June 5, 2010

HANG ON NELL, HE'S COMING:

John Wooden dies at 99; UCLA basketball coach won 10 national titles: Wooden's accomplishments during his 27-season tenure with the Bruins made him one of the greatest coaches in sports history. He also created the 'Pyramid of Success' motivational program. (Bill Dwyre and David Wharton, June 5, 2010, LA Times)

In 40 years of coaching high school and college, Wooden had only one losing season — his first. He finished with 885 wins and 203 losses, and his UCLA teams still hold an NCAA record for winning 88 consecutive games from 1971 through 1974.

The Bruins attained greatness during a golden age in Los Angeles sports. The Dodgers had Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale on the mound at newly built Dodger Stadium. The Lakers, with Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, battled annually for the National Basketball Assn. championship. The USC football team, coached by John McKay, won several national titles.

But for all the success that local teams enjoyed, none could match UCLA for the sheer number of championships.

Wooden built his dynasty on simple precepts. He insisted that his squad be meticulously prepared and in top physical condition. No detail was overlooked. The first practice of each season, the coach would remind his players about pulling on socks smoothly and carefully lacing sneakers — there would be no excuse for debilitating blisters.

His workouts were so grueling that former players said they often were relieved to play in games.

In the 2005 book "Wooden on Leadership," guard Gail Goodrich recalled, "He believed that winning is a result of process, and he was a master of the process, of getting us to focus on what we were doing rather than the final score. One drill he had was to run a play over and over at full speed, but he wouldn't let us shoot the ball. He made us concentrate on what happened before the shot was taken, what happened to make it possible. He made us focus on execution. He built teams that knew how to execute."

Walton, in his book "Nothing but Net," wrote: "John Wooden was so intense during those practices. He never stopped moving, never stopped chattering away. Up and down the court he would pace, always barking out his pet little phrases."

Those phrases reflected another facet of Wooden's coaching style: He demanded crisp fundamentals and teamwork predicated on passing and cutting to the basket. He wanted his players to be smart, both on the court and in their lives away from the game.

Among Wooden's pithy maxims:

"Failing to prepare is preparing to fail."

"Flexibility is the key to stability."

"Be quick, but don't hurry."

This approach produced immediate results. Upon arriving in Westwood in 1948, Wooden inherited an underachieving team picked to finish last in the conference. Instead, the Bruins wound up with a 22-7 record. The next season, they won the conference championship.

Yet UCLA did not win a national title until Wooden's 16th season. To accomplish this, he had to do something that many coaches can't manage: He had to change. At the urging of assistant Jerry Norman, a former player added to the coaching staff in 1957, Wooden focused on defense and instituted a zone press that he had used infrequently since he was a high school coach. Norman also was energetic about recruiting, something for which Wooden had little appetite.

By the mid-1960s, the Bruins were so confident in their system that Wooden rarely bothered to scout opponents. He figured it was their job to stop the Bruins.

In the 1973 book "The Wizard of Westwood," longtime college coach Jerry Tarkanian told Dwight Chapin and Jeff Prugh, the authors of the book who both covered UCLA basketball for The Times, that Wooden "does a tremendous job of organizing and getting his teams ready to play. He makes very few adjustments during games. Other teams worry about what he's going to do — his press, his fast break. You're extremely conscious of them. They're hardly conscious of you at all."

Wooden was respected for more than just victories. The UCLA coach was equally revered for how his teams played the game — a style that reflected his personality. [...]

At Martinsville High School, Johnny Wooden — as he was known in those days — ran track, played baseball and became an all-state guard in basketball, leading his team to the state title in 1927. Most of the Big Ten Conference schools recruited him, Purdue winning out because of its academics and its renowned coach, Ward "Piggy" Lambert.

The Boilermakers played an aggressive, up-tempo style that suited Wooden, who became known as the "Indiana Rubber Man" for his tendency to bound around the court and dive for loose balls, then bounce back into the action. He was a three-time All-American and led the Boilermakers to their only national championship in 1932.

