UCLA basketball coach: a man who practices what he preaches

Dr. John Miller

Dr. John Miller

Last summer, I got the chance to visit John Wooden, a small town boy from Martinsville, Ind. He was the UCLA basketball coach who won 10 NCAA championships in 12 years, seven of them in a row. In winning 16 conference titles during his 27-year tenure at the Westwood campus, the Bruins compiled an incredible regular-season record of 620 and 147.

Wooden, however, never considered himself primarily as a coach but rather as a teacher. For 11 years, he taught high school English in Kentucky and Indiana while carrying out his coaching duties. Then, for two years he continued to teach English part-time at Indiana State Teachers College in Terre Haute, future stamping ground of basketball legend Larry Bird. Wooden, by the way, is still considered, along with Bird and Oscar Robinson, to be one of the three greatest basketball players ever to come out of Indiana.

As a high school teacher during the 1930s, Wooden developed his famous “Pyramid of Success,” containing 15 basic qualities that he wished his students to cultivate. On the list were such things as industriousness, enthusiasm, friendship, initiative, skill, self-control and team spirit. As a teacher, he grew weary of students’ and parents’ complaints about grades that were less than As or Bs. He wanted students to think more about what they were learning and defined success as “peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” More important, he thought, than a comparative letter grade was the knowledge that a person had made one’s best effort in relation to one’s own potential.

That is also what he tried to instill in his players. Winning or losing, he insisted, was less important than playing up to one’s full potential. Remarkably, this man who de-emphasized winning became the biggest winner in the sport’s history and won recognition as the “coach of the century.”

Next summer, at the age of 91, John Wooden is scheduled to participate in a basketball clinic in Aberdeen. He is a man who continues to practice what he preaches.

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