In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the best stories to ever appear in the magazine. Today's selection is "The Coach And His Champion," which originally appeared in the April 3, 1989 issue.
John Wooden had 53 loving years with his wife Nell. Now she's gone and he struggles alone.
John Wooden will not be in Seattle this weekend. Instead, the greatest basketball coach ever -- the man who so completely made the Final Four his private reserve that the fans and the press and the rest of the college game couldn't get in on the fun until he retired -- will be at home, in Encino, Calif., in what is called the Valley.
He will not stay home because he is unwelcome in Seattle. Men like Bob Knight and Dean Smith have implored him to come, to grace with his presence the annual meeting of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, which is held at the Final Four. But their entreaties have been unavailing. ''We need him at our convention,'' says current UCLA coach Jim Harrick, who is the sixth man in 14 years to try to wear Wooden's whistle. ''He is a shining light. My wife and I have offered to take him. I hounded him so much that he finally told me to lay off. The more you badger him, the more stubborn he gets. But I can see his point. The memories would be really difficult.''
To most coaches, memories of 10 NCAA championships in 12 years, including seven in a row, would be sweet and easy. Indeed, this spring marks the 25th anniversary of Wooden's first title, the championship won by UCLA's tiny Hazzard-Goodrich-Erickson team, the one he likens to his first child. But beginning in 1947, when he was coaching at Indiana State, and continuing for 37 consecutive years, Wooden attended the coaches' convention and the Final Four in the company of his late wife, Nell. At 78 he's not about to start going alone, not now.
Nell was perennial, consensus All-Lobby. She knew the names that went with the faces, and she would whisper cues to her husband as well-wishers approached. He needed her with him, for she was as outgoing as he was reserved. A few coaches didn't cotton to Nell's presence, for they had left their own wives at home and knew that the usual boys-will-be-boys shenanigans would never pass unnoticed before Nell's Irish eyes. But her husband wasn't for an instant to be talked out of bringing her, just as today he isn't to be talked into going without her.
So Wooden will spend college basketball's premier weekend in much the same way he passes all his days now. The games on TV will be mere divertissements. He will take his early-morning walk, past the park, the eucalyptus trees and the preschool his great-granddaughter attends. Each evening he will speak to Nell in apostrophe before retiring. He may whisper the lines from Wordsworth that he finds so felicitous: ''She lived unknown, and few could know/When Lucy ceased to be;/But she is in her grave, and, oh,/The difference to me!''
Sunday will be for church, for the long drive to Nell's grave in Glendale and for their children, their children's children, and their children's children's children. At night he will repair to the bedroom of the condominium he and Nell shared, in which virtually nothing has been altered since her death four years ago. Wooden sleeps fitfully these days, as if expecting a call. He talks often of death but does not fear it. ''No fear at all, absolutely none,'' he says. ''I'll confess that prior to losing Nellie I had some.''
Upon finishing his morning constitutional -- a doctor prescribed it in 1972 because of heart trouble -- he often will sit down in his study, underneath the pictures of the 10 national championship teams that were hung, at Nell's suggestion, to form a pyramid, and a poem or aphorism will take shape. He remarks on how effortlessly this one flowed from him one morning:
The years have left their imprint on my hands and on my face;
Erect no longer is my walk, and slower is my pace.
But there is no fear within my heart because I'm growing old;
I only wish I had more time to better serve my Lord.
When I've gone to Him in prayer He's brought me inner peace,
And soon my cares and worries and other problems cease;
He's helped me in so many ways, He's never let me down;
Why should I fear the future, when soon I could be near His crown?
Though I know down here my time is short, there is endless time up there,
And He will forgive and keep me ever in His loving care.
And how did you imagine John Wooden spending his later years? The mind, the values, the spring in his step -- they're all still in place. He could probably take over a misbegotten college varsity, demonstrate the reverse pivot, intone a few homilies and have the team whipped into Top 20 shape in, oh, six weeks. He continues to stage summer basketball camps in which you won't necessarily meet famous players but you may actually learn the game. He answers his own mail, in a hand that you'll remember from grammar school as ''cursive writing.''
He books most of his own speaking engagements, although several outfits have solicited his services. Audiences rarely ask about Nell, but he tends to bring her up anyway. He usually refers to her as ''my sweetheart of 60 years, my wife of 53, till I lost her.'' The cards he sends to family and the checks he makes out for the children's trusts, he signs in both their names. ''That pleases Nellie,'' he says.
