Wooden’s Life Lessons Will Live on
Three years ago during this site’s infancy, the announcement was made that UCLA would be renovating Pauley Pavilion with the intention of having it ready for the 2010 season. The goal was to dedicate the restoration of Pauley to Coach John Wooden on October 14th, 2010 — the day he would turn 100 years old. Unfortunately Wooden died on Friday evening, June 4th, four months prior to his 100th birthday. Though we’re saddened that Wooden died, the lessons he taught, the messages he delivered, the way he lived his life, and everything positive for which he stood still lives on.
At a time when people are concerned with being the star of the show, the center of attention, and building their own brands, Wooden preached teamwork, cooperation and togetherness. He famously said that “The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team.” Can you imagine Hanley Ramirez hearing this from Wooden the day after he loafed to a ball in left field and rationalized it by saying the other guys on the team can’t play as well as he can?
In a 12-year span, Wooden’s teams won 10 national championships and often played at their highest possible level, winning 88 straight games at one point. No matter how good your team is, winning when you have a target on your back and you’re taking everyone’s best shot is never easy. When you win 88 straight games and seven straight national titles, you’re not having off days and unfocused moments. Maybe his teams did not have those let downs because Wooden believed that “Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” Wooden, his players, and his teams, didn’t just settle for beating opponents or winning conference titles — they wanted to be as good as they were capable of being.
John Wooden wanted his players to look classy and properly represent the basketball program around campus and the school when off-campus. Part of properly representing the team and the school was keeping your face cleanly shaved and your hair cropped tightly. In 1973, after winning two national championships and posting back-to-back undefeated seasons, All American center Bill Walton showed up for the first practice with his hair longer than it should have been. Wooden told him his hair was too long to practice with the team. Walton responded by biking down to Westwood to get his hair cut as quickly as possible. Dodgers manager Joe Torre has similar rules about facial hair and presentation, yet he allowed Manny Ramirez to bend the rules by wearing his dreadlocks halfway down his back. Walton meant much more to UCLA’s team than Manny has ever meant to the Dodgers, but could you imagine the Dodgers telling Manny to take a hike until he cut his hair?
After coaching baseball and basketball for two years at Indiana State, both UCLA and Minnesota pursued Wooden. Feeling that he and his wife Nellie fit into the Midwest lifestyle better than Los Angeles, Wooden wanted the Minnesota job and was prepared to accept the position if it was offered to him. The same day Minnesota was trying to reach Wooden to offer him their coaching position, UCLA had already offered him their basketball coaching job and Wooden accepted. When the Minnesota people finally got through to Wooden (they had been unable to because of a snowstorm), he told them he had already committed to UCLA and he stuck to his word. It’s not hard to figure out what Nick Saban or Bobby Petrino would have done if they were in his situation.
In one of his books, Wooden said he was offered the Lakers head coaching job and the potential to make more than 10 times what he was earning at UCLA. He turned it down. Can you imagine Lane Kiffin or Rick Pitino saying “no” to a new challenge and more money like that?
Wooden famously said he only went with one woman. The only woman he ever dated and loved was his wife Nell. Even years after Nell’s death, Wooden kept his commitment to his only love by writing her a monthly love letter. Can you imagine Tiger Woods doing the same?
In his first year at Indiana State, Wooden’s team won the Indiana Collegiate Conference title and got an invitation to the NAIB tournament in Kansas City. Wooden, who had a black player on his team named Clarence Walker, refused the invitation because the NAIB had a policy banning African Americans. The rule was changed the next year and Wooden’s team won the conference title once again. Now you understand why we were so upset when Venus Williams still played in a tennis tournament in Dubai that rejected fellow player Shahar Pe’er because she is Jewish.
Although he was called the greatest coach of all time in any sport, John Wooden never grew conceited. “Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.” He was a modest man who lived in a simple condo in Encino, still attended UCLA basketball games, signed an autograph for anyone who wanted one, and made time for whomever wrote him or talked to him. He was uncomfortable anytime they took a moment to flash his picture on the big screen at games because he never wanted the attention. He recognized the efforts of everyone and never felt too good for anyone.
Reflecting back on everything Wooden preached, the ideals behind this site, the radio show, our life, and everything we criticize, praise, and deconstruct all comes from the same place: the teachings of John Wooden. John Wooden embodies the heart, the spirit, the lifeblood, and the mission of the ideal Bruin. I am honored to have shared something in common with Mr. Wooden. He was one of a kind and his life lessons will never die.