LOS ANGELES – John Wooden, college basketball’s gentlemanly Wizard of Westwood who built one of the greatest dynasties in all of sports at UCLA and became one of the most revered coaches ever, has died. He was 99.
The university said Wooden died Friday night of natural causes at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where he had been hospitalized since May 26.
With his signature rolled-up game program in hand, Wooden led the Bruins to 10 NCAA championships, including an unmatched streak of seven in a row from 1967 to 1973.
Over 27 years, he won 620 games, including 88 straight during one historic stretch, and coached many of the game’s greatest players such as Bill Walton and Lew Alcindor – later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“It’s kind of hard to talk about Coach Wooden simply, because he was a complex man. But he taught in a very simple way. He just used sports as a means to teach us how to apply ourselves to any situation,” Abdul-Jabbar said in a statement released through UCLA.
“He set quite an example. He was more like a parent than a coach. He really was a very selfless and giving human being, but he was a disciplinarian. We learned all about those aspects of life that most kids want to skip over. He wouldn’t let us do that.”
Wooden is the only person to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.
Wooden was a groundbreaking trendsetter who demanded his players be in great condition so they could play an up-tempo style not well-known on the West Coast at the time.
But his legacy extended well beyond that.
He was the master of the simple one- or two-sentence homily, instructive little messages best presented in his famous “Pyramid of Success,” which remains must-read material, not only for fellow coaches but for anyone in a leadership position in American business.
He taught the team game and had only three hard-and-fast rules – no profanity, tardiness or criticizing teammates. Layered beneath that seeming simplicity, though, were a slew of life lessons – primers on everything from how to put on your socks correctly to how to maintain poise: “Not being thrown off stride in how you behave or what you believe because of outside events.”
“What you are as a person is far more important than what you are as a basketball player,” was one of Wooden’s key messages.
Born Oct. 14, 1910, near Martinsville, Ind., on a farm that didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing, Wooden’s life revolved around sports from the time his father built a baseball diamond among his wheat, corn and alfalfa. Baseball was his favorite sport, but there was also a basketball hoop nailed in a hayloft.
He led Martinsville High School to the Indiana state basketball championship in 1927 before heading to Purdue, where he was All-America from 1930-’32. The Boilermakers were national champions his senior season, and Wooden, nicknamed “the Indiana Rubber Man” for his dives on the hardcourt, was college basketball’s player of the year.
After college, Wooden coached two years at Dayton (Ky.) High School, and his 6-11 losing record the first season was the only one in his 40-year coaching career.
Wooden served in the Navy as a physical education instructor during World War II, and continued teaching when he became the basketball coach at Indiana State Teachers College, where he went 47-17 in two seasons.
But it wasn’t until he headed west to Southern California that Wooden really made his mark on the game.
The Bruins were winners right away after Wooden took over as coach at UCLA’s campus in Westwood in 1949, although they were overshadowed by Bill Russell and the University of San Francisco, and later Pete Newell’s teams at California.
At the time, West Coast teams tended to play a slow, plodding style. Wooden quickly exploited that with his fast-breaking, well-conditioned teams, who wore down opponents with a full-court zone press and forever changed the style of college basketball.
Still, it would be 16 seasons before Wooden won his first NCAA championship with a team featuring Walt Hazzard that went 30-0 in 1964. After that, they began arriving in bunches, with top players such as Alcindor, Walton, Jamaal Wilkes, Lucius Allen, Gail Goodrich, Marques Johnson, Michael Warren and Sidney Wicks coming to Westwood.
Each of Wooden’s players would learn at the first practice how to properly put on socks and sneakers. Each would learn to keep his hair short and face clean-shaven, even though the fashions of the 1960s and ’70s dictated otherwise.
And each would learn Wooden’s “pyramid of success,” a chart he used to both inspire players and sum up his personal code for life. Industriousness and enthusiasm were its cornerstones; faith, patience, loyalty and self-control were some of the building blocks. At the top of the pyramid was competitive greatness.
“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are,” Wooden would tell them.
Wooden never had to worry about his reputation. He didn’t drink or swear or carouse with other coaches on the road.
But Wooden disliked the Wizard of Westwood nickname, preferring to be called coach.
“I’m no wizard, and I don’t like being thought of in that light at all,” he said in a 2006 interview with the UCLA History Project. “I think of a wizard as being some sort of magician or something, doing something on the sly or something, and I don’t want to be thought of in that way.”
Wooden would coach 27 years at UCLA, finishing with a record of 620-147. He won 47 NCAA tournament games. His overall mark as a college coach was 664-162, an .804winning percentage that remains unequaled.
In 1975, Wooden surprisingly announced his retirement after a 75-74 NCAA semifinal victory over Louisville. He then went out and coached the Bruins for the last time, winning his 10th national title with a 92-85 win over Kentucky.
After that victory, Wooden walked into the interview room at the San Diego Sports Arena to face about 200 reporters, who let their objectivity slip and applauded.
“When I think of a basketball coach the only one I ever thought of was Coach Wooden. He had a great life and helped so many coaches until well in his 90s,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim told the Associated Press. “Every time I talked to him he would give me some words of advice. He’s the best of all time. There will never be another like him, and you can’t say that about too many people.”
Nell, Wooden’s wife of 53 years, died of cancer in 1985. Wooden is survived by a son, Jim Wooden, a daughter, Nancy Muehlhausen, three grandsons, four granddaughters and 13 great-grandchildren.
Funeral services will be private. A public memorial will be held later, with a reception for former players and coaches.