His life is lived to that end. ''I won't ever leave here, because I see her everywhere,'' he says in his -- their -- living room. ''I miss her as much now as I ever have. It never gets easier. There are friends who would like to see me find another woman for the companionship. I wouldn't do it. It would never work.''
He takes the morning walk in part because she insisted he take it. He has continued to participate in the camps because his share of the profits goes into the trusts, and family was so important to her. He gives the speeches, usually on his Pyramid of Success -- a homespun collection of life principles -- because, if you riffle back through the Norman Rockwell scenes of their life together, back to high school in Martinsville, Ind., you'll see it was Nell who persuaded taciturn Johnny Wooden to take a speech class to help him out of his shell. He struggled until the teacher, Mabel Hinds, who knew of his fondness for poetry, gave him a copy of Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, which made the speaking easier.
He still knows Gray's Elegy cold, and in Martinsville in January, at a banquet on the eve of ceremonies to dedicate the 12-year-old high school gym in his name, he recited it. With all manner of acclaim being slung at him, he intoned this stanza as if raising a shield to protect himself:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e're gave;
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour:
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
''And they do,'' he added from the dais. ''We're all going to go someday.''
''As a coach, did you ever lose your temper?''
The postprandial question comes from the audience in Martinsville. Wooden's answer provides a lesson about self-control: ''I always told my players to control their tempers, and I couldn't very well expect them to if I wasn't setting a good example myself. I lost my temper once in a while. But I never lost control. I never threw anything. I never threw a chair.''
Not 20 miles from Bloomington, within the pale of Bob Knight, the banquet hall erupts with approval.
The sphinx of the Pyramid of Success rests his left forearm against his stomach, parallel to the ground. His left hand is a socket for his right elbow. His right forearm forms a hypotenuse leading to his chin, where the index finger sticks upright, hovering just over his mouth. When speaking, Wooden strikes this pose frequently and unconsciously. A photograph of him in the same pose -- Nell's favorite -- hangs in their bedroom.
It is an enigma, that finger to the mouth. Is it the stern Midwestern schoolteacher, meting out discipline, admonishing the class? Or is it the kindly grandfather, guiding the wayward and confused young, giving them assurances that everything will be all right?
Or is it both? Wooden's greatest achievement isn't the 10 in 12, or seven in a row, although such a feat will surely never be accomplished again. It is rather that he did all this during the roily years from 1964 to '75 -- an era in which 18- to 22-year-old males were at their most contrary -- at UCLA, a big-city campus awash in the prevailing freedoms.
Your star player lies down in rush-hour traffic to protest the Vietnam War. (Stand up for what you believe, Bill Walton's coach always said, but be willing to accept the consequences.)
Four of your players ask to use your office after practice to conduct meditation sessions. (You let them.) One asks your permission to smoke marijuana, saying he'd heard it would relieve the pain in his knees. (I am not a doctor, you tell Walton. All I know is it's against the law.)
College players still take drugs, but none today go in to discuss it with the coach beforehand. What was it about Wooden that caused Walton to broach this subject? ''Decisions are more apt to be accepted when you've listened to suggestions first,'' says Wooden. ''I wanted them to see the reason behind what I asked of them, not to do things just because I said so.''
Yet Wooden threw down the clipboard when he had to. Former UCLA center Steve Patterson remembers the day, in the fall of 1970, that he and forward Sidney Wicks asked to be excused from practice to show solidarity with a nationwide rally protesting the Vietnam War. ''He asked us if this reflected our convictions, and we told him it did,'' says Patterson. ''He told us he had his convictions, too, and if we missed practice it would be the end of our careers at UCLA.
''We blinked. I don't think he was necessarily unsympathetic to the statement we wanted to make. He may even have agreed with us. But I see the connection. I didn't at the time, but I do now. He continually challenged you about your attitude toward the team as a whole. He set the standards. He didn't let us set the standards, even though we wanted to.''
Wooden's practice gym was a sort of one-room schoolhouse, transported from the Indiana plains. For two hours in the afternoon his pupils listened to material that seemed to have emerged from a time warp. They listened because they knew they would win if they learned their lessons. The fundamentals came complete with hoary precepts: Failure to prepare is preparing to fail. Be quick, but don't be in a hurry. Don't mistake activity for achievement. The purpose of discipline isn't to punish but to correct. Things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out.
