Legendary coach John Wooden died yesterday, just a few months short of his 100th birthday.
I first remember watching Wooden coaching his penultimate game, a 75-74 overtime victory over the Louisville Cardinals, who were led by his former assistant Denny Crum.
Wooden announced his retirement right after the game, and his team of Marques Johnson, Richard Washington and David Greenwood responded by giving the grand master his 10th and final championship over the Kentucky Wildcats.
The triumph was a fitting cap to what many have called the greatest coaching career in sports history. And, for me, it was just the beginning of my understanding of the values that made Wooden even more remarkable off the court.
That knowledge has deepened since.
I did not know, for instance, that he was the first person elected to the College Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and coach. I didn’t know that he hailed from the heartland of Indiana, about the seven-point creed his father gave him on the day of his eighth grade graduation, and how closely he followed the code in the ensuing nine decades.
I didn’t know about the Pyramid of Success, on which he relied and which successful businesses often invoke, that talk about the building blocks that culminate in successful endeavors.
In the time since that original viewing of Wooden, I have learned about these aspects and more.
My admiration for the man has only increased as time has progressed.
I have written before about one of Wooden’s books on leadership-he wrote several, and they basically center around the same principles and messages-and one of my favorites parts of the book was when he wrote about evaluating players and teams not on their won-loss record, but on how close they came to fulfilling their potential. One of his favorite UCLA teams, for instance, had about a .500 record, but had scrapped and clawed and wrung as much out of themselves as they could.
I also came to value his humility.
He wrote in the book about how it took him years to develop the method that led eventually to the 88-game winning streak and the 10 titles in 12 years. In the years before those streaks began, he was giving the players so many instructions that it impinged on their flow and quality of play. After paring down the level of information he gave them-he famously retained the part where he taught the players how to tie their shoes-the results improved dramatically.
He didn’t always change. David Halberstam’s classic The Breaks of the Game describes how Wooden did not yield or change his coaching approach during Bill Walton’s senior year and final game against the David Thompson-led North Carolina State Wildcats. Walton had been arrested for protesting the war in Vietnam-a decision Wooden opposed-and had pushed against some of the rules and discipline Wooden had installed during the game. Halberstam writes about how Wooden did not alter his approach or panic as the game progressed and the team started to flounder.
The players realized eventually that for Wooden doing things the right way mattered more than the result, even when that result was a national championship.
This in many ways encapsulates the man Wooden was and what makes his coaching accomplishments secondary to how he lived as a man, with his beloved Nell for 53 years, with the children he helped raise, with the hundreds of players he coached, and with the millions he has inspired through his example.
He will be missed.