t reach your own particular level of competency unless you enjoy it, unless you’re enthusiastic about it. You may be talented and you may be better than somebody else, but if it’s not near your own particular level of competency, you’re not really succeeding. Of course, we’re all imperfect and there’s no such thing as perfection, but it’s something to work toward. Those blocks just stand. I never change them.

John Wooden's Pyramid of Success.
John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success.

Through the next 14 years, when I worked on the various blocks, I had a lot of ideas. I discarded some. I put something in their place. I moved the position within the structure some, but I never changed the cornerstones. They still remained constant, and I still believe that they are the cornerstones for success. The foundation, I had three blocks and they include others and had to add strength. Then we work up to the very top, of being competitive greatness. That’s the last block. How do you become that? By being industrious and enthusiastic and being conditioned and having the skills and being imbued with consideration for others and so on. So they lead up. These things lead up. Below the top block, I have poise and confidence. How do you gain poise? By being prepared. How do you get prepared? By being industrious, by being enthusiastic, and so these others. It all leads up, to my way of thinking. Perhaps it wouldn’t to somebody else, but it does to me. In trying to use that in helping me become a better teacher, then I can now help those under my supervision be better. In the mid-’30s, about the time I coined my definition and was working on this, I ran across a couple of things that have stayed with me always. One was a verse that said:

No written word, no spoken plea,
Can teach our youth what they should be,
Nor all the books on all the shelves.
It’s what the teachers are themselves.

We need that. We need models that are good, positive models. I ran across that. Another thing that I ran across that I’ve never forgotten was — a lady was asked, a lady teacher had been teaching for many years and was asked why she taught. She later wrote some things down and she said:

(A poem by Glennice Harmon)

They ask me why I teach
And I reply, “Where could I find more splendid company?”
There sits a statesman,
Strong, unbiased, wise,
Another later Webster
Silver-tongued.
And there a doctor
Whose quick, steady hand
Can mend a bone or stem the lifeblood’s flow.
A builder sits beside him —
Upward rise the arches of that church he builds wherein
That minister will speak the word of God,
And lead a stumbling soul to touch the Christ.

And all about
A lesser gathering
Of farmers, merchants, teachers,
Laborers, men
Who work and vote and build
And plan and pray into a great tomorrow.
And, I say,
“I may not see the church,
Or hear the word,
Or eat the food their hands will grow.”
And yet — I may.
And later I may say,
“I knew the lad, and he was strong,
Or weak, or kind, or proud
Or bold or gay.
I knew him once,
But then he was a boy.”
They ask my why I teach and I reply,
“Where could I find more splendid company?”

As a teacher, you see that. You see these youngsters grow up. I saw all those in many of my classes. I saw a youngster become an admiral in the Navy. I saw them become doctors and dentists and all different professions. Whether you did really or not, you like to feel, maybe I helped them a little. Maybe I did in a little way. And if some of them failed for some reason, “What could I have done?” You think about that.

Before 1964, you came close to winning the national championship, but in ’64 it finally happened. What do you remember most about that year or that championship game?

John Wooden: The handwriting on the wall came in ’63. In ’62, we went to the Final Four. It surprised me we could get to the Final Four under the conditions in which we were working, because they were still the same. That sort of changed my attitude. In ’63, I decided to stick with something that had been very successful for me at Indiana State and high school. That was a pressing defense. I had tried it through the ’50s at UCLA and I gave up on it. I gave up on it too soon, and I shouldn’t have. But in ’63, I looked at the personnel that I had and said I’m going to stick with it this year and I’ll find out. And we improved regularly. I had all the starters back for ’64.

John Wooden coaches UCLA against Houston during the 1968 Final Four. (Photo by Rich Clarkson /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
John Wooden coaches UCLA against Houston during the 1968 Final Four. (Rich Clarkson/Sports Illustrated/Getty)

Pete Blackman, who had played for me in ’62 was now in the Navy, and we used to write things back and forth in poetic form. I wrote him one thing in ’63 and I closed it with a verse that ends, “We could be champs in ’64.” Well, in ’64, we went undefeated. I had the same personnel. I had the greatest person to play the number five position in the zone press that I’ve seen play. That’s Keith Erickson, a great competitor who had all the physical qualifications and, as some say, the guts of a burglar. He was just what you need for that. I had a great number one person, a left hander. It’s ideal to have a left hander in that number one position. I had the personnel to make this go, and we did go undefeated in ’64. It’s unusual that we would go undefeated, but we had already come close in the end of ’63. We got beaten in the regional tournament by a team that was just red hot and they just did everything. That happens once in a while, and it could have happened in some of the years we won it all. Fortunately it didn’t, but it could have. I stuck with it in ’63 and then, in ’64, everything just came together. I lost three starters in ’64 but I still had the two key ones in for the defense. I’d lost Hazzard, my best ball-handling guard, but I had the key pressing players, the number one, Goodrich, and the number five, Erickson. I had them back in ’65.

John Wooden:  In ’65 we went back to Illinois and played the first game of the season and they thrashed us good.  We’d just come off of 30 straight and they thrashed us good.  It was probably an awakening to some of the players.  We lost only one other game the rest of that season, and repeated as the champions. The other game we lost was also to a Big Ten team, Iowa. But I had Erickson hurt in that game, and we were not the same team without Erickson at all.  But I was very, very proud of that ’65 team, just as proud as the ’64.  But I was very proud of my ’48, ’49 team.  They weren’t supposed to do anything.  They were supposed to finish last.  We won the conference, won 22 games.  No National Championship team gave me any more pleasure than that very first team I had at UCLA.

