BUFFALO - Western Michigan's team knows it must be really driven to make a game of it Thursday against Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament. At least it has just the right man at the controls: coach Steve Hawkins, who learned a great deal about basketball, and driving, when he was chauffeur to John Wooden.
Hawkins is from Ventura, Calif., and took a job as counselor at summer basketball camps run by the legendary UCLA coach. When he became head counselor a few years later, Hawkins assumed the duties of picking up and dropping off the Hall of Famer, chatting all the way.
Even when Hawkins was offered a promotion to coach at the camps, he turned it down. He preferred to keep driving and tapping into the Wizard of Westwood's wisdom. Their talks -- actually Wooden talked, Hawkins listened -- inspired the young man to get into the profession. Wooden's words still impel the man who led the Broncos to the Mid-America Conference title.
"Immeasurable," Hawkins said at his news conference yesterday, when he was asked about the influence of Wooden, who died in 2009. "Our whole philosophy of our program is based on his definition of success.
"In my early years of coaching at the Division II school, Quincy University, I used to talk to Coach all the time, not so much about X's and O's, but more about player management, how to handle big stages," he said.
But all of Wooden's strategies likely would fail to help Western Michigan against a defending Final Four team and national power. When Hawkins was asked if having faced Eastern Michigan's 2-3 zone would help against Syracuse's famous version of that same defense, he said, "The zone is very similar. The players are different . . . We obviously have our hands full."
But Western Michigan's coach will have a healthy perspective developed in a bond that grew closer in 1985, after Wooden's wife Nell died. The former UCLA coach began confiding more in Hawkins, inviting him into his condo and sharing his favorite cocktail: Welch's grape juice and 7UP.
"The biggest influence he has had on me is that it keeps me very, very grounded in terms of what it is we do," Hawkins said. "I really consider myself an educator first. That comes from Coach Wooden.
"Everything is all about win, win, win, win, win. Coach didn't feel that way. It's all about giving your best," said the coach whose staff includes Larry Farmer, who was 89-1 as a UCLA player under Wooden. "I could go on and on about the things that Coach has meant to me, but it keeps me grounded, realizing that no matter what happens here, I've still got to take out the trash on Thursday night."