Through all of that glory at UCLA, John Wooden always insisted that he was a teacher who happened to coach, and not the other way around. His records attest to how well he taught, with only one exception. There was no way he could have taught anyone to be just like him.
No one else ever has won 10 major college basketball championships, including seven in a row. No one else in his sport coached 88 consecutive victories and had four 30-0 seasons. No one else had as much success with as little embellishment, sitting on the bench quietly, with a rolled-up program in his hand.
Wooden distinctly won big, achieved greatly and lived modestly, all the way through his 99 years. He never lost the hold on the Midwestern values that grabbed him when he grew up on an Indiana farm, shooting a homemade ball at a basket nailed to a barn. He always thought "Coach" was a much better honorific than "Wizard of Westwood" to describe the life that ended peacefully at a Los Angeles- area hospital Friday night.
Raised in modest means
Regular radio was a luxury for the Wooden family, which did not have electricity when John was born near Martinsville, Ind. From there, he embarked on a quintessential American life - heading west for opportunity, being married to his high school sweetheart Nell for 53 years (later writing monthly letters to her after her death in 1985), raising two children and living in a comfortable but not opulent home.
At the same time, it was an extraordinary life for the only person elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. In his early 90s, he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor. One of his proteges, new St. John's basketball coach Steve Lavin, has said Wooden was arguably the greatest coach in the history of sport. You'd just never know it from his self-reflection.
"I always considered myself a teacher, even before I came to UCLA," he once said. "When I taught classes, I taught English. [As a coach] I was a teacher. I was just teaching basketball. But you're also teaching a little more than just a sport. You're teaching more about life than I did in my English classes. I believe that every coach is, or certainly should be, a teacher of more than just a sport."
The former Purdue All-American relied on preparation, not histrionics. Former players said he never spoke about winning, only about meeting potential. He was as far as a person can be from the salesmanship and showmanship in modern college coaching.
Wooden won with two of the greatest college players of all time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who was then Lew Alcindor) and Bill Walton. But he didn't excel because he attracted stars, he attracted stars because he excelled. Wooden's UCLA Bruins won national titles before Abdul-Jabbar and after Walton, including the coach's final game in 1975.
First title took 16 years
He did have the luxury of allowing experience to be his own best teacher. It wasn't until his 16th season that he won a national championship, a grace period that would be unthinkable today. Wooden never was paid more than $32,500 a year as he dignified and popularized his profession, yet he never begrudged current coaches their eight-figure contracts. He often gave lectures and clinics. "Coach Wooden shared his wisdom very generously," Krzyzewski said.
For years after his retirement, he attended UCLA games without ever being judgmental. He was especially supportive of Lavin, who was coaching UCLA and getting pilloried by critics. "Character is what we are, while reputation is merely what we are perceived to be by others," he wrote in one of his many letters to Lavin.
"Coach Wooden leaves all of us a lasting legacy from a lifetime devoted to goodness," Lavin said Saturday. "Coach believed the court was his classroom and basketball was a metaphor for life. He was an eternal learner and teacher. He was the best friend and mentor one could hope for. It is difficult to imagine a college basketball season without John Wooden being with us."
Sharp in retirement
In later years, Wooden remained sharp and open to all kinds of people, even entertaining questions from a reporter from across the country who called to talk about baseball ("It always has been my favorite sport," he told Newsday in 1993).
Wooden held fast to his values, often saying that his favorite person on Earth was Mother Teresa. He quoted poetry, classifying this as one of his favorites: "At God's footstool, to confess,/A poor soul knelt and bowed his head./'I failed,' he cried. The master said,/'Thou didst thy best. That is success.' "
By any standard, especially his own, the teacher was a great success.