Legendary UCLA Coach John Wooden Dies In his 27 years as the men's basketball head coach -- from 1948 to 1975 -- Wooden's Bruins won a record 10 NCAA titles, including an unmatched seven in a row. Wooden was 99 years old.
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Legendary UCLA Coach John Wooden Dies

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Legendary UCLA Coach John Wooden Dies

Legendary UCLA Coach John Wooden Dies

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Scott Simon.

The greatest college basketball coach in history has died. John Wooden passed away yesterday in Los Angeles. He was 99.

Coach Wooden was the men's basketball head coach at UCLA from 1948 to 1975, and coached the Bruins to a record 10 NCAA titles. Those who played for John Wooden say that how he coached is as much a part of his legacy as success.

NPR's Tom Goldman has this remembrance.

TOM GOLDMAN: His nickname was the Wizard of Westwood, and he hated it; didn't like Genius either, or Best Coach Ever - although it's hard to argue with all those championships, the four undefeated seasons, and a mind-boggling 88-game winning streak.

If you had to call John Wooden anything, he was most comfortable with Teacher.

Mr. JOHN WOODEN (Former Coach, UCLA): Coaching is teaching. Really, and that's all it is.

GOLDMAN: This was Wooden from an NPR interview in 2000.

Mr. WOODEN: And certainly, whether it's teaching English or sports, you had to follow laws of learning, and you have to have a bit of psychology and so on to go along with it, but it's the same.

GOLDMAN: Wooden's classroom was the practice session. Later in life, after all the basketball triumphs, he said what he missed most was practice. It was the place where the Zen philosophy instilled by his father - today is the only day that matters, make each day your masterpiece - mixed with his Indiana no-nonsense tuck in your shirts, pull up your socks, be on time - to create the richest, most relentless learning environment Andy Hill had ever experienced.

Mr. ANDY HILL (Former UCLA Guard): We went from drill to drill very quickly. There was a focus on detail. There wasn't a lot of chatter, including from him.

GOLDMAN: Hill was a guard on three UCLA championship teams from 1970 to '72.

Mr. HILL: He taught in very quick sentences that started with him saying your name really fast. You know, he'd say, Bill or Andy. And then what would follow was a very short lesson: I told you to put that pass to the outside hand, and he'd say it over and over again. He used repetition a great deal as a teacher.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Unidentified Man (Sportscaster): UCLA will bring it in. Here is Curtis passing it inside...

GOLDMAN: Games were the end of the teaching process, and Wooden believed they'd turn out well if his players had followed one of his favorite maxims: Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Usually they were prepared, and it showed in Wooden's demeanor during games.

Fred Slaughter was the starting center on UCLA's 1964 championship team.

Mr. FRED SLAUGHTER (Former UCLA Center): Coach Wooden basically was Cool Hand Luke. He gave us our offense, our defense, and then game time it was as though all he had to do was sit there and roll up his program and cross his legs, or whatever, watch us go to them.

GOLDMAN: The 1964 championship was Wooden's first. Unlike the other nine titles over the next 11 years, fueled by star centers like Bill Walton and Lew Alcindor - who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - 1964 was unexpected. The tallest starting players were only 6-feet-5. Slaughter was one of them.

'64 also was significant for what it revealed about Wooden. He'd been skeptical about using a type of defense called the Zone Press. His assistant, Jerry Norman, believed it would work well with the mix of players UCLA had. Norman pushed. Wooden resisted. Norman ended up being right. The Bruins used the Zone Press as a key weapon on their way to 30 wins, no losses, and an NCAA title.

Mr. JERRY NORMAN (Former Assistant Coach, UCLA): And I think Coach Wooden, being an intelligent man, said, hey, this is something that makes sense, so go forward with it.

GOLDMAN: Wooden later admitted he should have used the Zone Press earlier at UCLA. For the man of many maxims, it gave extra meaning to this one: When you're through learning, you're through.

Unidentified Men: (Singing) Happy birthday to you...

GOLDMAN: Wooden's connection to his former players grew stronger in the years after his beloved wife, Nell, died. In this video from ESPN.com, Bill Walton, Andy Hill and several other players celebrated Wooden's 95th birthday at a favorite restaurant.

Mr. WOODEN: I appreciate the thoughtfulness. I just wish you meant it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOLDMAN: Of course they did. Players would regularly visit Wooden at his small condo in Encino, California and marvel at how their old coach had lived such a full and principled life.

When Wooden was a boy, his dad gave him a seven-point creed. He always carried a copy in his wallet. One of the points was: Make friendship a fine art. Andy Hill thought of that every time he left after a visit, and looked back to see Wooden waving goodbye.

Mr. HILL: It's a very powerful picture for me, and I'm sure every guy who's ever been over there to his apartment and spent time with him, that picture of coach waving up in the window is really burnt into my mind, and something I know I'll always carry with me.

GOLDMAN: Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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