Mr. Wootten's third-period class will now begin. Mr. Wootten is middle-aged, slightly paunchy, wears glasses and looks every bit the high school history teacher he is. Not the kind you might see on Welcome Back, Kotter, but then, how often does life truly imitate art?
Mr. Wootten is standing at the lectern in the front of the room. To his left are a blackboard and a map of the world. Seated before him are 35 ninth-graders, all boys, all wearing the standard ensemble for freshmen and sophomores at DeMatha High—blue blazer, gray slacks and necktie. Of course, not all of the ties are straight or pulled tight to the neck, and many of the hairstyles are girlishly long. But these aren't Sweathogs by any means. They are quietly attentive and eager to participate. Mr. Wootten is demanding but also personable and approachable, and he never lets the class get dull.
Today's lecture is on the Age of Exploration. It isn't really so much a lecture as a lively student-teacher dialogue. Mr. Wootten believes in class participation. When you come to Mr. Wootten's class, gentlemen, you had better be prepared.
January 29, 1979
Magellan, Vespucci, da Gama, Balboa, Columbus...and so on until the end of the hour.
Among the 45 faculty members at DeMatha High in the Washington suburb of Hyattsville, Md.. few rank higher in the annual teacher evaluations than 47-year-old Morgan Wootten. He has been at DeMatha since graduating from the University of Maryland in 1956; he knows his material. He also knows how to get it across and how to keep his students involved and under control. Those are the characteristics of any good teacher—and of any good coach. Oh, yes, Wootten coaches, too. When he began his coaching career 28 years ago, his St. Joseph's Home for Boys baseball team did not win a game. The next fall, his football team did not lose one. Defeats have been rare ever since.
Although Wootten has coached three different sports at three different institutions during a career that dates back to his days as a junior-college student, he has made his reputation with the DeMatha basketball team. Midway through his 23rd season, Wootten has won 88% of his 697 games. Last season the Stags were 39-0, including a 12-game tour of Brazil, and they won their 15th Metro Conference championship, fifth national Catholic high school championship and fourth national high school championship. Over the years nine of Wootten's boys have gone on to play professionally and 12 have become college or high school coaches. Even more impressive is the fact that since 1961 every DeMatha senior, starter or substitute, 5'1" to 6'8", has been offered a college athletic scholarship.
These achievements are especially remarkable considering the limited talent pools available for high school sports; a coach can draw only from among the kids who live in or reasonably close to his area. Many men in the profession count themselves fortunate to have one great team or one great player in their careers. Wootten has produced both in bunches.
"This is the best high school program in the country," says Jack Bruen, Wootten's assistant for the last seven years. "Working with Morgan is like being with John Wooden." Bruen is probably correct on both counts. Wootten and Wooden do have more in common than just the sound of their names. And Bruen has almost been a Bruin all his life.
Wootten has been directing the Stags for half of his, despite coaching offers from Georgetown and American University and feelers from Duke, Wake Forest and Virginia. He has stayed in Hyattsville because he prefers to live with his wife and five children in the area where he was raised and because he failed to get the one college job he ever really wanted—at Maryland, which is located two miles away.
Love of hearth and home has not prevented Wootten from taking his DeMatha teams to play all over the map—this year's once-beaten club has already won games in North Carolina, Louisiana. Pennsylvania and New Jersey—nor has it kept him from conducting summer camps, giving lectures at clinics, speaking to Kiwanis clubs, co-authoring books and making selections for the McDonald's Capital Classic All-Star Game. And should anyone be interested, Wootten's services do not come cheap. He gets the same fee for attending clinics that many major-college coaches receive. The going rate for an appearance is about $500 plus expenses.
Wootten has accomplished all of this and remained the kind of person about whom everyone has nothing but good things to say. Vic Bubas, once the highly successful Duke coach and now the commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference, says, "In my opinion he is a greater man than he is a coach, which is not only the highest compliment one could pay a person, but is also the reason for his success."
Nobody's that wonderful, you say, but Wootten's human frailties, if those they be, number a meager few: he smokes cigars, plays cards, is occasionally late to class and, when he's irritated, says, "Jesus, Mary and Joseph!"
