The passing of the legendary collegiate UCLA basketball coach John Wooden a year ago at age 99 provides an opportunity to reflect on his legacy. Though retiring in 1972, his achievement has yet to be surpassed, and likely never will. During his final twelve years of coaching he won ten NCAA national championships, at one point winning 88 games in a row. Various sports commentators, reflecting on his legacy, have questioned whether or not he would have been as successful in today’s game, concluding that he probably would not. In many ways, the game has changed over the past forty years, and not for the better. Others conclude he still would be, for he always stressed education, commitment and team play. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, commenting on Wooden on the occasion of his ninety-ninth birthday stated “Because of Coach Wooden’s mentoring I have never felt uncomfortable being a scholar in addition to being an athlete.” He noted that Wooden thought more of his players graduation rates being over sixty-five percent than he did of his amazing championship runs.
Those who personally knew Wooden point more to his character as a man and teacher than to his coaching ability, for his concern was always to develop the total person, not just his player’s basketball ability.
Trained as an English teacher, he sought to inculcate into his players the creed given him by his father at his eighth grade graduation. These principles were to be true to yourself, make each day your masterpiece, help others, drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible, make friendship a fine art, build a shelter against a rainy day, and pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day. Wooden lived and taught these principles; they became the basis for his Pyramid for Success, developed over fourteen years of reflection.
The disciplines he developed throughout his long life contributed to his success as a coach, whether it was teaching his players how to put on their socks and lace their shoes, dribble a basketball, or dealing with their stardom. He could praise his star players, like Abdul-Jabbar and Walton without fawning over them, and criticize them without berating them. In all of his years of coaching no one recalls one time when he swore at a player. Although blessed with megastars, he always insisted that the main ingredient of stardom was the rest of the team.
Avoiding pre game emotional speeches, believing that emotional peaks are usually followed by passing through deep valleys, he focused on intensity, teaching his players to think small during games – to concentrate on quick but proper execution. Success was not winning, but obtaining the peace of mind that comes from knowing that one made the effort to do the best to become the best that one is capable of becoming.
But it is in an anonymous poem which Wooden considered one of his favorites that we see perhaps most clearly the character of the man that his players and associates saw most clearly.
"No written word, no spoken plea
Can teach our youth what they should be,
Nor all the books on all the shelves.
It’s what the teachers are themselves."
In this poem we see the essence of authentic, unhypocritical living, Because he lived this way, Wooded had a profound impact on the young men who played for him. becoming a mentor to many. As we go though life we often find ourselves taking on roles as mentors and teachers. In them our character is set forth for others to see. As they observe our lives, do they see us teaching what we truly are?