So many thoughts raced through John Wooden’s mind, so many conflicting emotions.
His elation over yet another epic victory for his UCLA basketball team, this one against a team coached by a devoted former player and assistant, was tempered by concern for his wife’s failing health and his own mortality.
Add to that the memory of a snide remark by an NCAA official that, Wooden would admit years later, had wounded him deeply.
Most of all, though, it was a sudden sense of dread that swept over the 64-year-old coach that early spring day in San Diego 25 years ago this week.
It was 1975, and there was no apparent end to UCLA’s dynasty. Only moments earlier, the Bruins had scored a thrilling 75-74 overtime victory over Louisville and its young coach, Denny Crum, to reach the championship game of the NCAA tournament for the 10th time in 12 years.
A crowd of 15,151 at the San Diego Sports Arena had watched as junior center Richard Washington won the game for the Bruins with a baseline jumper two seconds before the final buzzer.
“A great, great game,” Wooden said recently, an 89-year-old man reminiscing during an interview in his modest Encino condominium. “As I told Denny, ‘It’s a shame that either team had to lose, but the proper one did, of course.’ ”
At the time, though, Wooden was not in a jocular mood. After a brief visit with Crum, he turned toward the interview room and experienced an unusual sensation: He didn’t want to be there.
“I wasn’t feeling well--hadn’t been feeling well for a few days--and my wife wasn’t feeling well at all,” said the coach, whose sleepless nights had been spent worrying not about his Bruins or his failing health but his wife, Nell, who was suffering from emphysema and heart problems.
“I realized, ‘I don’t want to go to the press room,’ and I had never felt that way before.”
It was a postgame ritual he had performed after virtually every one of his 767 games as the Bruins’ coach, and one he enjoyed.
But now . . .
“I thought, ‘If I feel like this, it’s time to get out,’ ” he said. “ ‘Maybe this is a sign.’ ”
And so he walked into the UCLA locker room and asked his jubilant players to gather round. He congratulated them on their victory and told them he believed they had a good chance to beat a much bigger Kentucky team in the final two nights later. He told them that, regardless of the outcome of the championship game, he had enjoyed coaching them as much as any team he had ever coached.
And then he broke the stunning news: “I’m bowing out.”
Wooden’s final season at UCLA, which ended 25 years ago tonight with the Bruins celebrating a 92-85 victory over Kentucky and their 10th NCAA title, was among his most masterful.
A season earlier, the UCLA dynasty had unexpectedly teetered. Most of the Bruins’ significant winning streaks had ended--88 victories, 38 NCAA tournament victories, 50 conference victories--and so had their string of seven NCAA titles.
An 80-77 double-overtime loss to North Carolina State in the NCAA tournament semifinals had ended a decade of dominance.
And the Walton Gang, led by All-Americans Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes and including two-year starters Greg Lee and Tommy Curtis, had ridden off into the sunset, leaving forward Dave Meyers as the only returning starter.
Meyers and guard Pete Trgovich were the only seniors.
So it was a different kind of UCLA team that gathered for the opening of fall practice in October 1974--one that was determined to prove itself worthy and was looking to Wooden for guidance.
The Walton Gang, some say, had turned a deaf ear to its coach.
“The season before was quite tumultuous,” said Meyers, who for the last 12 years has been a fourth-grade teacher in Lake Elsinore. “We had a great team, but we started getting lackadaisical and the season kind of imploded on us. And Coach struggled with the personality conflicts on that team.”
Meyers, for one, clashed with the mercurial Walton, whose influence was so pervasive, Meyers believed, that it undermined Wooden.
In Wooden’s final season, with Walton gone to the NBA, the coach was never questioned.
“I think everybody on that team just really appreciated Coach Wooden,” said Washington, a contractor in Portland, Ore. “He had dealt with some pretty out-there personalities prior to us . . . who maybe did some things that made him feel uncomfortable. But in that last year, he had our undivided attention. . . .
“There was never any question who was in charge and was running that team, or who knew what was best for that team. We had total confidence in him.”
By season’s end, Meyers would win acclaim as the last of Wooden’s 24 first-team All-American selections, Washington would be the most valuable player of the Final Four and Trgovich and Andre McCarter, huge scorers in high school, would complete the transition to what Wooden described as “the best pair of defensive guards I ever coached.”