Those weren’t big teams, those 1964, ’65 teams.

John Wooden: No. Height-wise, they were probably the shortest teams to ever win and, I suspect now, probably the shortest teams that ever will win. But size isn’t always the answer. I think it was proven by those two teams. They came together real well. The players accepted their roles. I think coaches today are having a little more trouble getting players to accept their roles. That makes it a little more difficult, but those did. As a unit, they were strong. Maybe there were some other teams that might have been individually better, but as a unit, these were two very strong teams.

The young Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) listens intently to UCLA coach John Wooden during a workout before a 1969 game against Purdue. (AP Images)
Lew Alcindor listens intently to UCLA Coach John Wooden during a workout before a 1969 game against Purdue.

When you won that first title, did you ever imagine you’d win nine more?

John Wooden: No. I don’t think anyone could have imagined that. After ’62 I thought maybe we have a chance. But I think the most amazing of all our championships were the first two. With no home court, in a sense, and the practice conditions! We had only two baskets and a lot of conflicts and no private dressing rooms, no private shower rooms, just one big thing for all sports. If you can do it with that, when you’ve got Pauley Pavilion, my goodness, it ought to be easy now. Of course, players like Alcindor made it a little easier, too.

You coached during the counterculture era of the 1960s and ’70s. And you’ve had some pretty strong-willed players, even before then: Jerry Norman and Bill Walton. How did you handle those times and those kinds of players?

John Wooden: You made an interesting statement there, in one word. You said, “How to handle those players.” I can tell you a little story that’s always sort of meaningful to me.

Keys to success — Integrity

John Wooden: When Wilt Chamberlain came to the Lakers, I was invited to the press conference announcing this. In the press conference, one member of the press asked Wilt, “Do you think that Bill van Breda Kolff can handle you?” Bill van Breda Kolff was the coach of the Lakers at the time. And Wilt said, “No one handles me. I am a person, not a thing. You handle things. You work with people. I think I can work with anyone.” Just prior to this, my coaching book, Practical Modern Basketball, had been published, and I had a section in this book entitled, “Handling Your Players.” I left this meeting, came home and took my book and marked out, crossed out, “handling your players,” put “working with your players.” And any place that I had alluded to handling your players, I changed. I called the publisher and wanted that correction made for any future editions.

 UCLA coach John Wooden huddles with team during timeout of 1964 game against Duke. (Photo by Rich Clarkson/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
UCLA Coach John Wooden huddles with team during timeout of 1964 game against Duke. (Rich Clarkson/Getty)

You have to work with them.  I think in any business, those under your supervision must be made to feel they’re working with you, not for you.  Otherwise, they’ll just punch the clock in and out and that’s it. I think with players, you have to have certain standards.  You have to back them up.  If you have a rule, back it up.  Don’t put a rule in that you’re not going to back up.  When you have it in there, back it up, but if someone fails in some way, don’t keep after them the next day.  Dismiss them maybe from practice that day.  But the next day, don’t say, “Don’t do that again.”  Take care of it when it happens, just as when your youngsters misbehave, take care of it then.  You don’t have to keep bringing it up.  Now, if it occurs over and over and the methods you used didn’t correct it, then you’ll have to change your method.  I’ll give you a good example. This happened the year after Alcindor graduated.

I had two players from the preceding year that are going to be very, very fine players this year.  They came to practice or to that picture day, and they had been growing mutton chops from the end of the preceding year until now, and this is a few months now. I knew they were doing this and I also knew they were kids and I knew that they were going to test me.  I know that’s coming. So when they came to draw their uniforms, I’ll put them in them the day before practice started. I had them put on the game uniforms to get pictures and everything.  They came to draw their uniforms and they hadn’t taken care of themselves. I’m there with my managers because I want to anticipate any problems.  And I say, “No uniforms.”  One of them said, “Why not?”  I said, “You know why.  I’m not going to explain it again to you.  You have about 15 minutes to determine whether you’re going to play this year or not.  You have 15 minutes to get up and see Ducky Drake, our trainer, in our training room, and let him get busy with his razor and clippers and get you in shape.”  He said, “You don’t have that big guy (Alcindor) this year.”  And I said, “No. Fourteen minutes and I’m not going to have either one of you two if you don’t get up there.  Now make up your minds, now.”  Well, they stared at me.  They turned and ran up.  They got fixed up. They were testing me.  I know they were testing me. After the day is over, they hung around.  They kept hanging around ’til everybody’s gone.  I’m usually the last out, along with the managers, last to leave, to see everything is put away and everything.  One of them said, “Can we talk to you, Coach?” I said, “Sure.”  And he said, “We’re sorry.”  I said, “That’s okay.”  I said, “When I was your age, I tested people too.  But now, let’s have a great year.”  “You bet we will,” he said. “We can win without that big guy.”  And then they ran away happy. They’re not mad.  They’d have lost all respect, they’d have been disappointed, I’m sure, if I had given in to them, rather than disappointed because they didn’t.  What would that have done with the rest of my team too, if I had given in to them?