Friday, June 4, 2010

The Wizard of Westwood

John Wooden, the man who made UCLA synonymous with basketball dominance, died today at the age of 99.

If you look up "a tough act to follow" in the dictionary, you'll probably find Wooden's picture next to the definition.

At one point, Wooden coached UCLA to 88 straight wins. His teams won nearly 100 straight home games, and four of his teams finished the regular season 30–0. He won seven straight national titles, 10 in all, the last in 1975. UCLA has won a couple of national titles in the 35 years since Wooden retired, but every time the Bruins have won it all, they have done so in Wooden's shadow. I suspect it will always be that way.

He "is often considered one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history," says the caption beneath the photo on his obituary in the New York Times.

I would take it a step or two farther than that. I would rate Coach Wooden as one of the greatest coaches in college history — the kind of legend that football coaches like Bear Bryant and Woody Hayes were.

I was fortunate to live at the time that I did. I have seen — mostly through the miracle of television — some of the greatest teams, greatest players and greatest coaches of all time. But, whereas Bryant and Hayes were rough around the edges, Wooden was a smooth, thinking man's coach. Maybe it was the nature of the sport he coached, but he always struck me as being more approachable, always ready to share the wisdom he had acquired in his life.

Basketball can be a deceptive game. On the surface, it can seem to be all about individuals accumulating points, but it is really about fundamentals, teamwork and defense. The lessons Wooden had to teach were as applicable to life as to the basketball court.

And much of it he shared through his 1988 book, "They Call Me Coach:"
  • "Learn as if you were to live forever; live as if you were to die tomorrow."

  • "Talent is God–given; be humble. Fame is man–given; be thankful. Conceit is self–given; be careful."
I feel the same way I did the day Bear Bryant died.

On that day, I felt that something special had been lost forever, and it had.

Tonight, once again, I feel that something special has been lost forever. And, once again, I am right.

R.I.P., Coach.

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