For years, as he tried in vain to get there himself, Jim Harrick
tried just as hard and unavailingly to get John Wooden to go to
the Final Four. But the greatest basketball coach ever -- the man
who so completely made the NCAA tournament his private reserve
that the fans and the press and the other 300- odd schools
couldn't really get in on the fun until he retired -- insisted on
staying home in Encino.
This is an article from the April 15, 1995 issue
Wooden didn't stay away because he felt unwelcome at the college
game's capstone event. Men like Bob Knight and Dean Smith had
joined Harrick in imploring Wooden to go, to grace with his
presence the annual meeting of the National Association of
Basketball Coaches, which is held at the Final Four. Yet Wooden
wouldn't be moved. When he traveled to Indianapolis in April 1991
to receive an award in his home state, he merely ducked into the
Hoosier Dome and went nowhere near the coaches' hotel. ``We need
him at our convention,'' said an exasperated Harrick, who's the
sixth man to wear Wooden's whistle since the old coach's
retirement in 1975. ``He is a shining light. 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 20th anniversary of the last of those titles. But
beginning in 1947, when he was coaching at Indiana State, and
continuing for 37 years, Wooden attended the coaches' convention
and the Final Four in the company of his late wife, Nell. At this
point he wasn't about to start going alone.
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 to be talked out
of bringing her, just as he wouldn't be talked into going without
her -- until the occasion called for an exception.
From his seat in the second row of the Kingdome on April 3, Wooden
looked on approvingly until a buck and a quarter remained in the
championship game and UCLA called timeout, its victory over
Arkansas secure. Then he raised himself up, excused himself as he
passed Microsoft mogul Bill Gates and walked out of the building
and into a waiting white stretch limo. He was determined to let
the Bruins celebrate ghost-free. Funny that all of this should
happen in Seattle, for that's where he and Nell had attended their
last Final Four together, 11 years earlier. Each evening John
still speaks to his high school sweetheart in apostrophe before
retiring. He may whisper the lines from Wordsworth that he finds
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 is 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, eight of them now, with a
ninth due within a few weeks of the Bruin victory. At night he
repairs to the bedroom of the condominium he and Nell shared, in
which virtually nothing has been altered since her death 10 years
ago. Wooden talks often of death but does not fear it. ``No fear
at all,'' he says. ``I'll confess that prior to losing Nellie I
The money he makes from speaking engagements goes into trust funds
for his great-grandchildren because family was so important to
Nell. Audiences rarely ask about his late wife, but he tends to
bring her up anyway, usually 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 to the 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.
``There are friends who would like to see me find another woman
for the companionship. I wouldn't do it. It would never work.''
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 -- Nell's favorite
-- of him in the same pose hangs in their bedroom.
It's 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, shushing the wayward and
confused young, giving them assurances that everything will be all
Or is it both? Wooden's greatest achievement isn't the 10 in 12,
or seven in a row, although such feats will surely never be
accomplished again. It's 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, you always told Bill
Walton, but be willing to accept the consequences.)
Four of your players ask to use your office after practice for
meditation sessions. (You let them.)
One asks your permission to smoke marijuana, saying he's heard it
will 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.''
Wooden's practice gym was a sort of one-room schoolhouse,
transported from Martinsville, the Indiana town in which he grew
up. 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 with aphorisms attached: 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 wrote,
``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. 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
Wooden taught basketball according to the simplest pedagogical
principles. He used what's called the whole-part method. Show the
whole and then break it down. ``Just like parsing a sentence,'' he
says, ``or solving a math problem.'' He followed his four laws of
learning: explanation, demonstration, correction and repetition.
For 16 years there was talk of a new gym, and when UCLA finally
opened Pauley Pavilion in 1965, Wooden made sure he didn't get
just an arena, but a classroom with bleachers that roll back.
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, believed 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 the Pyramid of Success, that formalized collection of life
principles for which Wooden has become known. 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
As he watches the many games lighting up the cathode-ray tube each
winter, 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 called Practical Modern Basketball.
Published in 1966, it's still in print. 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.
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. John spent 10- and 12-hour days at her bedside. ``The
doctors told me to talk to her,'' he says. ``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, 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 gallbladder removed, and that, the doctors said, was a
no-hoper. Yet she survived the surgery. She even made that one
last Final Four -- Seattle in 1984. She was in a wheelchair but
still alert and vivacious, still matching the names with the
faces. ``It was,'' the coach says, ``the last enjoyable thing she
Early the following Christmas, Nell had to be rushed to the
hospital. By then she was 73, and a number of ailments, including
cancer and emphysema, had gotten ornery. She fought on through the
winter, playing out the season. She died on the first day of
Before tip-off back at Martinsville High, Wooden had looked up
from his guard position and caught her eye in the stands, where
she played cornet in the band. She would give him the O.K. sign,
and he would wave back. They kept up that ritual 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, the only person with
the one-two combo). Few knew that he clutched a cross in his hand
on the sidelines. Fewer knew that she clutched an identical one in
hers, one she took with her to the grave. The reclusiveness of
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 there's a certain amount of second-guessing that goes on.''
He never went off to scout opponents, never brought practices home
and didn't make more than a dozen recruiting trips in his entire
career. What could so faithful a husband possibly regret? ``We did
things because I wanted to, not because she did,'' he says. ``We
never went to Ireland. We had planned to, too. But something would
always come up. And Nellie loved to dance. I was not a dancer, you
But, oh, 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-sands 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 John in Iowa City. With a pastor and a
doctor they could trust, John and Nell needed little more.
She would speak up at times when he wouldn't. She upbraided the
fans she believed to be too greedy. She badgered J.D. Morgan,
UCLA's 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 contract or courtesy car, 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 athletes in 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. 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, loved Hollywood,
where she and her friends staked out the stars, autograph books
clutched to their chests.
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.'' He would have 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.''
In the outer lobby of the old Martinsville High gym hangs a
picture of the Artesians' 1927 state-championship team. ``Gone,''
Wooden said during a visit there a few years ago, pointing to a
player in the top lefthand corner. ``Gone, gone, gone, gone,'' he
continued, moving his finger from teammate to teammate. ``Almost
gone,'' he said, his finger coming to rest on his likeness.
His preoccupation with death has lifted only through the combined
diversion of Jim's and Nan's grandchildren, all of whom call him
Papa. Cori, 9, is the fanciful philosopher. ``See that airplane,
Papa?'' she once said as a plane passed overhead. ``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.''
Cori's cousin John, a shade younger, is more of the instigator.
He's the one who once got Papa to turn off all the lights and play
a flashlight game that the great-grandkids call Ghostbusters. Nell
must have been chuckling from behind the credenza even as, year
after year, over the hill in Westwood, a variation of the same
game was played.
And 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 plenty happy, 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. He resolved never to exult unduly in
victory or to languish in loss. ``One's life,'' he likes to say,
``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.
For all the time it took the Wooden-less Bruins to return to their
old selves, it took the Nell-less Wooden almost half as long to
learn his own lesson of the peaks and the valleys. What a good and
glorious thing, then, that before this extraordinary life could
play out, before the buzzer could sound, his great-grandchildren
called timeout to remind him.