One sentiment is so dear to Wooden that he has mined the anthologies for two renderings of it. ''The journey is better than the end'' comes from Cervantes. And Robert Louis Stevenson said, ''To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.'' Says Wooden, ''I appreciated that notion more later, after we started to win championships. The saying that it's tougher to stay on top than to get there -- I don't believe it. It's very tough to get there. And along the way you learn, as Lincoln would say, not just what to do, but what not to do.
''People say we could never win those championships again, what with parity. But I'm not so sure it couldn't happen today. Winning breeds winning. If we had had freshman eligibility during the 1960s, we would have won another one ((with Lew Alcindor, now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in 1965-66)). When everyone has good players, teaching will be a telling difference.''Wooden
Wooden taught English at South Bend Central High before heading to Indiana State for two seasons and then to Westwood for the rest of his coaching life. He always preferred the practices to the games. The games were just exams, when the teacher's work was done. ''There again,'' he says, ''the journey's better than the end.''
Piggie Lambert, Wooden's coach at Purdue, preached that the team making the most mistakes would win, for good things come to those who risk error by taking the initiative. Thus, initiative is part of Wooden's Pyramid. You would think, given his success, that someone might still coach his way today. But rare is the coach who doesn't have a tight rein, a hard derriere or both. How can a real teacher not indulge mistakes? ''George Patton is not my idol,'' Wooden says. ''I prefer Omar Bradley.''
As he sees all the games the networks satellite-dish out, Wooden concludes that, besides turning the young men into dogs and ponies, television has transformed the coaches into showmen. Coaches today overcontrol. Instead, they should teach players the game and let them play it. Goodness gracious sakes alive -- you may hear that truncated to Gracious sakes, but from Wooden you'll hear no stronger oath -- coaches nowadays haven't even hit their 40's before they're writing books with titles like A Coach's World and Born to Coach.
Wooden's first book is still in print. Published in 1966, it's called Practical Modern Basketball. Read it and you'll learn that basketball is a game of threes: forward, center, guard; shoot, drive, pass; ball, you, man; conditioning, skill, teamwork. These last three elements made up Lambert's hoops trinity, and they are the three blocks at the heart of the Pyramid. The Wooden text also holds that the way to play the game -- soundly, and with balance -- isn't a bad way to live your life.
''You might have thought of that as a golden time, when you've climbed to the top of the mountain. But we were at the top of the mountain when we showed up.'' Greg Lee is talking about the Walton era, the three seasons Lee played at guard, between 1971 and '74. ''Half the time we didn't even know who our opponent would be,'' he says. ''Winning 88 straight games -- that's not normal. It would have been better if we'd have struggled.''
When Lee and his classmates were precocious sophomores, Wooden warned them that, as seniors, they would be intolerable. Headstrong young men like Walton, guard Tommy Curtis and Lee -- ''I'd like to be able to say I didn't contribute to the problems,'' Wooden says, ''but I did'' -- didn't prove him wrong. But Wooden bent too much, and his normally steady hand seemed to waver. He relaxed some of the inviolable principles on which he had always insisted. He excused Walton from practice on Mondays and Tuesdays because of the center's aching knees. Detecting inconsistency, the team took advantage.
That March, as if to vindicate 25 years' worth of strictures suddenly allowed to go flaccid, UCLA squandered a seven-point lead in the second overtime of the NCAA semifinals and lost to North Carolina State. ''Bill was such a megastar he probably didn't need to practice,'' says Lee. ''But maybe the team needed him to practice.''
Lee, now coach at a high school near San Diego, has learned that lesson in discipline in retrospect. But Wooden, even if he denies it today, relearned it then and there. The next season, with the Bruins again playing on his exacting terms, they became champions once more.
Since his retirement, the catty strains of Wooden revisionism have made their way through the coaching fraternity. Unlikely as it may seem, between 1948 and 1963 Wooden did not win an NCAA crown at UCLA, and during this period the critics accused him of being a jockey of referees and opposing players. They said that he overheated the old ''B.O. Barn,'' the Bruins' second-floor gym, because he knew his teams could stand it. They said that he had two sets of standards, one for stars and another for everybody else. But the most persistent whisper has always been that the cornerstone of the Pyramid was no middle-American verity, not conditioning or skill or teamwork, but a Los Angeles contractor and UCLA booster named Sam Gilbert.
Gilbert was everything Wooden wasn't. Worldly and wealthy, he offered players advice and, in violation of NCAA rules, gave them gifts and paid for their girlfriends' abortions. Black players, in particular, received healthy doses of his street wisdom and regular invitations to the lavish spreads at his house on Sunday mornings. ''I remember we were on a road trip in Chicago, and five guys all got on the bus together wearing matching coats with fur- lined collars,'' says Lee. ''It was pretty conspicuous. It's not like Coach was an ostrich about Sam, but he wouldn't confront the problem.''
