Coach John Wooden, 1910-2010


Interesting that I wrote on Friday about God’s role as Father, featuring His discipline. Coach John Wooden played the role of father to many a young UCLA basketball player from 1948 to 1975. Of those who spoke publicly after Coach Wooden passed away Friday evening, a number mentioned that he was a disciplinarian.

Yes, he was an outstanding basketball tactician and had high standards for his players. First and foremost, though, he let them know they did not run the team.

One oft repeated story is about Bill Walton, one of the best big men to play the game. He came into UCLA in the rebellious 70s with his wild hair and surly attitude. Coach Wooden’s policy for his players was no facial hair. Walton reportedly grew a beard during a break, and when Coach reminded him of the team standard, Bill responded that he felt he had the right to grow a beard if he wanted. Coach Wooden responded that, yes, this was true. He did have that right and Coach admired him for his convictions, though the team was going to miss him. The Big Redhead shaved.

More than once this weekend I heard the story of Coach teaching his players FIRST how to put on their socks and shoes. I’ve read that in his book They Call Me Coach, too. Inevitably someone would question the value of “wasting” time learning what they already knew how to do. Coach would explain that putting socks on the right way would keep them from developing blisters, which would adversely affect their play. He then extrapolated from that lesson to teach the importance of paying attention to details.

He was known best for teaching life lessons through his coaching. The hardwood was his classroom, but basketball was only a means to communicate what all his players needed to learn—those like Kareem Abdul-Jabar destined for professional ranks and those like Kenny Booker who, among other things, became a secondary school referee.

I could go on and on about Coach Wooden. He was not an evangelist but identified himself as a Christian. Certainly he believed in God and had the hope of heaven. Today and tomorrow Christian radio program Family Life Today is airing a conversation with Coach taped in 2002. His words are wise, and he attributes much to his father’s teaching—the same teaching he passed on to those who came into his sphere of influence.

I can’t help thinking how different Coach Wooden was to others known to demand high standards of players on the court. I’m thinking of coaches like Bobby Knight, who used to scream at his players and humiliate them during games. I’ve watched coaches from the stands before, in any number of sports, and wondered why it is we tolerate behavior from them that would be deemed abusive in any other venue. Clearly, their “discipline” was not modeled after God’s.

Coach Wooden’s seems to be. Plus he had balance. His players remember his discipline but also his humor, his wisdom, care, and integrity. One sportscaster said he didn’t know any one else in the profession besides Coach Wooden about whom no one could say a bad word.

You might be interested in Agent Steve Laube’s encounter with Coach Wooden when he was a young man. It’s a good story, and a reminder how many people Coach influenced.

Myself? I never met the man, but I admired him, quoted him to my players, bought Wooden, one of his books filled with axioms like this:

4. Promise to be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own …

8. Promise to give so much time to improving yourself that you have no time to criticize others.

– From the “Nine Promises That Can Bring Happiness, pp 79-80

Or this:

4. Be more interested in character than reputation …

8. Remember that there is no substitute for hard work and careful planning. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

– From “Eight Suggestions for Succeeding,” p 72

Needless to say, there’s a wealth of material from Coach Wooden. After all, these are lessons he learned throughout his life, and he did live just a few months shy of a century.

Simplistic, some would say of his “down home” philosophy. But I’ll take simplistic any day when it makes so much sense, when, in fact, it mirrors the truths of the Bible.

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Published in: on June 7, 2010 at 11:22 am  Comments (2)  
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