At the age of 99, he was still writing love letters to the only woman he ever dated. Oh yes, he had those 10 national championships, and an 88-game winning streak, too.
So don’t mourn John Wooden. By any set of spiritual or religious precepts, he was blessed.
Mourn the idea of the college coach.
Mourn the notion of a man who considered himself a teacher first. Wooden’s “Pyramid of Greatness” wasn’t a catchy, how-to for salesmen and apprentice hustlers, for all these new-age Sammy Glicks who’d sell junk bonds or time shares the same way they sell young men with great verticals. Wooden’s motivational construct was ethical, fashioned from advice his father gave him: “Be true to yourself, help others, make each day your masterpiece, make friendship a fine art, drink deeply from good books — especially the Bible — build a shelter against a rainy day, give thanks for your blessings and pray for guidance every day.”
This may be a cynical age, but no more distrustful than the ’60s and ’70s. Cities were burning. Many a campus found itself under siege. It was black against white, and young against old (defined as anyone over 30). Yet in the midst of this upheaval, a square, middle-aged Midwesterner, who worked not far from Hollywood and all its attendant temptations, was able to do his best work. Actually, it was the best work done by any American coach, in any sport.
The championship streak is wondrous enough. But the fact that those years — 1967 to 1974 — coincide with the most famously tumultuous stretch in youth culture, elevates the achievement. It wasn’t a sporting accomplishment so much as a societal one. The jargon of Wooden’s “pyramid” might sound quaint and corny today, but he used it to bridge what was considered a famously insurmountable gap between generations. (To aid your appreciation of this point, you’re advised to get a hold of George Roy’s excellent HBO documentary, “The UCLA Dynasty.”)
It’s worth noting that for a time in the ’70s, some of Wooden’s players got too close to a booster named Sam Gilbert. But I’m not arguing that Wooden was pure. I’m saying that even with his flaws — something he wouldn’t argue, either — he’s as pure and as virtuous as anyone you’ll ever again see in the business of basketball.
Consider the stories going back just a few months. The NCAA has cited UConn and Jim Calhoun for eight major recruiting violations. The coach, who seems to have made human sacrifices of two assistants, was cited for failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance — but not before he got a new $13 million deal.
Elsewhere, Dana and David Pump — identical twin power brokers who represent the biggest coaches in the college game — have been implicated in a ticket scandal at Kansas. Investigators are looking into the academic transcripts and recruiting practices that landed Eric Bledsoe at Kentucky, where he was coached for one season by John Calipari, who’s had not one, but two Final Four appearances vacated. Tim Floyd, who resigned at USC amid allegations that he gave $1,000 to O.J. Mayo’s bagman, recently surfaced with the head job at UTEP.
Now consider Wooden. His teams never had to be investigated or vacated. He never made more than $35,000 a year, and for a while, worked as a dispatcher of dairy trucks. He didn’t jump from job to job, ever angling for a way to land at a more prestigious program. He built a prestigious program.
And dadburn it, as Wooden himself might say, the guy could coach. His biographer, Seth Davis, reminds me that in 1964 Wooden won his first championship at UCLA without a starter over 6-foot-5.
He was using what was then considered a revolutionary defense, the zone-press. As it happens, one of his former players and assistants, Jerry Norman, convinced him to go with it. Later, Norman, felt this advice went largely uncredited by his mentor.
“Some head coaches, they recognize people that have helped them — and some don’t,” Norman told the Los Angeles Times in 2007.
I have no reason to doubt Norman. But I have a different experience with Wooden. I spoke to him while working on a book about Pete Maravich and his father, Press. Wooden and Press had roomed together for years at the Campbell College basketball camp in North Carolina. Press had been written off as basketball’s version of a stage mother. But a single conversation went a long way toward resurrecting his reputation.
“Never underestimate Press’s knowledge of the game,” said Wooden, who’d regularly avail himself of his advice. “I’d go to him first, I think, of anyone. He was the one I would to go for analysis of certain aspects of the game, like attacking a zone.”
Little surprise, then, that Wooden called Press when he signed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, formerly known as Lew Alcindor. “I had never used a high-low post offense,” Wooden recalled. “But when I got Alcindor, Press is the one I talked to about it, about putting in a high-low.”
Wooden accepted Maravich’s recommendation, and the high-low became a signature component of UCLA’s scheme. It is rare for a coach — such a famous one, especially — to grant this kind of recognition.
He was telling me he had Press, and not himself, to thank for the high-low. So maybe he had been stingy with credit. The point is, even as he aged, he grew as a man.
Davis, whose book, “The Teacher,” is due out in 2012, tells me that former players had been visiting Wooden at home these last few weeks, paying their respects. But now, as aging boomers on the on the other side of the millennium, they found a man more outwardly affectionate than he had been as their coach.
He gave Mike Warren a hug.
He bade Henry Bibby farewell. “I love you,” said John Wooden.