Former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden died on Friday at age 99. Wooden led the Bruins to 10 NCAA championships. Even allowing for the fact that it was easier in those days than today for dominant basketball programs to win it all, 10 titles is still an outrageous number.
Wooden was a three time All-American at Purdue. He was a good enough player to have been elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1960 for his achievements on the court.
At that time, his coaching achievements at UCLA (where he started in 1948), though substantial, would not have merited Hall of Fame consideration. But beginning in 1963-64, he began a remarkable 12-year run during which UCLA appeared in 11 final fours and won 10 championships.
When I arrived at Stanford in 1971, the word in cynical Northern California was that Wooden was not the great gentleman he was cracked up to be, since he used his trademark rolled up program to hide his sharply worded barbs at referees. However, Wooden demonstrated his class towards the end of the first game I saw him coach in person. When Stanford removed senior Claude Terry, a high-quality guard but not a superstar, Wooden walked to the Stanford bench and shook his hand.
If UCLA had command of a game, Wooden would remove his starters with up to five minutes left in the game. He didn’t just do this against the likes of Stanford, he did it in national semi-final and final games when the score permitted, as it often did. Nowadays, even in blow-outs coaches usually play the starters up until the last minute or two. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the guys Wooden put in at “garbage time” would be starting for the national champion in a year or two.
My three years at Stanford were the Walton years at UCLA. Because Bill Walton was such a non-conformist, his pairing with Wooden was not a perfect one. But because the two shared such a passion for winning, and for playing the game the correct way, it produced near perfect basketball, as UCLA went undefeated in 1971-72 and 1972-73. The following year, though, UCLA had its incredible 88 game winning streak broken by Notre Dame (with Walton missing a last second shot) and then went down in double-overtime to N.C. State in the national semi-final game.
Wooden blamed himself for the disappointing season (there were two other losses). He had relaxed a few of his rules in deference to his undefeated and cocky seniors, and felt that this had undermined the team.
Wooden came back for one more season determined to go out on top. The 1974-75 UCLA team was very talented. But unlike his other champions, it had neither a dominant center (no Alcindor or Walton) nor a dominant lead guard (no Hazzard or Bibby). In addition, and quite uncharacteristically, UCLA was only six deep that year.
Wooden nonetheless steered the Bruins to a national championship. Unlike the usual final-four blow-outs, though, it took two missed foul shots by a top free-throw shooter; overtime; and a last second basket for UCLA to get by Louisville (and former Wooden assistant Denny Crum) in the semi-final.
Wooden did a little bit of television after he retired from coaching, but not enough to ruin the brand. He kept his analysis simple and insightful.
At half time of one broadcast, the play-by-play man wanted to talk about the game statistics. Concerned that Wooden might be too “old school” to put much stock in numbers (these were the pre-Bill James days), the announcer acknowledged that statistics might not mean that much. Wooden responded that statistics are “extremely meaningful, if you know how to analyze them.”
This wise titan of basketball will be remembered, and he will be missed.
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