by Jack Warren, editor and host of Top Coach Podcast
I’ve always been a little biased, after all, he was a fellow Hoosier. But unlike many things for which I make such positive declarations, I don’t think I’m alone. John Wooden is arguably the best athletic coach that has ever lived.
I stumbled across his obituary again the other day — this one penned by Matt Schudel of the Washington Post (Wooden died in 2010). It about sums up Wooden’s career as best as you can do in a thousand words. Upon re-reading, I’m reminded of the things that are important. And it is upon those things that most veteran coaches can agree. His records were unmatched:
From 1964 to 1975, his teams won 10 national championships, including seven in a row. No other men’s basketball coach has won more than four. He led UCLA to four perfect seasons, each time with a record of 30-0. No other coach has had more than one undefeated season. From 1971 to 1974, his teams won 88 consecutive games, a record no one else has come close to breaking.
The foundation for this great career was laid in small town in Indiana, where the 5’10” point guard started gaining attention outside his region. And as a player at Purdue, he started gaining national attention.
Although remembered primarily as a coach, Wooden was an outstanding 5-foot-10 guard at Purdue University in his home state of Indiana and was named the national collegiate player of the year in 1932. He was the first person elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. The annual award given to the nation’s top college men’s and women’s players is named in his honor.
Wooden was always about team first and despite having some of the best talent in the country come through the gym at UCLA, it was always about team.
He coached many all-American players during his 27 years at UCLA, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (known in college by his original name of Lew Alcindor), Bill Walton, Sidney Wicks and Keith Wilkes. But in keeping with his belief in team play over individual glory, Wooden refused to allow his star players’ uniform numbers to be retired.
“What about the fellows who wore that number before?” he asked. “Didn’t they contribute to the team?”
As a coach, two things have always stuck out to me in particular about John Wooden. The first was his long view and the understanding of the deeper purpose of athletics.
Wooden said he was more pleased by his players’ success later in life than on the basketball court. Almost all of his players graduated, and he pointed out that more than 30 became lawyers, and many others were teachers, doctors or ministers.
“That was his mission — to help young men do good things with their lives,” Abdul-Jabbar told the Sporting News in 2009.
The second was his almost obsessive attention to detail. For him, it was the little things that made the difference.
Each year, Wooden began his practices at UCLA by teaching his players the proper way to put on their socks and lace their shoes.
“It’s the little things that make the big things happen,” he said in 1996. “It’s putting your shoes on properly. It’s getting the wrinkles out of your socks so you won’t get blisters. Those are important things.”
I could go on and on, but let me just encourage you — especially you young coaches — to read something about or by John Wooden. Start by reading the complete story I referenced here. Then find one of his books and read it — carefully. And then read it again. You may find yourself drinking in every word of our contemporaries in the game who’ve achieved some measure of success, but I can guarantee you’ll not learn more that is really important than you can learn from the late — and very great — John Wooden.
Read the entire Washington Post obituary here.
Jack is available to speak to your team or organization or at your next function. He also provides individual and organizational coaching and consulting. You can get more information on these services at Jack’s professional services site, JackWWarren.com.