Cori Close played basketball for
But her roots at UCLA run deep and are personal.
UCLA was her first stop as an assistant, and it was there she met John Wooden, who became a mentor and confidant.
"He used to tell me all the time that when you get tired of growing, then you're just done," Close said. "You have to sharpen the saw, so to speak … I had the best teacher in the books."
Close now passes Wooden's lessons on to her Bruins, who open play in the NCAA tournament with a game at home against
Close's first encounter with Wooden came after prodding from then-UCLA men's assistant coach Steve Lavin to pay the coaching legend a visit. As soon as Wooden discovered that Close's first name was spelled the same as one of his granddaughters, a friendship was born.
"I pretty much went back every Tuesday night after that and continued to go and spend time with him whenever he'd take me," Close said.
Whatever reason she could come up with was enough to pick Wooden's brain. She'd offer to bring lemon custard ice cream, one of his favorite flavors, or ask whether he was available for breakfast. He was happy to oblige.
"The fact of the matter is Coach Wooden means a lot more to me than I meant to him," Close said. "A lot of the time, our conversations had nothing to do with basketball … it just formed who I am as a coach and a lot of who I am as a person. I'm just thankful to have had those precious moments."
After Close left to be an assistant at UC Santa Barbara and later Florida State, she couldn't entice Wooden with ice cream, but he was still only a phone call away. She always kept in mind his wisdom — and the advice of others — as she navigated her coaching career.
"It was always my ultimate dream to become a head coach, but when I was here in '93-95, [former UCLA Coach] Kathy Olivier said something to me that I never forgot. She said, 'There are a lot of assistant jobs that are better than a lot of head jobs.' I was really picky."
Wooden died in 2010, a year before Close accepted the job at UCLA, but she's made it a priority to incorporate his lessons as much as she can. Before the start of this season, Close brought in UCLA legend Rafer Johnson, who played for Wooden, to show her players how to put on their socks and shoes just like Wooden used to teach.
"I've just really tried to keep his legacy alive," Close said. "I think that's just a way I can say thank you for all the times he gave me, to keep his principles moving forward and to pay it forward into someone else's life."
After UCLA was announced Monday as the third-seeded team in the NCAA tournament's Bridgeport Regional, Close got a phone call from Wooden's daughter, Nan, who said, "Daddy would've really liked watching this team."
"I get choked up talking about it now," Close said.
UCLA players know how their coach's friendship with Wooden shaped her coaching style.
"I've just really seen her grow in how to connect with every single player and really create relationships," senior Kacy Swain said.
Joked senior Nirra Fields: "She's like a personal Wooden quote book. She just knows all the Wooden quotes. The pyramid of success is up in our locker room."
Close was asked this week whether she had a favorite saying or piece of advice from the man known as "The Wizard of Westwood."
"He taught me that these young women and the growth of their experience, who they're becoming, is way more important than anything else," Close said. "And, to stay … it's all about people and process."