Friday, October 16, 2009

College Basketball Gets Started Today -- Stories on ‘Coach’ Wooden

Two days ago, John Wooden celebrated his 99th birthday. Today, college basketball teams officially begin practice. Three weeks from Monday--remarkably--the season begins. By then The World Series may--or may not--be over.

I'd like to talk about Coach Wooden first. There are very few people that I call "coach." To begin with, it is over-used in sports to the point of being obnoxious. Some people actually come to believe that "coach," is their first name. When I first began covering sports while in college I tended to call most coaches, "coach," because they were older than me and my parents had taught me long ago you didn't address adults by their first name unless they asked you to do so. The first truly famous coach I remember telling me to not to call him coach was Dean Smith. It was shortly after I graduated from college and had gone to work at The Washington Post.

"You're a college graduate now," he said. "You work for a great newspaper, not the Duke Chronicle. (little Dean zinger there). Call me Dean."

I was also instructed early on in my days at The Post by Len Shapiro, one of my early mentors and role models not to call coaches, 'coach.'

"Makes you sound like a kid," he said. "You're implying they have some kind of authority over you--which they don't."

When I met Bear Bryant I couldn't bring myself to call him "Bear," or "Paul." And I would never dare call John Wooden anything but 'coach." If anyone ever earned that title for life it was John Wooden.

He was retired by the time I got into the business but I learned early on that if you wanted a quote on anything relating to basketball, he was someone you could call. His home number was always available and he would pick up the phone himself and talk to you for as long as you needed. I can remember pinching myself a few times thinking, 'John Wooden is talking to ME?'

I'm like anyone else who has been around college hoops: I've heard the stories about Sam Gilbert, who supposedly made sure all the UCLA players were well taken care of during the dynasty days. You know what, I don't care. Elite athletes get taken care of at most schools and, unless it is absolutely blatant, people look the other way. All I know about Wooden is that he won 10 national titles in 12 years--to me the most astonishing run in sports history given that he was winning a single elimination tournament--and is one of a handful of coaches who I KNOW touched his players’ lives in ways that went well beyond basketball.

In my dealings with Coach Wooden he was always smart, honest, candid and clearly had great respect and love for the game and for those who played it and coached it. He certainly could have traded on his fame to make a LOT more money than he ever did and he opted not to do that. The respect people in the game had (and have) for him went well beyond wins and championships.

I've told this story a number of times in the past but I think it bears repeating. In 1984 I was hanging around late one night in the lobby of the coaches hotel at The Final Four in Seattle. I had seen Coach Wooden in the lobby a little earlier with his wife Nell. She was in a wheelchair, terminally ill and had come to the Final Four, essentially, to say goodbye to old friends. Everyone in basketball knew how sick she was.

Late in the evening, the Woodens said good night to the group they had been talking to and Coach Wooden starting pushing his wife's wheelchair across the lobby in the direction of the elevators. I have no idea who started it--but someone began to clap. People looked up from what they were doing and the applause began to build. By the time the Woodens had reached the elevator, everyone in the packed lobby was standing and clapping. It was one of the most moving things I've ever seen because it was so spontaneous and so genuine and so warm.

Six years ago, I ran into Coach Wooden again at The Final Four. I was having breakfast in the lobby at the coaches hotel in New Orleans when I saw him across the room. I went over to say hello. Coach Wooden was 93. In a situation like that I never assume that someone remembers me.

"John," Coach Wooden said shaking hands. "Tell me what book you're working on these days."

I was flattered he remembered. "Actually coach, I'm working on a book about a good friend of yours--Red Auerbach."

Coach Wooden smiled. "Oh Red," he said. "He's such a nice young man."

A young man--of course. Red was only 86 at the time.

Last year I did a column for The Post on Coach Wooden's great grandson, a walk-on at UCLA. He told me a story about shooting hoops in his driveway when he was little. "My great-grandfather came out and started telling me what he wanted me to do with my shot and with my dribble," he said. "I went into my mom and dad and said, 'what the heck does great-grandfather know about basketball? Why is he trying to coach me?'"