As it began, however, many questioned whether the Bruins could retain their championship perch. Sophomore forward Marques Johnson, potentially their best player, got hepatitis shortly before the opening of fall practice and was not allowed to play a full game until the final weeks of the season.
UCLA was ranked second, behind defending champion North Carolina State to start the season, but Wooden was not fooled.
“We were highly ranked because of what we’d been doing,” he said. “But those I thought were giving a more honest opinion of the team didn’t rank us very high.”
In a preseason story, The Times reported that the Bruins “figure to be mere mortals this season.”
After UCLA opened the season with an 85-74 victory over Wichita State, a Los Angeles Herald-Examiner reporter opined: “A ninth consecutive Pacific 8 championship won’t come easy for John Wooden.”
A week later, after Oklahoma State had come to town and lost on consecutive nights to USC, 107-88, and UCLA, 82-51, several Cowboy players said the Trojans were the better of the L.A. teams.
“Nobody thought we could do it,” said McCarter, a junior guard that season, later a Bruin assistant under Walt Hazzard and now an entrepreneur living in Tarzana. “I mean, the Walton Gang had lost. That’s it. It’s over for UCLA. . . .
“We kind of felt it was us against the world. We had some cracks in our armor, but we had to keep reminding ourselves of who we were. UCLA was the best in college basketball, and they had picked us to come to their school to continue this thing.
“You felt like you didn’t want to let them down. You wanted to be included in that number.”
Led by the spidery and ultra-competitive Meyers, who followed Eddie Sheldrake in 1950-51 and Mike Warren in 1966-67 and 1967-68 as only the third in-season captain appointed by Wooden in his 27 years at UCLA, the Bruins won their first 12 games, all but two at Pauley Pavilion.
On Jan. 17, however, they lost to Stanford, which ended a 17-game losing streak against UCLA with a 64-60 victory at Palo Alto.
Eight days later, the Bruins suffered an 84-78 loss to Notre Dame at South Bend, Ind., where a year earlier the Irish had ended UCLA’s record 88-game winning streak.
Wooden, though, was not disappointed in his young team.
“I’m more pleased than you could imagine . . . in every respect,” he told reporters in South Bend. “It’s done much better than I’d hoped for. I know we have some weaknesses and deficiencies, but it’s been a very enjoyable year.
“We’re not going to be easily whipped by anyone.”
Wooden remained optimistic a month later, after the Bruins had lost to Washington, 103-81, at Seattle, ending a 25-game winning streak against the Huskies and suffering their worst conference loss under Wooden.
While admitting that the margin of defeat had startled him, he said, “I still think, though, an occasional defeat is good for you. If you have the kind of kids I think I have, there should be no ill effect.”
He was right.
UCLA didn’t lose again.
“We had our ups and downs but we really came together as a team,” Washington said. “That whole season kind of built to a crescendo. We started out kind of searching for an identity. Practices were more intense than they’d been the season before, and very focused. And we just gained more and more confidence.
“And then at the end, for a lot of us, losing was just kind of inconceivable. We just thought that if we did what we were told, played the game the way Coach Wooden wanted us to play it, we couldn’t lose. He had the whole team completely sold.”
The Bruins routed Stanford, 93-59, in the rematch at Pauley Pavilion, stretching their home winning streak to 81 games, then closed out the regular season with a 72-68 victory over USC at the Sports Arena, wrapping up their ninth consecutive Pac-8 title and edging ahead of the Trojans in the all-time series, 80-79.
UCLA survived a scare from Michigan to win in overtime, 103-91, in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Pullman, Wash., then withstood a huge individual effort by Eric Hays--32 points on 13-of-16 shooting--to defeat Montana, 67-64, in the semifinals of the West Regional at Portland, Ore.
Then, on the same day that Kentucky upset unbeaten and top-ranked Indiana, 92-90, in the Mideast Regional final, UCLA defeated Arizona State, 89-75, in the West Regional final. Johnson, back at full strength, scored 35 points and pulled down 12 rebounds as the Bruins reached the Final Four for the 12th time in 14 years.
Rumors about Wooden’s future had been swirling for weeks before UCLA arrived in San Diego, fueled in part by Washington State Coach George Raveling, who said Wooden had told him the season would be his last.
