Is there any other sports figure who sits on the 20th century the way John Wooden does? The far edge of the shadow of his life reaches to 1910, when he was born on an archetypal Indiana farm: three-holer outhouse out back; iron basketball hoop, forged by his father, mounted on the barn. As we regard him today with the millennium in sight, Wooden, long since retired but still living near Los Angeles, is basketball's whiskered ombudsman. He's the man who clucks at fundamentals gone to seed and college coaches gone show biz. He recounts stubbornly the simple prescriptions for success that worked for him then and, goodness gracious sakes alive, could work for you now. And he watches his successors as basketball coach at UCLA, the school he led to seven straight NCAA championships, flatter him with their chronic failure to win even one.
So much has grown in the cool shade of that life. A three-time All-America guard at Purdue, Wooden was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1960. UCLA won no NCAA titles during his first 15 seasons as its coach, but in his last dozen years he won 10 championships, and for that he was voted into the Hall of Fame again in 1972—the only person to be enshrined twice.
Wooden won his first championship in 1964 with an undersized, full-court-pressing team. A year later Pauley Pavilion opened on campus, and the coach had made sure the university had built him no fancy Dan arena but a classroom in which the bleachers could be rolled back and he could recreate the atmosphere of the one-room schoolhouse in which he grew up. Wooden taught by using the "whole-part" method, breaking the game down to its elements—"just like parsing a sentence," he would say, sounding like the English teacher he had indeed once been. He applied the four basic laws of learning: explanation, demonstration, correction and repetition. And he developed a pedagogy resting on the notion that basketball is a game of threes: forward, center, guard; shoot, drive, pass; ball, you, man; conditioning, skill, teamwork.
As a coach who shunned recruiting, put relatively little stock in the scouting of opponents and refused to equate success with winning, Wooden figured to have become a great failure rather than college sports' preeminent winner of all time. An article of faith among coaches holds that one must be intolerant of mistakes, but here, too, Wooden was a contrarian. He considered errors to be precious opportunities for teaching—preferably in practice, of course. And the games were exams. "Wooden isn't the game coach everybody thinks he is," said Jack Hirsch, who played on that first title team. "He doesn't have to be. He's so good during the week, he sits back, relaxes and has fun watching the game." Wooden had a saying for that phenomenon, as he did for most things in life. In this case the quote is from Cervantes: "The journey's better than the end." Somehow Wooden's impossibly corny, middle-American way of imparting these larger truths actually got through to the rebellious baby boomers in his charge. Perhaps Wooden had taken conventional wisdom and stripped it down so starkly that it struck players like Bill Walton and Lew Alcindor and Keith Wilkes as revolutionary in some refreshing way.
September 18, 1994
Wooden was a wizard not a saint. Uneasy with the world beyond his gym, he let a renegade booster sink fingers into the UCLA program and compromise its integrity. But those corrupting influences never broke the seal of the capsule that encased Bruin basketball for those hours each week that Wooden spent alone with his players. Although he made possible the cult of the coach, which only a decade later began turning many of the dandified men who work the sidelines into millionaires, Wooden was making only $32,500 a year when he retired in 1975. Any reservations about his decision to quit evaporated when an alumnus came up to him after his final game, in which UCLA defeated Kentucky for—what else?—an NCAA title. "Great victory, John," the booster said. "It makes up for your letting us down last year."
It seems that his unmatched record is worthy of unstinting acclaim but for one thing. In spite of all the players he turned into champions, and the example he set for his profession, Wooden helped institutionalize that bane of all players and coaches, the thing that turns fans and administrators into ingrates and monsters: great, debilitating expectations.