Yet UCLA did not win a national title until Wooden's 16th season. To accomplish this, he had to do something that many coaches can't manage: He had to change. At the urging of assistant Jerry Norman, a former player added to the coaching staff in 1957, Wooden focused on defense and instituted a zone press that he had used infrequently since he was a high school coach. Norman also was energetic about recruiting, something for which Wooden had little appetite.
In the 1973 book "The Wizard of Westwood," longtime college coach Jerry Tarkanian told Dwight Chapin and Jeff Prugh, the authors of the book who both covered UCLA basketball for The Times, that Wooden "does a tremendous job of organizing and getting his teams ready to play. He makes very few adjustments during games. Other teams worry about what he's going to do -- his press, his fast break. You're extremely conscious of them. They're hardly conscious of you at all."
Wooden was respected for more than just victories. The UCLA coach was equally revered for how his teams played the game -- a style that reflected his personality.
John Robert Wooden was born Oct. 14, 1910, in Hall, Ind., the third of six children. His father, Joshua Hugh Wooden, an uneducated farmer, guided the family through tough economic times by stressing hard work, honesty and the value of education. All four of the Wooden boys would be, at one time or another, teachers.
In a 1998 interview with The Times, Wooden recalled: "My father would always tell me: 'Don't look back, don't whine, don't complain.' "
When Joshua Wooden lost his farm in the Depression, he moved the family to Martinsville, 30 miles south of Indianapolis, where he found work as a bath attendant at one of the small town's artesian wells.
At Martinsville High School, Johnny Wooden -- as he was known in those days -- ran track, played baseball and became an all-state guard in basketball, leading his team to the state title in 1927. Most of the Big Ten Conference schools recruited him, Purdue winning out because of its academics and its renowned coach, Ward "Piggy" Lambert.
The Boilermakers played an aggressive, up-tempo style that suited Wooden, who became known as the "Indiana Rubber Man" for his tendency to bound around the court and dive for loose balls, then bounce back into the action. He was a three-time All-American and led the Boilermakers to their only national championship in 1932.
His senior year was noteworthy for two other reasons. Wooden won the conference Medal for Academic Achievement as an English major. Years later, he would place the honor among his favorites on a list that included induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Also in 1932, Wooden married his high school sweetheart, Nell Riley. He called her "the only girl I ever went with."
After graduation, Wooden played semi-professional basketball, barnstorming through the Midwest. He once made 134 consecutive free throws, earning a $100 bill from the team's owner, the first time he had ever seen currency so large.
But his principal occupation was as coach and English teacher at Dayton, Ky., High School, where he followed an initial 6-11 season with a more respectable 15-3 finish. After two years, he moved to South Bend, Ind., Central High and nurtured a string of winning teams.
During World War II, Wooden enlisted in the Navy to serve as a physical trainer for combat pilots. Upon his discharge in 1946, he took a job as athletic director and coach of the basketball and baseball teams at Indiana State Teachers College (now Indiana State University) in Terre Haute.
Again, his teams had winning seasons, but the young coach might best be remembered for a game his squad did not play. In his first season, Indiana State earned a spot in the National Assn. of Intercollegiate Basketball tournament but was told that its lone black player, a reserve guard, was not welcome. Wooden declined the invitation.
The next season, the Sycamores, with a 27-7 record, were invited again. After discussions between Wooden and tournament officials, Clarence Walker became the first African American to compete in the postseason tournament.
Those two seasons at Indiana State -- and a 44-15 record -- were enough to attract interest from larger schools. It was good luck and bad weather that ultimately brought Wooden to the West Coast.