Wooden insists that no one enrolled at UCLA because of Gilbert. But once a player became a Bruin, few were denied his largess. With the inertia born of a successful program, and with Wooden's lack of interest in matters outside the gym or the classroom, Gilbert went unchallenged. After becoming the UCLA coach in the late '70s, Larry Brown, who resented Gilbert's sway with his players, tried to run him off. Gilbert responded by threatening not only to cut off Brown's testicles but also to do it ''without him even knowing it.'' In 1987 a Florida grand jury, unaware of Gilbert's death four days earlier, indicted him in a drug-money-laundering scheme.
In the simplistic analogy, Gilbert is the hoodlum on the fringe of the school yard, and Wooden is the teacher who can only tell his pupils to Just Say No. ''I warned them, but I couldn't pick their friends,'' says Wooden. Today Wooden owns up to breaking NCAA rules himself. He invited players to have meals with him and Nell during in-season school vacations so they would not be alone in dormitories on campus. He helped pay the rent of a player with a child and a sick wife. He bailed out of jail another player who had been picked up for delinquent parking violations. These transgressions all conformed to Wooden's higher rules.
''I honestly feel Sam meant well,'' says Wooden. ''He felt whatever he did was right, even if it was against the rules.'' As different as he and Gilbert were, Wooden felt much the same way.
''I never had a smarter player than Mike Warren,'' Wooden frequently says. He also says, ''I never had a better athlete than Keith Erickson.'' This is a salutary lesson about race, from a man who grew up in Indiana, then a hotbed of the Ku Klux Klan. Warren, who later starred in Hill Street Blues, is black; Erickson, white. In a sport infected with racial code phrases like ''heady ballplayer'' and ''great athlete,'' Wooden's comments are March on Washington stuff. But he says he isn't the slightest bit aware of their stereotype- busting implications. Wisdom subdues bigotry. With the experience to judge, one need not prejudge.
By her husband's count, Nell was twice at death's door before she finally succumbed. A heart attack, which she suffered while undergoing a hip- replacement operation in 1982, put her in a coma. Friends and family took turns visiting St. Vincent's Hospital in downtown Los Angeles, not to see Nell in her quiet as much as to succor her husband. He spent 10- and 12-hour days at her bedside, and he might not have found time to eat were it not for their solicitude.
''The doctors told me to talk to her,'' says Wooden. ''They said that I might not see any signs, but in her subconscious she might be hearing me.'' Three months after Nell entered the coma, as her body lay suctioned and plugged with intravenous tubing, he took her hand and squeezed it, and he felt a squeeze back. There are no nets to cut down when something like that happens.
But shortly thereafter Nell had to go back into the hospital to have her gall-bladder removed, and that, the doctors said, was a no-hoper. No way she could weather the trauma. Yet she survived the surgery, recovering enough to live life rather than just muddle through it. She even made one last Final Four -- Seattle, in fact, in 1984. She was in a wheelchair but was still alert and vivacious, still matching the names with the faces. ''It was,'' the coach says, ''the last enjoyable thing she did.''
That is why this weekend in Seattle would have been so difficult. Early on Christmas morning in 1984, Nell had to be rushed to the hospital. By then a number of ailments, including cancer and emphysema, had gotten ornery. At 73 she just wasn't going to pull off any more miracles. Nell fought on through the rest of the winter, playing out the season. She died on the first day of spring.
Before every tip-off back at Martinsville High, Wooden had looked up from his guard position and caught her eye in the stands, where she played the cornet in the band. She would give him the O.K. sign and he would wave back. They kept up that ritual even as Johnny Wooden (Hall of Fame, inducted as a player in 1960) became John R. Wooden (Hall of Fame, inducted as a coach in 1972). He's the only person with the old one-two combo. Few knew that he clutched a cross in his hand. Fewer knew that she clutched an identical one in hers. She took it with her to the grave.
The reclusiveness that ruled Wooden's first year as a widower alarmed doctors, family and friends alike. Former players and assistant coaches conspired to telephone regularly until Wooden's granddaughter, Caryn, gave birth to a girl, Cori, and he brightened somewhat. ''I try to be thankful for the time Nellie and I had together,'' says Wooden. ''But sometimes you wonder what you could have done. There's a certain amount of second-guessing that goes on.''
