If death had granted him a moment’s reprieve to convey the sentiment, John Wooden would have declared his passing on June 4, 2010, at age 99, as a joyous transit. After the loss of his wife of 53 years, Nell, in March of 1985, the old UCLA coach came to regard life as essentially time to bide until he might be with her again. He had encamped with Nell at the Final Four, first as a conquering coach and then as a conventioneering one; but without her he couldn’t bring himself even to go. For his first years as a widower Wooden slept atop the covers of their bed so as not to have to slip beneath them alone.
Coaching colleagues and former players had pleaded with him to re-engage with the game, to no avail, until 1989, when a number of them prepared to stage what the 12-steppers call an intervention. Of course it seemed outrageous for anyone to dispense advice to John Wooden. That spring I nonetheless joined in, writing a survey of his life through age 79, marbling it with the homiletic precepts behind the 10 NCAA titles UCLA won between 1964 and 1975, using Wooden’s own philosophy as a kind of prod. One of those sayings seemed particularly apt. “Avoid the peaks and the valleys,” he had told his teams, urging them neither to exult in victory nor sulk in defeat. He made a point of calling timeouts late in all those championship games, to remind his players to keep their emotional keel. My piece ended with this impertinence: “Before this extraordinary life gets played out, before the buzzer sounds, won’t someone please call timeout to remind him? He has taught so many of us such wonderful lessons. He has one more lesson, his own, to study up on.”
I might as well have taken that issue of Sports Illustrated, rolled it up, brandished it sternly and said, “Goodness gracious sakes alive, man-get over it!”
When UCLA hired John Wooden as its basketball coach in 1948, the school’s all-time record stood at 291-291. Yet the Bruins had enjoyed only three winning seasons in the 21 years before his arrival, so their accomplishments that first season, beating Cal for the league title despite having lost three starters and being picked to finish last, delighted the campus. Over the next 14 seasons that satisfaction broadened: The Bruins won eight division or conference championships and racked up winning records every time out. Still, Wooden was 55, 16 years into his tenure at UCLA, before a team of his won an NCAA crown. The first three times his Bruins qualified for the NCAA tournament they didn’t get out of the first round. Today, the message boards and talk show hosts would have taken him down a decade before he could have bagged his first.
Wooden believes that “six or seven” of those early teams might have won national championships—“not should have,” he wrote in his autobiography, They Call Me Coach, “but could have.” All they lacked were luck and timing. In 1952, on the eve of the conference title game, Don Bragg, the team’s leading scorer, broke his toe on a box of foot powder as he left the shower. The only player in Wooden’s first 15 years in Westwood to stick as a pro, Willie Naulls, happened to play between 1953 and ‘56, precisely when Bill Russell reigned at the University of San Francisco. No sooner had Russell left than UCLA’s football team became enmeshed in a conference-wide pay-for-play scandal, with the three years’ probation applying to all sports. Then came Cal and its Hall of Fame coach, Pete Newell; though Wooden had defeated him seven times in a row, beginning in 1957 the Golden Bears turned the tables, eventually taking eight straight from the Bruins and a pair of NCAA titles along the way.
Yet just as Wooden the widower would eventually learn to embrace life again through his great-grandchildren, Wooden the coach steadily became more and more open to change. For all his apparent inflexibility—it’s called the Pyramid, not the Tarpaper Shack, of Success, after all—he came to question his methods. He sat in on a psychology class on campus. From studying Newell he learned the virtues of patience and simplicity. He concluded that he didn’t want yes-men as assistants, and sometimes even courted conflict with players because he believed a worthwhile lesson might emerge from the clash. He asked other coaches to scout his team and share their judgments. And he would spend each offseason poring over the meticulous records he kept of his practices, wondering what he might do differently.
In the spring of 1960, after a 14-12 season that would turn out to be his worst at UCLA, Wooden reassessed everything. He concluded that his teams tended to fade late in the season, and wondered if he worked them too hard. Moreover, when circumstances forced him to substitute, he sensed that the reserves didn’t mesh well with the starters. A single tweak to his practice plan—he began rotating reserves into the first five more often during scrimmages—solved both problems. Two years later the Bruins reached the national semifinals, where they suffered a two-point loss to the eventual champions, Cincinnati, after a last-minute charging call so controversial that more than 300 letters of sympathy poured into the Bruins’ basketball office.
Preposterous as it may now sound, winning per se was never the yardstick, even as the Bruins reached that doorstep. As Doug McIntosh, the backup center on the 1964 team, told Sports Illustrated: “The word ‘win’ never escaped his lips. Literally. He just asked us to play to our potential.”