John Wooden: the path to greatness

After his death in 2010, at age 99, accolades poured out for John Wooden, the greatest men’s college basketball coach.

Wooden had 10 national titles. Collectively, the four runners-up have 13 titles.

“What Coach Wooden did will never be touched,” says one of them, Mike Krzyzewski. “You can have a pretty good argument about who is the second-greatest college coach of all time. There’s absolutely no argument about who is the greatest.”

In 27 years at UCLA, Wooden sometimes won with more talent than his opponents and sometimes with markedly less.

Glimpses of his greatness:

On skill. Wooden insisted on mastering details. Like Aristotle, he believed that excellence is not an act but a habit, that “we are what we repeatedly do.”

On discipline. Wooden might say, “You don’t want to be late coming back.” If the player was late, he’d be benched for the game. One star, Bill Walton, arrived for his final season with wild hair. Wooden said, “Bill, that’s not short enough. We’re sure going to miss you on this team.” Walton rushed to the barber.

On winning. He was a ferocious competitor whom Walton called a “caged tiger.” Before playing Duke in 1964, he asked his team, “How many of you remember who finished second last year? They don’t remember who finished second.”

On humility. If he lost, he never blamed players or officials. According to former UCLA coach Jim Harrick: “He had as little ego as anybody I’ve ever known.” Red Auerbach, perhaps the greatest professional coach ever, said Wooden’s humility masked his intelligence. He “never pointed out how well he’d coached or how he had outsmarted the other guy. He just did it, smiled and moved on.”

On worth. Sports commentator John Feinstein tells a story from 1984 when Wooden wheeled around his ill wife, Nell, at their last Final Four together, visiting friends. As they were leaving the hotel lobby, they drew a spontaneous ovation. Asked about it in 2006, Wooden said, “There is nothing like the respect of your peers.” Feinstein shakes his head: “As a coach, he had no peers. And he was a better man than he was a coach.”

— Adapted from “Wooden: Untouchable, incomparable,” John Feinstein, and “Wooden’s legend eclipses his competitive fire,” Sally Jenkins, The Washington Post, plus The Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor and Time.