At DeMatha, Wootten is just another high school teacher. Better known than most, but underpaid and overworked just like everyone else. "Most stories about Morgan's success have missed the boat," says Principal John Moylan. "This is actually the story of a successful teacher in a school with many successful teachers." Moylan, who arrived at DeMatha as a guidance counselor and French teacher the same year Wootten did, is very sensitive about his school's image. He is still upset that last year the head of the Florida High School Activities Association refused to approve a Stags game there because he thought DeMatha was little more than a home for adolescent jump shooters.
"Basketball around here is no big deal," Moylan says, exaggerating to make his point. "We have a lot more to offer than just a winning basketball team. I don't mean it hasn't helped us, because it has brought a lot of college-admission representatives here who might not have heard of us otherwise. But we probably have the most comprehensive program of studies that you could find at any Catholic high school. We have our own computer center, strong science, math and foreign-language departments, and two musicians on the All-Eastern band. Ninety to 95% of our graduates go on to attend college."
It has not always been that way. When Moylan and Wootten signed on in 1956, DeMatha had a blue-collar, unsophisticated, even ruffian reputation. It had been founded 10 years before in a converted garage by the Order of the Holy Trinity as a minor seminary. That original purpose was set aside when DeMatha began accepting students who wanted a conventional parochial education. As Wootten recalls, many of them were neither the best nor the brightest. "At the beginning, the academics and discipline here were a cut below the other Catholic schools," he says. "Now, I don't believe there's any better."
When Wootten arrived at DeMatha, the school had fewer than 300 students. Now, the enrollment is 840, 90% Catholic and 85% white. However, the freshman, junior varsity and varsity basketball teams do not follow that pattern.
The tuition is a relatively low $1,010 a year, which means that DeMatha must stage all manner of fund-raising events to cover its bills. The basketball team pays for itself by playing many of its more important games away from its home gym and by never taking a trip unless the host school promises to at least cover the travel expenses. The gym, like the rest of the physical plant, is functional but cramped. Classes are held in the three-story main building, opened in 1950, the original monastery, a garage and two converted houses. Clearly, students come to DeMatha for the mortarboards, not the mortar.
The school's modest beginnings are matched by those of its coach. In March 1951, while a freshman at Montgomery (Md.) Junior College, Wootten visited the St. Joseph's Home for Boys to recommend a friend for a coaching job. When the friend backed out, Wootten took the position himself, even though his ambition then was to be a lawyer and his athletic skills were modest. He was primarily a substitute on his high school football and basketball teams, and he played basketball and boxed for one year at Montgomery.
Wootten's winless baseball team at St. Joseph's lost no fewer than 16 games that spring—the only losing season he has ever had in any sport. Then his all-winning football team took the local CYO championship. Because St. Joseph's did not have a gym, Wootten's first basketball team practiced outdoors, played all of its games on the road—and still reached the area CYO quarterfinals.
In 1953 Wootten transferred his academic career to the University of Maryland and his coaching career to St. John's High School. At St. John's, where he directed the junior varsity football and basketball teams, he worked under Joe Gallagher, who remains a coaching rival, a close friend and a business partner in a successful summer basketball camp. It was Wootten's association with Gallagher that persuaded him to make a career of high school athletics. "I admired what he was doing so much that I decided that I wanted to do the same thing," Wootten says. "DeMatha gave me that opportunity."
Wootten actually turned DeMatha down when it offered him a coaching job in 1955 because he did not feel he was prepared. But after graduating from Maryland the next year with a degree in physical education and history, he accepted. He had no trouble finding the school because he had served Mass in the DeMatha monastery as a child.
When Wootten came on the scene, DeMatha's athletic teams were even worse than the school's reputation, but in his first year he managed to squeeze out a .500 season in football and a 22-6 record and a division title in basketball.
Wootten continued to coach both sports until 1968, when he decided to concentrate on basketball. His football teams had won three league titles and 72% of their games, but his basketball teams had become successful on a grander scale. This rise to national prominence actually began with the help of a rival coach, Bob Dwyer. From 1958 to 1960. Dwyer's Archbishop Carroll team won 55 consecutive games, a Washington record that still stands. When he decided to leave the school at the end of the 1960 season, he called Wootten and asked him if he would be interested in having one of his players. Wootten, of course, said yes. The transfer was John Austin, who led the Stags to their first conference title in 1961 and their first national Catholic and national high school championships in 1962.