His senior year was noteworthy for two other reasons. Wooden won the conference Medal for Academic Achievement as an English major. Years later, he would place the honor among his favorites on a list that included induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Also in 1932, Wooden married his high school sweetheart, Nell Riley. He called her "the only girl I ever went with."

Barnstorming

After graduation, Wooden played semi-professional basketball, barnstorming through the Midwest. He once made 134 consecutive free throws, earning a $100 bill from the team's owner, the first time he had ever seen currency so large.

But his principal occupation was as coach and English teacher at Dayton, Ky., High School, where he followed an initial 6-11 season with a more respectable 15-3 finish. After two years, he moved to South Bend, Ind., Central High and nurtured a string of winning teams.

During World War II, Wooden enlisted in the Navy to serve as a physical trainer for combat pilots. Upon his discharge in 1946, he took a job as athletic director and coach of the basketball and baseball teams at Indiana State Teachers College (now Indiana State University) in Terre Haute.

Again, his teams had winning seasons, but the young coach might best be remembered for a game his squad did not play. In his first season, Indiana State earned a spot in the National Assn. of Intercollegiate Basketball tournament but was told that its lone black player, a reserve guard, was not welcome. Wooden declined the invitation.

The next season, the Sycamores, with a 27-7 record, were invited again. After discussions between Wooden and tournament officials, Clarence Walker became the first African American to compete in the postseason tournament.

Those two seasons at Indiana State — and a 44-15 record — were enough to attract interest from larger schools. It was good luck and bad weather that ultimately brought Wooden to the West Coast.

Both the University of Minnesota and UCLA sought to hire him, and he was partial to remaining in the Midwest. But Minnesota wanted him to retain the previous coach as an assistant; Wooden was set on bringing his own man. As negotiations continued, Wooden set a deadline for Minnesota to decide. When the deadline passed without the expected phone call from Minnesota, he accepted the UCLA offer. Hours later, Minnesota called to say that a heavy snowstorm had knocked out phone service. Administrators pleaded with him to back out of his agreement with UCLA.

Wooden insisted on keeping his word, even after he arrived on the Westwood campus and discovered why the program he was taking on had had only three winning seasons in the previous 17 years.


MORE:
Here’s to John Wooden and a life well lived (TIM DAHLBERG, 06/04/10, AP)

“Learn as if you were going to live forever,” he would tell his players. “Live as if you were going to die tomorrow.”

John Wooden didn’t live forever. His tomorrow finally came Friday, when he quietly passed away just months before his 100th birthday.

The end came, fittingly enough, on the same UCLA campus where he tutored a player then known as Lew Alcindor. The same place he seemingly couldn’t lose with Bill Walton.

The place where he dispensed wisdom that his players remembered long after they had forgotten the X’s and O’s.

“What you are as a person is far more important than what you are as a basketball player,” he would say. [...]

Walton was one of those with ability, and tons of it. The redhead was one of the greatest college players ever and the bedrock of the UCLA team in the early ’70s that won the 88 straight.

Walton was also very much an individual in a time of individualism. One day, during a break in the season, he showed up at practice with a wild, red beard, ready to play for a coach who didn’t allow facial hair.

“It’s my right,” he told Wooden.

“That’s good, Bill,” Wooden replied. “I admire people who have strong beliefs and stick by them. We’re going to miss you.”


John Wooden's life was a love letter (T.J. Simers, LA Times)
To say it is a sad day would be to risk meeting him again, and getting that look from John Wooden.

To say it is a time to be happy might not sound right, but you could hear the anticipation in his voice about this very day whenever he spoke about the chance to reunite with Nellie Riley, the love of his life.

He meant so much to so many, but it was the only girl he ever dated and then married who meant the most to him -- a love letter written from husband to wife on the 21st of every month to mark her death.


John Wooden's coaching legend started in Northern Kentucky: Dayton High player Ben Stull got Christmas cards from him 77 years later (Cincinnati.com, June 5, 2010)

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 5, 2010 7:25 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus
« THEY'RE A STATE IF WE SAY THEY ARE: | Main | JOZY WHO?: »