On the morning of the Louisville game, the Herald-Examiner ran a front-page story in its sports section under the headline: “Wooden Is Expected To Retire.” The Times, playing the story much smaller, reported that a “prominent” UCLA alumnus was saying that an announcement was imminent.
“It might be,” Wooden was quoted as saying. “I don’t want to lie. . . . I wouldn’t be surprised if a decision came this weekend. It’s been a troubled time.”
Besides concerns about his wife’s health and his own heart trouble--he had suffered an episode two years earlier and had been instructed by doctors to take daily five-mile walks to build strength--Wooden had been stung by a pointed remark made by an NCAA official.
When the NCAA decreed earlier that year that reporters would be allowed in locker rooms after NCAA tournament games, the tournament committee chairman--later identified as Tom Scott--added the cryptic aside, “That will take care of Johnny Wooden. . . .”
The comment weighed heavily on Wooden, who believed that allowing reporters in the locker room was an imposition on all but a few star players.
“I’m ashamed to say this, but my feelings had been hurt,” he said. “I’d been in that Final Four a few times, and I don’t think there had been a coach in the Final Four who was more cooperative than me. I never missed a meeting, never failed to do anything they asked.”
Wooden, though, said he awoke that morning with “no idea” he would change the course of college basketball that afternoon.
“Very few people believe me, and it doesn’t bother me,” he said, “but if you’d asked me before the Louisville game, or even at the end of the game, if I had a definite idea of when I would retire, I would have told you, ‘Probably after two more years.’ ”
Wooden could have coached four more seasons before facing mandatory retirement, he said, but he was already trying to figure out the right time for UCLA to make a smooth transition to a new coach.
“We’d been doing very well, and I knew that it was going to be tough for somebody coming in,” he said. “So I wanted to make sure that when I retired, I wasn’t going to leave the cupboard bare, as I know some coaches have.
“I could foresee that we’d be very good for the next three or four years, with the players we had coming back and the players we’d recruited--David Greenwood, Roy Hamilton and Brad Holland, plus Kiki Vandeweghe the next year.”
But retirement, he said, was the furthest thing from his mind as UCLA battled Louisville.
The Cardinals, similar in style and personnel to the Bruins, four times held early nine-point leads and still led, 65-61, with 48 seconds to play in regulation. Center Bill Bunton blocked two late shots by Meyers, but both times he batted the ball back into Bruin hands.
Washington made two free throws and Johnson, after intercepting a pass on the press, scored the tying basket on a dunk.
In overtime, Meyers said he felt sick when Louisville’s Terry Howard was fouled with 20 seconds to play and the Cardinals holding a 74-73 lead. Howard had made all 28 of his free throws that season.
“It was like deja vu--the previous season flashed before my eyes,” Meyers said. “I just felt, ‘He’s going to knock them both down, and we’re going to lose.’ ”
Howard, though, missed the front end of a one-and-one.
“And, believe me, he did not brick that free throw,” Meyers said. “This free throw went down and for some reason caught just a little bit of the rim and spun off real funny and came shooting out of the basket. Usually, you see it short or long, but this thing was down.
“Richard Washington had to reach way back for the rebound because everybody was stunned when [Howard] missed it.”
At the other end, with the clock winding down, Washington took a pass along the baseline and let go the winning shot.
The gleeful Bruins sprinted off.
“We were so elated,” Meyers said. “That game was such a struggle, so when we won, it was incredible. We ran into the locker room, and for a UCLA team we were pretty emotional because we weren’t expected to be there and now we were in the championship game. We were pretty loud.
“And that lasted all of about 10 minutes because Coach Wooden walked in--with his head down. He asked us for our attention and we all stopped. And then Coach says, ‘I have something to tell you boys.’ He said, ‘I’m real proud of you guys, but I’m bowing out.’
“It was almost as if an announcement of a death had just been given to a family. There was no more celebration. All the shock just flooded in. This wonderful man . . . just silently said, ‘That’s it.’ And then he walked away basically. He just turned and walked out.”
In the interview room, Wooden broke the news to the media.
“I’ve always said my first year in coaching was my most satisfying,” he said. “My last year has been equally satisfying, regardless of what happens Monday [in the final]. This is as fine a group of youngsters as I’ve ever had.