After Austin went off to star at Boston College, DeMatha's winning continued. The Stags repeated as national Catholic champion the following year, and in 1965 they ended the 71-game winning streak of Lew Alcindor's Power Memorial team from New York. While that game was being played, an ambulance stood by at Maryland's Cole Field House just in case Wootten's wife Kathy, who was due to give birth to their first child at any moment, needed it.
That 1965 club, which featured future Notre Dame stars Bob Whitmore and Sid Catlett, won another national high school title, losing only to the Maryland freshmen by one point.
Although DeMatha continued to dominate its conference, eight years elapsed before Adrian Dantley led the Stags to their third national high school championship. When DeMatha won its fourth title last season, there was no single outstanding performer, but there was outstanding depth. Although eight players received college basketball scholarships, enough good ones returned this year to make DeMatha the preseason choice for No. 1 again.
Wootten is able to maintain this deep well of talent because he has made DeMatha a magic name in the Washington area. It is actually to his advantage that the league no longer allows coaches to visit potential players or to offer athletic scholarships. Only two current DeMatha players receive aid, one getting an academic grant of $50 per annum and the other receiving a $200 diocesan scholarship that is given on the basis of financial need. Many of the best junior-high and CYO players around Washington enroll at DeMatha either because they are drawn by the school's reputation for athletic and academic excellence or because their junior-high coaches recommend it. Many of the players come from families that must scrimp to pay the tuition, although the school does have a few low-paying jobs that allow kids to defray some of the cost. For example, Joe Washington, a member of last year's squad who now plays for Colorado, worked as a part-time janitor.
"The way I look at it, I'm paying for my college now," says Guard John Carroll, one of this year's team leaders. "When I decided to come here my friends thought it was a mistake, because I could have starred right away at my local high school. The competition is greater here. so you have to wait your turn, but it's worth it. The first time I wore a DeMatha uniform was a big thrill. I think that name even gets points for us, at least early in the game, before the other team realizes we tie our shoelaces, too."
It is not just the players who take pride in the DeMatha name. "I love wearing my DeMatha jacket—and my parents love seeing me in it," says Percy White, a burly 6'6" center. "They are the ones who wanted me to come here because of the academics." White entered DeMatha in the ninth grade but soon dropped out to return to a school and friends closer to home. He re-enrolled the following year and continues to make the five-hour, six-bus round-trip commute from Oxen Hill, Md. every day.
This has been a disappointing year for White, who was supposed to be the wheelhorse of this season's team. Two off-season operations on his left calf kept him off the team through December, and he has not been very effective since his return in early January. Another injury, which forced Forward Derek Whitten-burg to miss eight games, put most of the burden on guards Carroll and Sidney Lowe, who between them have scored 29.9 points per game. Nevertheless. DeMatha has won 14 of the 15 games on its wide-ranging schedule, including a road defeat of the No. 1 team in North Carolina. Ashbrook High of Gastonia. and a victory over the perennial Texas state champion. Wheatley High of Houston, in a five-overtime thriller in Louisiana. The loss was at Beaver Falls (Pa.) High, 55-45. "Considering our injuries. I couldn't be more pleased or more surprised." says Wootten. "There's no question in my mind that we have the best team in the country when everyone is healthy. I think we'll be on top at the end of the season."
Wootten has finished on top so often that he hardly knows what failure is—or even how to recognize it. University of North Carolina Assistant Coach Eddie Fogler. who spent a season on Wootten's staff in 1970-71, recalls one vivid example of this. "We were playing St. John's for the league championship, and we were down three points with about 15 seconds to play," Fogler says. "Morgan called a time-out and told the team. 'O.K., we've got 'em right where we want 'em.' He said we were going to score, steal the inbounds pass and score again. And that's exactly how we won."
Players believe in Wootten probably because he believes so strongly in himself. "They are convinced that his way is the best way," says Moylan. "He gets his entire team working together with a singleness of purpose. It takes a great deal of strength and discipline to do this."
Moylan is not the only person impressed with Wootten's effect on players. College coaches marvel at their preparation. "They are sound and drilled with all the fundamentals," says Maryland's Lefty Driesell. "They're just excellently prepared for college." Maybe even too well prepared, says Terry Truax, a former Wootten assistant who is now on the staff at Colorado. "You really have to take a careful look when you are recruiting them." he says, "because they are playing almost as well as they ever will."
