Saturday, June 5, 2010

Special to The Washington Post - 'John Wooden: Untouchable record, incomparable man'

Through the years, there have always been milestones in sports thought to be untouchable. Once, Lou Gehrig's string of playing in 2,130 consecutive baseball games was on that list. Then Cal Ripken Jr. came along. Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 professional major golf championships was thought to be completely out of reach since no one else had won more than 11. The record still stands, but Tiger Woods now lurks just four behind. Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak is considered sacred, but Pete Rose did get within 12 of the magic number.

There's one men's college basketball record, though, that not only will never be broken, the likelihood is it will never even be threatened: 10 national titles. That's how many NCAA championships John Wooden won at UCLA. No other coach -- not Mike Krzyzewski, not Adolph Rupp, not Bob Knight, not Dean Smith -- has even gotten halfway to that mark. In fact, those four, generally considered the four greatest college basketball coaches in the game's history not named Wooden, have won 13 titles combined. Perhaps even more remarkable: Wooden won those 10 championships during a 12-season span, beginning in 1964 and ending in 1975, when he retired after UCLA beat Kentucky in that year's national championship game.
He was 64 when he walked away -- younger than Rupp, Knight or Smith were when they retired and the same age Krzyzewski will be next February. He was 99 when he died on Friday, the unquestioned best in the history of his sport. Some may talk about how Wooden won his titles in such a different era. Others will bring up the whispers about UCLA players being taken care of by the famous booster Sam Gilbert in ways that ran outside of NCAA regulations.

Either argument misses the forest for the trees. Wooden won in 1964 and 1965 with a small team that pressed all over the court. He won from 1967 through 1969 with center Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), the greatest player in college basketball history. He won the two years after that with Steve Patterson, very decidedly not the greatest player in college basketball history, replacing Alcindor. Then he won twice more with Bill Walton in the middle, and he won his last title with a team that probably should have lost to Louisville in the national semifinals and easily could have lost to Kentucky in the championship game.

He also saw to it that almost all of his players graduated, and if freshmen had been eligible when Alcindor was a UCLA freshman in 1966, he might easily have won 10 straight national titles instead of nine in 10 years, from 1964 through 1973.

Click here for the rest of the story: John Wooden column


Gordon said...


A great piece of writing. I'm sure it wasn't easy knowing you had to write a piece that would live up to coach Woodens standard of dignity.

You've told the Seattle clapping story before but this this time it literally brought tears to my eyes.

If ever a Mt. Rushmore of coaches is started John Wooden might be the only one on the mountain and thats as it should be.

I'm sure now that he and Nell are reunited in heaven both are with the love of their lives.

Coach Wooden had the ability to live in the present and never once did I ever hear him in interviews talk about the "good old days"

God bless you and thank you coach Wooden

Ed Tracey said...

Nothing to disagree with in any of the accolades about Coach Wooden. God rest his soul and the work that he did.

It is simply that any comprehensive critique of the UCLA program over those decades that fails to note Sam Gilbert (except to dismiss as 'irrelevant' anyone else who brings up his name) falls into the "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain" category.

Coach Wooden's achievements speak for themselves and (quite easily) survive that booster's involvement. Yet people who mention Gilbert's name are not 'missing the forest' - they are simply trying to complete what would otherwise be an incomplete mosaic.

alan m. said...

It seems increasingly apparent to me that the major distinction between the truly GREAT coaches - only 2 of whom I consider thus situated, although some might add Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach - and VERY GOOD coaches is the ability of the former to get their players to perform with maximal intensity and effort in PRACTICE, rather than in just the actual games. Both Vince Lombardi and John Wooden were able to accomplish this, although by using significantly different techniques. Thus, it mattered little that Lombardi inherited a team mired in losing and regularly performing with ineptitude; within a couple years, his players were producing championships. Granted, many were dismayed at first while pondering the futility of such strenuous workouts. But late in games, when the outcomes were still undecided, the remarkable conditioning advantage that Lombardi's players enjoyed tilted the scales nearly always in the Packers' favor. And, the same could be said about Wooden's Bruin teams. Rarely did you see an opponent of theirs' who could run the fast break offense and exert the energy to play the full-court press on defense as effectively as UCLA did. And though admittedly it was more than just occasionally that the Bruins benefited from having superior talent, in the final analysis it was likely the edge in conditioning which spelled the difference between the Bruins and their opponents - especially when UCLA didn't have the superior talent, yet still won championships. In sum, both Lombardi and Wooden knew their Xs and Os. Each knew the nuances between a play likely to succeed and one which might fail. But the major advantage which each coach enjoyed over his counterparts in real game scenarios had little to do with game coaching; the difference occurred in practice sessions well in advance, making the outcome of actual games almost a foregone conclusion, at least in retrospect.

Anonymous said...

Great article Mr. Feinstein.

case said...

another fine piece of writing, john ,about the greatest coach of all time
i only wished you had mentioned some of the great non-centers who led ucla to some titles--the hazzard-goodrich small teams of the mid-60s and the rowe-wicks teams of the 70s
i've read some of wooden's books and have taken a lot from them in my 40+ years of coaching
one memorable lesson is his idea that the practices were where the coaching was done
the games were the tests for the players as their exams were for their classes
imo your best writing has always been in hoops--maybe because i'm a hoops nut

Mr. X said...

Nice work, as usual John.

As an avid listener of the Orange Man and TSR shows, I've heard you tell the John and Nell lobby story several times, but reading it one more time upon his passing had the same impact the first time I heard it.

Are you attending the services? Should be quite a convocation that I hope the Post merits covering.

P.S. How did the nuptials go?