John Wooden: An English Teacher Who Happened To Be A Hoops Legend

No college basketball coach has ever dominated the sport like legendary UCLA coach John Wooden. His teams reached unprecedented heights in the 1960s and '70s. They accomplished a run of 10 NCAA championships in 12 seasons and an 88-game winning streak — records that stand to this day. Seth Davis, a writer for Sports Illustrated, speaks to Robert Siegel about his biography of Coach Wooden.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The late John Wooden coached college basketball and was more successful at it than any other coach. And it's at least arguable that he was more successful than any college coach of any sport. He took over the hapless basketball program at UCLA in 1948 and by 1964, he led the Bruins to a NCAA championship.

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JOHN WOODEN: Somebody asked me - you know, how come it took you so long to win a national championship? And I said, I'm a slow learner; but you notice when I learn something, I have it down pretty good.

SIEGEL: He repeated in 1965 and then, from 1967 through '73, UCLA won the national championship every year. In 1975, the year that he retired, John Wooden led his team to one more national title. Ten championships for UCLA under the Indiana native who was himself an all-American player at Purdue. The one-time high school English teacher was so famous as a coach that he became a popular speaker on success and leadership during his very long retirement.

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WOODEN: Now, Dad had tried to teach me and my brothers, never try to be better than somebody else. Just try to be the best you can be; never cease trying to be the best you can be. That's in your power. The other isn't.

SIEGEL: John Wooden died a few months shy of his 100th birthday, in 2010; and he's now the subject of a biography by Seth Davis, who covers college hoops for "Sports Illustrated" and CBS Sports. It's called "Wooden: A Coach's Life." Seth Davis, welcome to the program.

SETH DAVIS: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And let's start - first, how good a coach was John Wooden?

DAVIS: Well, you made the comment that he was the best college basketball coach of all time. I think that's pretty definitive. I would actually go further, Robert, and argue that John Wooden is the best coach in the history of American sports. In fact, "The Sporting News," several years ago - right before he died - did a mass survey of writers and coaches and athletes, and asked them to rank the all-time greatest coaches. And John Wooden came first, right ahead of Vince Lombardi.

I think the difference there is that he had to win all kinds of different ways. I mean, John Wooden, over the span of, you know, 12 years, coached very different teams. He had, you know - five of his championships, of course, were centered around great centers; then Lew Alcindor, now known as Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and Bill Walton. But, you know, his first team - in 1964 - didn't have a starter over 6-foot-5. And then his last team, in 1975, didn't have any, you know, Hall of Fame - had some very good players on it - Marcus Johnson, Dave Meyers - but certainly, no one of an Alcindor and Bill Walton caliber.

So he had to win a lot of different ways, and then he also had to coach through an incredibly volatile era on campus in Westwood, Calif.; late 1960s, early 1970s. For a conservative, Midwestern, older gentleman to have to manage all that and still come out on top - to me, was extraordinary.

SIEGEL: Now, there is a sentiment, which - as I learned from your book - was not originally said by Vince Lombardi, of the Green Bay Packers, but by the old UCLA football coach Red Sanders: Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing. John Wooden seems to have had a very different, and extremely complicated, attitude toward winning. What was it?

DAVIS: He never talked about it. (Laughter) Now, let's be clear - John Wooden loved to win. One of the things that I think that readers are going to be very surprised to learn is just what a controversial reputation, a negative reputation he had, with respect to referees. He harangued referees often during the course of a game because he didn't necessarily believe in talking to his players.

But he never mentioned the word "win" to his players. His whole attitude was if you maximize your potential, then you have succeeded. That was his whole definition of success; where you get peace of mind because you know in your heart, mind and soul that you've reached your full potential. But by the time he got to the end of his career, his players were so good that, you know, he believed that if they reached their potential, they would win.

And by the way, that if he could keep their mind off of winning, that if he could get them to focus on the process of getting to a game - the hour-to-hour, day-by-day practice and little, itty-bitty improvement that you make day to day, that that is actually the best way to win.

SIEGEL: But I gather that the famous stretch, when he won 10 national championships in 12 years, he would call that the unhappiest time of his working life.

DAVIS: That is correct because he never meant for that to happen. I mean, he was a high school English teacher and to the day that he died, that is how he thought of himself. I mean, think about a guy who was born in 1910; happened to be born in the cradle of basketball just as it's really being invented as a high school sport, really, in central Indiana, Dression-era Indiana. Nobody would have any inkling that someday, he's coaching a basketball game in a futuristic football stadium called the Houston Astrodome.

I mean, this was not what he set out to do. Not only did he move into a world, but he helped create a world that valued winning above all else. And it was extremely uncomfortable for him. This notion that he was never criticized, or never had a bad day, is wholly inaccurate. He was rather thin-skinned, and a little bit paranoid and protective, when it came to his players and the press. It definitely got very far away from what he set out to do, and that was just basically be a teacher of English and a teacher of life and a teacher of the game of basketball; keep things simple.

SIEGEL: You also write, as one must in writing the story of basketball at UCLA under John Wooden, a lot about a man named Sam Gilbert. He was a rich guy who loved UCLA basketball; a UCLA dropout, I gather, who lavished gifts and attention on UCLA players. And while the school was ultimately penalized for their relationship to Gilbert, the NCAA went out of its way - it seems, according to your account - to make sure that they only dealt with events after John Wooden's period as the coach.

DAVIS: Sam Gilbert, as you described, was a man who became involved first with Lucius Allen and Lew Alcindor, to address their financial circumstance - which was pretty dire. And they were put in touch with Sam Gilbert. And he could point them to stores where they could get coats and not have to pay for them. He could send them to restaurants. He bought them meals.

So what I can tell you, Robert, is this: This is, clearly, not something that Wooden orchestrated. He didn't create it. He did go to his athletic director on several occasions and asked him to look into the situation. He mentioned his players. He wasn't comfortable with it.

But there is also no question that at a certain point, he stopped. So it's a very, very mixed part of his legacy but one that I felt, No. 1, needed to be addressed and also, most importantly, Robert, it needed to be placed into its proper context.

SIEGEL: One of the oddest things about John Wooden that I, at least, come away with from reading your book is that here was a coach who seemed to be more interested in teaching his players how to put their sneakers on - proper foot care - than ever scouting an opposing team. He didn't care about what the next team was...

DAVIS: (Laughter) That's right.

SIEGEL: ...he just - you play your game. You play it right. It doesn't matter what they're going to do.

DAVIS: That's right. He wanted them focusing on what they were doing. Let's worry about us, and the results will take care of themselves; keeping it simple. The shoes and socks thing is a huge part of his legend. First of all, it was rooted in a very practical concern, and that's blisters. John Wooden didn't want his players getting blisters because that makes you less effective as a ballplayer.

Another was by busying them in the finest details of being basketball players, it would help - in a lot of ways - free their minds over whether or not they were going to win, which would make it more likely for them to win. But, you know, as a lot of his coaching rivals would point out, you know, it's a lot easier to win games if you're teaching Lew Alcindor how to put on his shoes and socks as opposed to the guy that I'm coaching.

So at the end of the day - one of my favorite quotes from Wooden, someone said to him, well, you know, who's the best coach you went up against? And his answer was always, the guy with the best players.

SIEGEL: Seth Davis, thanks for talking with us about John Wooden and your book about him.

DAVIS: It was a thrill, Robert. Always great to talk to you.

SIEGEL: And the book is called "Wooden: A Coach's Life."

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