It wasn't until a few years later that he found out that his great-grandfather knew a little about basketball.

My guess is that if he was still in the business, Coach Wooden wouldn't be a big fan of all the hoopla that now surrounds the opening night of basketball practice. Lefty Driesell started the whole, "Midnight Madness," concept 35 years ago at Maryland and now almost every college team has some kind of 'celebration,' associated with the start of practice even though the players can now be coached throughout the fall in so-called, 'individual workouts,' and there's no 12:01 a.m. kickoff on October 15th anymore. It's just the third Friday in October. The notion of coaches allowing a PRACTICE to be televised would no doubt leave Coach Wooden shaking his head.

But it is 2009 and life is every different than it was in the 60s and 70s when UCLA was, well, the UCLA of college hoops. Back then, when I was first learning the game, no one played a game before December 1. Then it became Thanksgiving weekend. Now it is Nov. 9th and the national championship game won't be played until April 5th. Coach Wooden's teams played 30 games en route to national titles--26 in the regular season, four in the NCAA Tournament. Now teams routinely play 33 or 34 games BEFORE the NCAA Tournament begins.

It's still a great game--flawed as it may be. When Coach Wooden's teams were dominant a typical college basketball game took about 90 minutes. Now two hours and 15 minutes is routine. One other thing you may or may not remember: Until 1973, the national championship game was played on a Saturday afternoon. Talk about the good old days!


Couple of quick notes on some recent posts: In response to the blog about 'no cheering in the press box,' someone asked about Sid Hartman the legendary columnist from Minneapolis who was known as a bit of a homer. Years ago Sid's Vikings were playing the Redskins in a playoff game and one of the Vikings was called for holding. Sid stood up and angrily screamed, "If that was holding I'll eat s----!"

My friend Ken Denlinger, one of the nicest men in the history of our business couldn't resist. He tossed a copy of that mornings Minneapolis Star-Tribune at Sid as the replay showed a clear hold and said, "Your column's on page two Sid."....


One of our regular posters, Vince, brought up Harry McGurk after reading my homage of Harry Hughes, reminding me that McGurk had run against Governor Hughes in the Democratic primary in 1982. McGurk's nickname was "soft shoes," because he moved quietly around the senate gathering votes when he needed them almost un-noticed. I had the chance to get to know Senator McGurk and wrote a long feature on him and on his candidacy that year. Not sure, Vince, if you can find it in The Post archives but it would be there sometime in the summer of '82. He was a very, very good man.... 


ed - bethesda said...

Back in 1987 I was working for a trade association that had a meeting in San Diego and had contracted with Coach Wooden to speak at our luncheon. I was fortunate enough to be at his table for lunch. At the time, shoe contracts for coaches were becoming known to the public and I asked him to comment on this growing source of income for coaches. His answer, "...during my career at UCLA, where I did enjoy some measure of success, I never earned more than $45,000 a year so I am pleased to see coaches achieve better pay." I don't know what was the more interesting fact, his modest salary or his modest assertion that he "...enjoyed some measure of success." He gave an outstanding address at our lunch using his pyramid of success theme! A great man!

Brad_the_Spotter said...

Not to mention that when Coach Wooden was playing for those national titles, only the winner from each conference could advance to the NCAA Tournament. There was no such thing as "playing your way in" via a conference tournament. The discipline and focus he was able to instill in his players was remarkable.

Coach Wooden is, and will always be, one of the most brilliant men to coach any sport. He has a remarkable ability to parallel his thoughts on life to his basketball teachings in a very concise manner. Since I began reading his books in high school, his views and teachings have impacted me greatly. Thanks again for taking the time to acknowledge him on your blog.

JJ said...


Great story about Sid Hartman, thanks for making me laugh.

When I was a young man, (I'm 48 now). I would see Coach Wooden interview on TV. I always thought because he coached a lot of great players, that was why he was so successful. I've come to believe that because he was successful, that the success was the reason he attracted some of the greatest players of all time.

Vince Spence said...

Coach Wooden had a great recruiting line. He told his young men, "You can come to UCLA and win the national championship or go elsewhere and do not".

Pretty aggressive...