DeMatha is indeed a pleasure to watch. The Stags are everything a good basketball team should be—aggressive on defense and purposeful on offense. They carry themselves with pride and poise, and during time-outs they look straight at Wootten so they won't miss a word he says. He does not waste time with clichès about "playing hard" or "getting tough"; rather, he spends his 60 seconds on strategy and tactics. When play resumes, he returns to the bench and almost never leaves it to rant at officials or players. He stays calm, his mind firmly on the game. Whether DeMatha is ahead or behind, his face barely changes expression, probably because he knows who will be on top when the game ends.
Wootten's influence on his players extends well beyond the court. He monitors classroom progress with weekly academic reports, and he has an open door and open mind for any problem they want to discuss. "Believe me," Wootten says, "I've heard them all."
Adrian Dantley is a prime example of the positive effect Wootten can have on a player's life. Today the former Notre Dame and current Los Angeles Laker star calls Wootten "a father figure" and "a great man." Time was when Wootten used to call Adrian "Beverly" in an attempt to fire up his competitive spirit.
Dantley says the most difficult summer he ever had was the one he spent trying to boost his grades to DeMatha's standards. "Friends would come by and ask me to play ball, but I couldn't," he recalls. "I had to study." Dantley made it into DeMatha and became the first player there ever to start as a freshman, but it was not always easy. "The discipline I received from Coach Wootten was exactly what I needed. Not just for basketball, but for school and in dealing with people. If I hadn't played for him, I don't think I'd be where I am right now."
To enforce discipline, Wootten is not afraid to risk losing a game. Dantley recalls being sent down to the JV for a week after he refused to follow the orders of an assistant coach. Hawkeye Whitney, now a star at North Carolina State and the only other freshman to start at DeMatha, once was kept out of a game for having missed practice. When it was clear that DeMatha would lose, Wootten went to Whitney on the bench and said, "It would have been nice if you could have helped us." On another occasion Wootten sat two players down for two and a half games because they would not play team ball. When the Stags continued to win anyway, he told them, "The team proved it doesn't need you. Now let's see if you need the team."
Players usually need Wootten the most when they are being besieged by college recruiters. The pressures on a young prospect can be enormous as one cashmered coach after another comes calling. To control the situation, Wootten has established rules for everyone involved. He starts by having his players fill out a form that reveals what they really want out of college, including everything from academic environment to social life.
When a player visits college campuses, Wootten suggests he sneak a look under the red carpet—talk to the students, visit classrooms, find out if the coaches care about academics. And no matter how impressed the player may be by a school, Wootten cautions him to return home before making a final commitment, not to sign while the lights are in his eyes.
Wootten's primary concern is that the recruiter does not take advantage of the player. In the mid-'60s he ran an over-zealous booster from Cincinnati out of his office because the man offered Wootten $5,000 in exchange for the services of two DeMatha stars. Wootten tries to act as a buffer by requiring that all mail and phone contacts be made through the school and that appointments be made through him. In the opinion of North Carolina State's Norm Sloan, "When it comes to recruiting, he's the finest coach I've ever encountered."
About the only thing Wootten will not do for his players is tell them where to go to college. Half the time, he says, he doesn't agree with their decisions, but the choices are theirs alone, and he wants the players to be happy with them. "It's funny," Wootten says, "but if I did make recommendations, I would probably tell them to go to North Carolina, because I think so much of Dean Smith. But the only one he's gotten has been Ray Hite. He hasn't signed any of our big stars yet. Adrian might have gone there until I told him he should fulfill his promise to visit Notre Dame. He visited, and that's where he wound up."
Even at DeMatha, not all the players are Adrian Dantleys. In Wootten's early years he sent letters to 300 schools, trying to interest somebody—anybody—in one of his athletes. That is not necessary today, but Wootten does admit he will bend one of his cardinal rules and give a coach a player's home phone number if he thinks this is the only scholarship opportunity the boy has. And he is careful to be as cordial to a representative of a small school as he is to one from a large university. "Who knows?" he says. "That may be just the place for our 11th man."
There have been some close calls in the 18-year everybody-gets-a-scholarship run. And there are a lot more DeMatha graduates attending the High Points and Belmont Abbeys of college basketball than the Notre Dames and N.C. States. "In some cases the player wasn't very good," Wootten admits, "but the coach wanted the prestige of having a DeMatha player."
DeMatha's prestige is having Wootten. As Moylan says, "When he decided to come to work here, DeMatha got very lucky."