John Wooden On College Basketball's Lost Beauty If you tune in to the Final Four this weekend, you can be sure that John Wooden is watching, too. The great college basketball coach is pulling for his old team, UCLA, though he's not in love with the way basketball is played these days.
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John Wooden On College Basketball's Lost Beauty

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John Wooden On College Basketball's Lost Beauty

John Wooden On College Basketball's Lost Beauty

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Hey, if you tune in to the Final Four this weekend, you can be sure that John Wooden is watching too. The great college basketball coach is pulling for his old team, UCLA, though he is not in love with the way that basketball is played these days.

Mr. JOHN WOODEN (Former Coach, UCLA Men's Basketball Team): I think they're permitting the game to become a little too physical today. I've been watching the games in the tournament. There's not a game when you don't see them on the floor a good part of the time. Or there's been a lot of blood here and there. I think permitting the game to become too physical takes away a little bit of the beauty.

INSKEEP: John Wooden is 96 years old now, still active. And he's our latest guest on The Long View, our conversations with people of long experience.

In the 1960s and '70s, Mr. Wooden's Bruins won 10 national championships. They did it in just 12 years. No other team has come close to that record so people still listen when John Wooden talks about how you coach.

Mr. WOODEN: In my beginning years, I did have a number of rules and a few suggestions. As the time went by, that changed and I had a very few rules and more suggestions. But I always did have the rule that - on time. I was a nut for being on time at practice or at class. And I never permitted a player to use one word of profanity or he's dismissed for the day. And I never permitted a player to criticize a teammate. And those are three rules that I ended up with and that I kept pretty stringent throughout my career.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about one of those rules that you said. Never criticize another player.

Mr. WOODEN: That is correct.

INSKEEP: That seems like a delicate area to be in, because you don't want your players grinding each other down, but you also do want your players being honest about what works and what doesn't.

Mr. WOODEN: Yes, but that's the coach's job, you see, not the player's. You do not criticize your teammate. I'll take care of that. I used to tell them, I'm paid to do that. That's my job and it's not yours. I am paid, of course, pitifully poor in those days. But today I couldn't have said that.

INSKEEP: You wouldn't add that little kicker at the end.

Mr. WOODEN: No. Since my highest salary was $32,500 when now many of them are making well over a million or more. No, it's changed a little.

INSKEEP: Plenty of people have written about the dozen years in which your teams won 10 NCAA men's basketball championships. I want to ask, though, about the more than a decade before, when you were a coach at the same college, UCLA, and didn't win national championships. What was the difference?

Mr. WOODEN: Well, the biggest difference when we had the big runs when we got a wonderful place to play on campus. But my first 17 years, our practice conditions were on the third floor of an old gymnasium. And there was no privacy of locker rooms or dressing rooms for either players or coaches. And gymnastics were practicing along the side, an open gym, and wrestling at the end. And just two baskets were tuned to work. And we'd have to sweep and - I with the managers would sweep or mop the floor every day before practice. And then, we had no home court. And I think it hurt terribly as far as recruiting is concerned, and in many ways we did win our first two national championships that way.

By then, it became much easier. Recruiting became much easier and is more attractive, and everything improved tremendously.

INSKEEP: Were your teams as talented - the earlier ones that did not win championships as the later ones?

Mr. WOODEN: No, I don't think so. I think success breeds success. As we did better, more players would want to come to you. And I think we can have more talented players. You don't win without talented players. No one ever does.

INSKEEP: Does that mean that you were a better recruiter than other coaches?

Mr. WOODEN: It means, because you start to win when the talent comes to you. It's much easier. For example, and no question, Lewis Alcindor, now Kareem Abdul-Jabar. When he was junior in high school, we won our first national championship and he watched it on television with his coach. Right after that, we attract his attention. Right after that, his coach called me and told me about him and said he'd like UCLA and hope it'd be one of the schools he would visit the next year.

Well, the next year is his senior year and we repeated as national champions, and he watched that game. And then following that, later that day, he visited UCLA and committed himself to come to UCLA. One of the things that helped again was the fact that he was going to play the first game in the new pavilion, the finest on the coast. If we hadn't had that under those other conditions, I don't think he would have ever come. But he did. And...

INSKEEP: But let me think through this for a moment.

Mr. WOODEN: Yes.

INSKEEP: If you look at Duke University today. Great coach. Big-name coach. Great program success year after year. Obviously great recruiting, but they haven't won 10 out of 12 or 10 in any number of years.

Mr. WOODEN: Well, they won three national championships. They're always contenders. They're always going to be up in there. There's no question because they have been there. And they would continue to be there. I disagree when many people would say it's easier to get to the top than to just to stay there.

I say it's easier to stay there because the things you learn along the way and because of the better talent that will come to you just because of the fact you are winning. I believe that. Just as I believe, and maybe contrary to other's belief, who say I would rather be the underdog. I don't want to be the underdog. Would you rather fight somebody that's whipped you twice or someone that you'd whipped twice? There's no question in my mind. I'll take the one that I've whipped twice. I don't want to take another beating.

INSKEEP: Do you think that other coach, particularly after you'd won a few championships, would look across the court and sometimes be intimidated because he was coaching against John Wooden?

Mr. WOODEN: No. He might be intimidated with the material I have out there playing against his team. But I don't think he's going to be intimidated about me. No.

INSKEEP: Really?

Mr. WOODEN: Yes.

INSKEEP: I would think that if I was on the other side of the court from you, I'd be sitting over there wondering from time to time, what's John Wooden thinking? What's he going to pull on me next?

Mr. WOODEN: Well, I'd surely like to have you over there if that's the way you're thinking. I'd like to have you as the opponent if you feel that way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: You're saying - you don't think that coaches at that level get intimidated by each other or psych each other out.

Mr. WOODEN: No, I don't think so at all.

INSKEEP: When you were in that Final Four yourself, getting ready for that championship game, did you give some kind of motivational speech?

Mr. WOODEN: No, I didn't believe in that - nothing fiery. I seldom was ever off my seat on the bench during the game. And I'd tell them, don't look over at me. I prepared you during the week; now do your job. And Bill Walton used to say when we were in the dressing room before we'd go in to play a game, whether it was the national championship or a regular season game, they'd have to send a manager out to get a program to find out who they're playing because I never mentioned the other teams.

My concentration was always on developing ourselves, to work to the best of our ability. I think you have to be what you are. Don't try to be somebody else. You have to be yourself at all times.

INSKEEP: Well, Coach Wooden, great to talk with you.

Mr. WOODEN: You're very welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: And that's The Long View from John Wooden. The most recent of his many books is a children's book called "Inch and Miles." John Wooden describes how the game has changed at

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee is back with us on Monday. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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