He never went off to scout opponents, never brought the practices home and didn't make more than a dozen recruiting trips in his entire career. What could so faithful and doting a husband possibly regret? ''We did things because I wanted to, not because she did,'' he says. ''We never went to Ireland. Nellie always wanted to go to Ireland. We had planned to, too. But something would always come up. And Nellie loved to dance. I was not a dancer, you know.''
He averts his eyes, betraying his small-town bashfulness. That's what Nell, at 13, had to crack; that's what she and her friend Mary Schnaiter would talk about when they repaired to the quarries outside town. Of course, Johnny was already smitten. ''She was as cute as can be,'' says Mary. ''Little, with a turned-up nose. She could do just about anything she wanted.''
And my, the life John and Nell spent together. You can almost hear Alistair Cooke in the voice-over: Johnny, born in Hall, Ind., in 1910, one of four sons of a simple and devout couple, spent much of his youth in a farmhouse with a three-holer outhouse out back. His father forged the iron goal he learned to shoot at. John and Nell waited out his four years at Purdue, only to have their savings -- $909 and a nickel -- wiped out in a bank failure on the eve of their wedding.
So rock-solid a couple was grossly misplaced amid the shifting-sand values of Los Angeles. When John and Nell left Indiana State for UCLA, they found the support of two familiar Midwestern pillars. Wales Smith, the minister at the church they joined in Santa Monica, had been in Wooden's class at Martinsville High. Ralph Irwin, the doctor they chose, had performed an emergency appendectomy on Wooden in Iowa City. With a pastor and a doctor they could trust, John and Nell needed little more. ''Oh, you're from back East!'' people would say. Crossly, Nell would correct them.
She would speak up at times when John wouldn't. She upbraided the fans who she thought were too greedy. She threw withering looks at the caviling men along press row. She badgered J.D. Morgan, UCLA's shrewd and parsimonious athletic director, about her husband's insulting salary and the anemic retirement package awaiting them. ''I know John Wooden never lies,'' one coach said during the early '70s, ''but he can't be making twenty-nine-five.'' At the time he was. And he never made more than $32,500.
He had no shoe contracts or courtesy cars, either. In the early days, before all the titles, before Pauley was built, Wooden's Bruins practiced amid the gymnasts and wrestlers and shared a locker room with the other men's sports. The dust from all the gym classes would build up by practice time, and Wooden and his managers had to mop the floor themselves. The undisciplined circumstances under which he was asked to teach ate away at him, but he and Nell never really considered going elsewhere, even as offers from NBA teams and several schools in the Big Ten came his way. Their son, Jim, had fallen for surfing; their daughter, Nan, for Hollywood, where she and her girlfriends staked out the stars, autograph books clutched to their breasts. Soon enough Wooden made peace with the broken promises and his chaotic classroom. ''I whipped it,'' he says, ''by recognizing it.''
Some people think Wooden was too deferential to Morgan. Certainly, the same couldn't be said of Nell. ''She really thought they were taking advantage of him,'' says Nan. ''And Daddy never wanted to complain, because he never wanted for anything. But Daddy didn't have to get mad. He could stay very serene, because his other half was getting it out. Nobody was his champion the way Mother was.''
Championing a champion took its toll. During his early days as a coach, Wooden would stop smoking the day practice began and forswear cigarettes for the balance of the season. In 1955, he quit entirely. But it wasn't so easy for Nell. From the time she first acquired a taste for cigarettes, Nell had relied on smoking to help her cope with the stress. Her husband desperately wanted her to give up the habit that would hasten her departure from him, but she played games with him: stashing butts in her purse, retiring to her daughter's house to get a fix.
As the dynasty pushed into the '70s, success was spoiling what should have been glorious times and edging Wooden toward retirement. ''Sometimes I'm very slow making up my mind,'' he says. ''But once I make it up, I'm very slow to change it.''
On the floor of the San Diego Sports Arena in 1975, after Wooden had won his last NCAA title, a booster sought him out and said, ''Great victory, John. It makes up for your letting us down last year.'' The attitude implicit in that statement disgusted him. There would be no second thoughts, no regrets, about retiring. He didn't want to step down. He had to. ''Daddy's job wasn't fun for us,'' says Nan. ''It really wasn't.''