“I’ve asked [Athletic Director] J.D. Morgan to release me from my coaching duties at UCLA. I have done that for a number of reasons I’d rather not go into.”
Crum, who had played for Wooden in the late ‘50s and coached under him in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, was visibly shaken when he came to the microphone.
“There’s not much you can say about a man who has done what he’s done in this profession,” he said, hands trembling as he fought back tears. “Basketball will miss him. You’ll all miss him. And he might miss basketball even more.
“It’s hard to think what you do when you give up your life.”
Morgan, who would later spend half the night trying to talk Wooden into reconsidering, lauded the coach.
“He has been college basketball,” Morgan said. “He has been the game. He’s compiled records nobody is going to equal. Every year the last three or four, I had the feeling he was going to say what he did today. I knew, some year, he’d have to decide.
“We’ll get the best man to replace him and he won’t be inheriting a bad program.”
Then he looked up at Wooden, still answering questions under TV lights, and said, “But that man . . . what a fabulous man.”
Two nights later, the Bruins sent Wooden into retirement a winner.
Victory No. 620 of the Wooden era was scored against another storied program as UCLA held off a late surge by Kentucky. Washington scored 28 points and pulled down 12 rebounds, McCarter had 14 assists and reserve center Ralph Drollinger had 13 rebounds and 10 points in 16 minutes.
Meyers, bothered by leg and ankle injuries throughout the tournament, played without tape or padding on his legs for the first time in weeks and scored 24 points.
“We just had to win for the man,” Trgovich said.
At the end, Wooden walked off quietly and calmly.
In the interview room, the 200 or so reporters let their objectivity slip, applauding as Wooden entered.
“Yes, I’m sad,” he said. “Sad that I’m leaving youngsters and all the wonderful associations I’ve made--you men, my coaches, other players and coaches.
“I haven’t always agreed with you on everything, but we all agree on our love for this game.”
Morgan tried to put Wooden’s departure in perspective.
“This is not the end of an era,” he said. “It’s the end of the active career of the greatest college coach of all time.”
Some would say the greatest coach--period.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
John Wooden by Numbers
* Record: 620-147 in 27 seasons (.808 winning percentage).
* Conference record: 316-68 (.823 winning percentage).
* NCAA tournament record: 47-10 (.825 winning percentage).
* NCAA titles: 10.
* Conference titles: 19.
* Record at Pauley Pavilion (opened in 1965): 149-2 (.987 winning percentage).
* Longest winning streak: 88 games.
* Longest conference winning streak: 50.
* Longest NCAA tournament winning streak: 38.
* Longest home winning streak: 81.
* First-team All-Americans: 24.
LAST 12 SEASONS
* Overall record: 335-22 (.938 winning percentage).
* Conference record: 158-11 (.935 winning percentage).
* NCAA tournament record: 44-1 (.978 winning percentage).
* NCAA titles: 10.
* Conference titles: 11.
March 31, 1975
BRUINS 92, WILDCATS 85
FG-A FT-A R A P T Meyers 9-18 6-7 11 1 4 24 Johnson 3-9 0-1 7 1 2 6 Washington 12-23 4-5 12 3 4 28 Trgovich 7-16 2-4 5 4 4 16 McCarter 3-6 2-3 2 14 1 8 Drollinger 4-6 2-5 13 0 4 10 Totals 000 38-78 16-25 55 23 19 92
Shooting: Field goals, 48.7%; free throws, 64.0%
Team rebounds: 5. Technical foul: Meyers.
FG-A FT-A R A P T Grevey 13-30 8-10 5 1 4 34 Guyette 7-11 2-2 7 3 3 16 Robey 1-3 0-0 9 1 5 2 Conner 4-12 1-2 5 6 1 9 Flynn 3-9 4-5 3 2 4 10 Givens 3-10 2-3 6 1 3 8 Johnson 0-3 0-0 3 1 3 0 Phillips 1-7 2-3 6 0 4 4 Hall 1-1 0-0 1 0 0 2 Lee 0-0 0-0 0 1 1 0 Totals 000 33-86 19-25 49 16 28 85
Shooting: Field goals, 38.4%; free throws, 76.0%
Team rebounds: 4.
UCLA: 43 49--92
KENTUCKY: 40 45--85
A--15,151. O--Hank Nichols and Bob Wortman.