In Rememberance of Coach John Wooden
A tribute to the greatest coach in the history of sports
There's an African proverb I once heard that says every time an elderly person dies, a library burns down.
If that is true, then a whole row of libraries have been torched, because a man who was not only the greatest coach in sports history, but a human being on par with Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, recently left us after nearly 100 years on this planet.
First and foremost, John Robert Wooden was a teacher - he has stated that he prefers to describe himself that way.
This "Wizard of Westwood's" (a term that he hated) 620 wins and ten national championships in 12 years as the head of UCLA's basketball program, including seven in a row during the mid 1960s and early 1970s - I won't go on about that, nor will I detail his iconic Pyramid of Success, essentially a Ten Commandments for the 20th century, or the various sayings that he espoused such as:
"Be quick, but don't hurry."
"Failing to prepare is preparing to fail."
"Be at your best when your best is needed"
"Make each day your masterpiece."
Those things I'll leave to the many pundits and sportswriters who have already gone over that stuff all throughout the media.
Mr. Wooden's - I prefer calling him that over Coach Wooden because he was much more than a coach - impact on that Westwood campus was a simple one: He put it on the map.
When he and his family arrived in Los Angeles from Indiana State College to coach the Bruins in 1948, the University of California's Southern branch was a quaint little school in what was then a sleepy little community. Although they had a few successes on the gridiron, including an appearance in the Rose Bowl five years before, UCLA was mostly thought of as a little brother, a twig off the U.C. Berkeley tree that took a perennial back seat to the super established crosstown rival, USC.
Twenty-seven years later, by the time Mr. Wooden retired as the Bruin coach after winning his 10th NCAA title, UCLA was no longer in anybody's back seat, nor were they anyone's twig - that "little brother" in Westwood had turned into one of the elite institutions of higher learning in the United States, considered a "Public Ivy" along with schools like Michigan, Virginia, and their Berkeley big brothers. It would eventually become a place that has won more national titles than any other school, as well as America's most popular university, with more students applying to become Bruins than anywhere else.
And on top of all that, his success and impact on the UCLA commumity led to the building of Pauley Pavilion, that legendary on-campus arena that housed, and continues to house, so many great teams in volleyball and gymnastics in addition to basketball.
Just as Yankee Stadium in the Bronx is "The House That Ruth Built", Pauley Pavilion is "The House That Wooden Built".
Personally speaking, I had the utmost privilege of meeting the great man when I was a UCLA student in the late 1980s.
I was in the Bruin Varsity Band in those days, playing the tenor saxophone at the basketball games with Mr. Wooden regularly attending those contests. It goes without saying that it was a thrill just being thirty feet from him, but I felt that I had to meet the coaching and teaching legend.
That chance came after a game just before Christmas of 1989.
Wearing my blue band shirt with my game program in hand and my knees shaking, I walked up to where he was sitting and asked, "Excuse me Mr. Wooden, sir, but may I have your autograph?"
The great coach was known for being very gracious with fans and admirers, and he didn't disappoint with me. Not only did he sign my program cover "Merry Christmas, John Wooden" under the championship banners that his teams put up, he also took the time to shake my hand and give me a warm smile.
It would be a pronounced understatement to say that it was a most exciting thrill and an honor to experience that.
I still have that game program to this day - to sell it on Ebay or something like that would be a sacrilegious act of the highest order. How could I possibly even think of doing that to the greatest coach that ever lived?
Like everyone else, I've tried to take to heart the tenets of Mr. Wooden's Pyramid of Success, doing okay in some of them while unfortunately failing miserably in others, which continues to be disappointing. in that aspect, I feel that I've let down Mr. Wooden and the rest of the UCLA community and Bruin Nation somehow.
I continue to have copies of that pyramid posted on the walls of my bedroom, to serve as a reminder for me to always strive to achieve those standards that Mr. Wooden set when he first began drawing up the pyramid while coaching high school hoops in Kentucky and his native Indiana in 1934.
A true coaching and teaching legend, John Wooden will be missed not only in the sports world, but in the world, period.
I definitely know how Elton John felt when he sang about being in the 22nd row in his ode to Marilyn Monroe, "Candle in the Wind", because I'm just a guy in the 2,022nd row when it comes to Mr. Wooden. I will miss than man just as much as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, and the countless millions whose lives have touched by him; he had that much of an impact.
Mr. Wooden has always stated that since he would be with his beloved wife Nell, who passed away in 1985, he didn't fear death. I'm sure he's happy now, because as sure as I'm sitting here writing this, he is greatly enjoying a reunion with her.
And I am more than positive that this greatest of teachers and coaches will rest in peace.
"Success is a peace of mind which is a direct result of self satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become your best that you are capable of becoming." - John R. Wooden (1910-2010)