Sunday, June 06, 2010

Seven things you may be presently aware of about John Wooden

John Wooden was called the greatest coach in American sports history so often it lost all meaning. People said it without caring or considering why.

In recognition of his death at age ninety-nine, a number that has to be written out, the best answer is that he evoked an era when a coach got to just coach. The obligations are so much more vast today. It was also a statement dripping in truth, on account of those 10 NCAA men's basketball titles in 12 seasons with the UCLA Bruins. That longing for a simpler time runs through a lot of sports discussion. Remember the scene in Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday where the Miami Sharks defensive coordinator played by Jim Brown muses about going back to coach high school football where "kids are just happy to just to play?" It's kind of patronizing to the sports figures of that vintage to assume there was less pressure. Pete Newell, whose influence rivals Wooden's, quit coaching before his team since it was affecting his health. When Newell died in 2008, he was remembered as a basketball icon, not an American icon.

We would be wise, or at least honest, to admit there is no turning back the clock to Wooden's time in the high-dollar sports world. Wooden leaving this life might forever deep-six sportswriters using him as a rhetorical device to express their distaste for the NCAA's excesses. John Calipari can be critiqued without cheapening a legend, plus there's what comes up when you Google "sam gilbert + UCLA."

Wooden's iconography long has passed into fable. Everyone knows the aphorisms ("be quick but don't hurry") and the anecdotes. He never made more than $32,500 a year at UCLA. He would pause to point out to players why "farthest" was grammatically correct instead of "furthest." He worked in a dairy in the off-season during his early seasons in California. He would sit freshmen down and show them how to put on their shoes and socks in order to avoid blisters.

Bill Walton came to the first practice of the season once with hair down to his shoulders -- as was the style at the time. Walton, rebelling in a conformist way like only Boomers could in the 1970s, said the coach didn't have the right to tell him how to wear his hair. Wooden replied, "You're right. I don't. I just have the right to set rules for my team. I want you to know I fully understand your feelings. And we're going to miss you, Bill." It wasn't a question of taste. Wooden felt shaggy hair took longer to dry and didn't want his players catching a chill when they left the gym.

What more can be said? It's impossible to sum up someone who was around when super-eggheaded University of Chicago played football in the Big Ten. Seven things about John Wooden, one for each of those consecutive titles:
  1. The Pittsburgh Pirates once offered him their manager's job. The notion of a major-league baseball team putting a basketball coach in the dugout was and is so far-fetched Wooden carried a news clipping in his wallet just to disabuse doubters.

    Wooden brought a baseball mind to basketball, as a former player, Andy Hill, related in Steve Bisheff's John Wooden: An American Treasure (the source of all of the quotes in this post):
    "He used to keep stats during practice. I'm talking real detailed stats with charts about everything. He'd know how many times this guy got offensive rebounds and how many times this guy turned the ball over. That's how he picked who played."
  2. He might have changed how teams practise. Wooden never held practices on a weekend. He started out in an era when college basketball coaches ran players into the ground. Don Haskins of Glory Road fame, once recalled scrimmaging nine hours a day over Christmas break when he played for Henry Iba at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) in the 1940s.

    Jerry Tarkanian once said, "I honestly believe Wooden made his kids believe they were in better shape. His practices lasted two hours, maybe two hours and 20 minutes. Mine went three, three and a half hours ... he got more done in less time than the rest of us."

  3. He was an icon from Indiana who had no tie to the state's two iconic schools. Wooden grew up 17 miles from Indiana University but didn't play for the Hoosiers, attending Purdue instead. Notre Dame was out due to religion. He later coached at Indiana State.

    He was offered Indiana's coaching job in 1971, but couldn't bear leaving UCLA. Wooden recommended Jerry Tarkanian to Indiana. Indiana hired someone named Bob Knight. That seemed to have worked out for everybody.

  4. He was a crusader for racial equality. Wooden, as John McCarthy noted in a guest post on Jeff Pearlman's blog that can't possibly be done justice, withdrew Indiana State from post-season play in 1947 since one of his African-American players was not going to be allowed to play. This was just before Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers and almost two decades before Texas Western won the NCAA championship with an all-African-American starting five.
    "Coach Wooden, as the Coach and Athletic Director of the 1946-47 Indiana State Teacher’s College, turned down the opportunity to play in the NAIB (now the NAIA) National Tournament because Clarence Walker, who was black, would not be permitted to play. This was Coach’s first year as a collegiate Head Coach and he turned down the opportunity to compete in the nation’s most prestigious National Championship because a black player – who, by the way, was a freshman, did not start, and played sparingly – was not going to be able to play. Flat out turned it down on principle, although the opportunity would have been a huge boost for his personal career."
    As a postscript, Walker got to play in the tournament the following season. Indiana State was runner-up. Wooden moved to UCLA the following season.

    It seems like basketball's integration story is less often told than those of baseball and football, but similar obstacles existed.

    Basketball, even at the NBA level, was played in small cities that weren't very cosmopolitan in the '40s and '50s. Games were held in cramped, confined gyms and arenas compared to a big ballpark or football stadium, so loud-mouthed fans were in closer proximity to the players, in an atmosphere akin to a junior or minor pro hockey crowd during the Slap Shot era of the 1970s. It's crazy to think people don't know what role a 32-year-old Wooden had in effecting social change.

  5. He might have been an engineer. Wooden enrolled at Purdue University in 1928 intending to study civil engineering, so that might give an idea he had an organized. In those days, engineers tended to come from the moneyed classes, and a requirement was attending a civil engineering camp in the summers. Wooden needed to work, so he ended up taking his degree in English.

  6. He didn't travel outside California to recruit. Well, he did in 1965, for a centre named Lewis Alcindor, whom today is better known as Roger Murdock, pilot Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

    One stat that has to be thrown in: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored 56 points in his first NCAA game in 1966. Some Division I teams today struggle to score 56 with the 35-second shot clock and a three-point line.

  7. The margin of error was less in those days. Remember, in Wooden's era at UCLA, only conference champions went to the NCAA Tournament. One season USC went 24-2, was ranked No. 1 much of the season and missed the dance.

    Guess who accounted for both losses.


Anonymous said...

I read that even in his glory years at UCLA, the highest salary John Wooden was paid was about $32,500...which, even taking into account inflation, is still an incredibly modest stipend.
If John Wooden was coaching today and was half as successful as he was, he would command a wage 10-15 times what he made back in the day.

Anonymous said...

Upon further review, I was mistaken...looking at John Calaperi's enormous 4M dollar salary that's 123 times what John Wooden made.
...And I might add, Calaperi's accomplishments are inversely proportionate .

sager said...

I was tempted to put in something negative about Calipari, like if you gave him the fourth-best team in the OUA and the same recruiting budget, they'd be fifth-best by the end of the season. But Calipari-carving went out of style after Memphis blew the NCAA final against Kansas.

Better to point out what Jim Murray wrote after Wooden's last game: