Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Happy Birthday to a Living Legend

When I was growing up, it seems it was an era when legendary people coached in the most popular sports in America.

Players came and went, especially at the college level, but the great coaches were always there.

In baseball, managers like Walter Alston, Yogi Berra, Leo Durocher, Sparky Anderson, Dick Williams and Earl Weaver called the shots from the dugout.

In college football, Paul "Bear" Bryant, Darrell Royal, Barry Switzer, John McKay, Ara Parseghian and Woody Hayes roamed the sidelines. Joe Paterno is the only active coach who was a head coach in major college football 40 years ago.

In the NFL, Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, George Halas, Paul Brown, George Allen, Bud Grant, John Madden, Hank Stram, Don Shula and Chuck Noll defined success at the professional level.

But no coach was as synonymous with success in his sport as John Wooden, who led UCLA's basketball team to 10 national championships in 12 years.

It's been more than 30 years since Wooden, nicknamed the "Wizard of Westwood," ended his coaching career after winning his 10th national title.

His wife of more than 50 years died of cancer 10 years later, in 1985.

But today, Wooden celebrates his 98th birthday. I hear that he's been hospitalized a few times in recent years, mostly for injuries and ailments that are typical of elderly people, but otherwise he seems to be in fine health for a man of his age.

Wooden rewrote the coaching record book while he was at UCLA. Most of it may as well have been chiseled into stone.

When I was growing up, it was practically assumed that, if UCLA was playing, you could take it to the bank that the Bruins would win.

The legendary coaches of my youth have all retired now. Many of them are deceased. But have you ever noticed that there are always a few in each generation who seem determined never to die? George Burns was like that. So was Bob Hope. They eventually died, of course, but long after common sense would have predicted.

(Burns, it is said, was once asked by a reporter what his doctor thought of his cigar-smoking habit. Burns reportedly exhaled a lungful of smoke in the reporter's direction and replied, "My doctor is dead.")

It looks like it may be that way with Wooden as well (although, just for the record, I don't think Wooden is a smoker).

Certainly, some of his achievements will stand forever.

For example, we often hear how difficult it is for a basketball team to go undefeated in a single season. UCLA had back-to-back undefeated seasons in 1972 and 1973 — the only team in college basketball ever to accomplish that feat.

The Bruins also went undefeated in 1964 and 1967.

We also hear how difficult it is for a national champion to repeat — and it is. Wooden won seven consecutive national championships, from the 1966-1967 season to the 1972-1973 season.

And, in addition to the undefeated seasons I mentioned earlier, the Bruins went 29-1 in three seasons, they went 28-2 twice and they were 28-3 in Wooden's final season in 1975.

He won about 80% of his games.

Happy birthday, Coach. And many, many more.

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