Here is a lesson about learning. Back in the late '60s, when he was in the midst of winning those seven straight titles and had little reason to question himself about anything, Wooden attended a press conference at which the Los Angeles Lakers announced that they had traded for Wilt Chamberlain. A reporter asked Wilt about his reputation for being hard to handle. Would the Laker coach have problems handling him? ''I am not a thing,'' Chamberlain said. ''You handle things. You work with people.''
Upon returning home that day, Wooden opened a copy of Practical Modern Basketball. He turned to the section titled ''Handling Your Players,'' crossed out ''Handling'' and wrote in ''Working With.'' He phoned his publisher and asked that the change be made in all subsequent printings.
''John was a better coach at 55 than he was at 50,'' says Pete Newell, the former coach at Cal and San Francisco, who has known Wooden for more than 40 years. ''He was a better coach at 60 than at 55. He's a true example of a man who learned from day one to day last.''
In the outer lobby of the old Martinsville High gym hangs a picture of the Artesians' 1927 state championship team. ''Gone,'' says Wooden, pointing to the player in the top left-hand corner. ''Gone, gone, gone, gone,'' he continues, moving his finger from teammate to teammate. ''Almost gone,'' he says, his finger finally coming to rest on his likeness.
When speaking engagements take him east, he'll route himself through Indianapolis, rent a car, drive the highway south and slip into the various graveyards around Martinsville, where his and Nell's forebears are buried. At each one he'll say a prayer. The neighboring gravestones are graced with names like Way and Byroad and Schoolcraft, names that sound as if they came from a novel about Puritans. His preoccupation with death lifts only when Cori, 3, and her cousin, John, who's pushing three, come by to visit. Cori is the philosophical one, and little John is the instigator. It was John who got Papa, as they call their great-grandfather, to turn off all the lights and play a flashlight game that the kids call Ghostbusters. Nell must have been cackling from behind the credenza.
Meanwhile, over the hill in Westwood, a variation of the same game goes on. ''The problem we're having is John Wooden,'' a Bruin named Kenny Fields said a few years ago. ''He won too much. Now our fans can't accept anything less.''
Wooden has scrupulously avoided commenting on the performance of any of his many successors. Indeed, Harrick says he has to crowbar advice out of him. Watch Wooden watching the Bruins, from his second-row seat across from the UCLA bench, occasionally with Cori and John scrambling around him: He claps rhythmically to the pep band during timeouts, but otherwise he betrays little reaction to the basketball before him.
Wooden won't say this explicitly, but the man UCLA should have hired back in 1975, the man the old coach praises whenever he has a chance, is Louisville's Denny Crum. That single move might have forestalled all the Bruins' recent travails. But Morgan refused to consider him as Wooden's replacement simply because Crum, a former UCLA player and assistant coach, had been divorced. Such were the impossible standards of John's and Nell's legacy.
So we come to the lesson of the peaks and the valleys. If you should catch one of those Final Four historical shows on late-night cable, be sure to study Wooden's Bruins in victory. They're happy campers, storming the floor and cutting down the nets, but always they hold something back. ''Of course, I will have reminded them in a timeout,'' says Wooden, ''for every artificial peak you create there is a valley. I don't like valleys. Games can be lost in them.''
He had seen Phil Woolpert win back-to-back national championships at San Francisco in 1955 and '56 and then struggle in the crucible of trying to keep winning. Then he saw Ed Jucker also win two in a row, at Cincinnati in '61 and '62, only to leave coaching because of similar pressure. That's when he resolved never to exult unduly in victory or to languish in defeat. ''One's life,'' he says, ''should be the same.''
But with Nell's death his very faith wavered. Never mind that a favorite plaque of theirs hangs in his study and reads God never closes one door without opening another. ''He did not want to live,'' says Gary Cunningham, his old assistant. ''A lot of us were worried, and disappointed, too. What he had instilled in our lives he wasn't practicing in his own.'' All that winning, and look what one loss did.
A few weeks ago Cori and Papa looked up as an airplane passed overhead. ''See that airplane, Papa?'' said Cori. ''I'm going to take that airplane and fly all the way to heaven and get Mama and bring her back, so Papa won't be lonely anymore.''
Gracious sakes, Cori, no. Stay right here with Papa. For later, there, he'll have Mama. For now, here, he has you and John, two previous generations of Woodens, and -- should he ever change that mind that's so hard to change once it's made up -- a convention full of rudderless coaches of basketball, who desperately need to learn how to teach the game.
Before this extraordinary life gets played out, before the buzzer sounds, won't someone please call timeout to remind him? He has taught so many of us such wonderful lessons. He has one more lesson, his own, to study up on.