Saturday, June 5, 2010

Random Thoughts on John Wooden

John Wooden is the greatest coach in basketball history, if not all professional and collegiate sports: ten national titles in 27 years, seven national titles in a row, four perfect seasons, never a losing season coaching college, 88 straight wins, and no scandals.

However, he was only the third best coach in California and the West. Pete Newell at Berkeley (Newell beat Wooden 8 straight times before retiring)and Phil Woolpert at USF routinely beat him. Both retired though from head coaching, and cleared the way for Coach Wooden’s great coaching run beginning with his 1963 team.

Newell and Woolpert simply couldn’t handle the pressure. Newell won an NIT Title at USF and a NCAA championship at Berkeley. Woolpert won 2 national titles with Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, and 60 straight games. They pioneered tactics, such as the full court press, later made famous by Wooden.

John Wooden went 15 years between being hired by UCLA in 1948 (starting salary $6,000, highest salary $32,500) and winning the first national title. Expectations were different then. UCLA would not retain a basketball coach today for 15 years without bringing home a title.

UCLA only hangs national championship banners from the rafters of Pauley Pavilion – basketball, volleyball (Al Scates actually won 19 volleyball championships at UCLA), and gymnastics. It’s quite an impressive sight.

Wooden might well have persevered against Berkeley and USF had the two rivals continued coaching. Berkeley hit the riots and militancy during the 1960’s that turned many athletes off from attending the great university, and the Jesuits at USF were especially penurious, even on recruiting budgets for the great basketball teams. Most of USF’s great players came from the San Francisco Bay Area.

Coach Wooden was a great coach for several reasons. First, he was a teacher, a classroom teacher of English. A great classroom teacher, who understands the fundamentals of a sport, and knows how to motivate players, can be a great coach. He was a teacher first, a teacher always, and a coach second.

He could recruit and coach players. Many winning coaches can recruit, but not necessarily coach. Their players leave with the same skills sets they arrive with. He didn’t rest, for example, when Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) arrived at UCLA. He hired a big man as an assistant coach simply to teach the young center new skills and moves, such as the famous sky hook.

Third, he was not set in any given system. He shaped the system to the skills of his players. He could beat you with a 2 guard offense (Hazard and Goodrich), two power forwards (Wicks and Rowe), or an outstanding center, such as Jabbar or Walton. He was so good that he is one of the few coaches who could beat your team with his players or his players with your team.

One of the several years in the 1960’s, when UCLA would beat my beloved USF Dons in the Western Regionals, Wooden was rumored after his victory to admit USF had the better players. We knew though that John Wooden was a better coach than Pete Peletta.

Fourth, he coached fundamentals, defense, discipline, conditioning, quickness, teamwork, values and character – still a winning combination.

John Wooden may have been soft-spoken and mild-mannered, and seemed a throwback to an earlier age of simple values, but he had a strong drive to win.

He possessed the simple, but eternal values of the heartland of America, the small Midwest towns.

At a time when racial discrimination still permeated many collegiate and professional teams, Coach Wooden played African Americans. On the other hand, the Baron, Adolph Rupp, of Kentucky was known to be hostile to African American players. His all-white team lost to the 5 starting blacks of Texas Western in the 1966 NCAA Championship game.

His records may never be broken.

Other great coaches, such as Red Auerbach with the Boston Celtics, had great success, especially with Bill Russell, but professional players back then were in a sense indentured servants. Their contracts bound them to the team. Free agency and player unions did not exist.

The most successful college coach since John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, has won only 4 national titles in over 3 decades at Duke.

One advantage Wooden had at UCLA was that players could not turn pro early in those years. They were at UCLA for the full four years. Now, when one and out is often the norm, coaches cannot build championships on returning players. When they do, such as Florida’s twopeat, North Carolina last year, and Duke this year, it’s rare. This year, Coach Calipari outdid himself at Kentucky – not one and out, but four and out for his freshmen.

John Wooden’s records are at risk from teams which play disciplined defense and fundamentals, and do not turn pro until after 4 years. It’s the women’s basketball teams. Coach Pat Summitt has won 8 national titles at Tennessee, followed closely by Geno Auriemma at UConn. Geno’s teams have won 7 national titles, have 4 perfect seasons, and currently possess a 78 game winning streak.

The University of Connecticut women’s basketball program is currently the equivalent of John Wooden’s UCLA program at its peak. Coach Wooden is said to have really admired the women’s game because of their emphasis on fundamentals.

He would be proud of their success.

Let me add that John Wooden was even greater in retirement. Active to the end, he attended games, fund raisers, and would stay however long was necessary to sign autographs and talk with fans. He was signing books a fewyears ago at th eLA Times?UCLA BookFair. The line was seemingly infinite.

Humble, but proud.

And America is proud of John Wooden, an American legend.

No comments: