After Loss of His Wife, Family Keeps Wooden Going


John Wooden’s retirement gift to his wife--a long-anticipated trip to her ancestral Ireland--never materialized after he left coaching in 1975.

He couldn’t afford it.

College basketball’s most successful coach, winner of 10 NCAA championships in his last 12 seasons, made only $32,500 in his final year at UCLA and faced his retirement years knowing he would receive only a piddling pension.

“I was very concerned,” Wooden says. “Our standard of living was never very high, but I didn’t want it to go any lower.”


Later, after Wooden’s income from speaking engagements, books, camps and other business ventures outstripped his UCLA earnings, his wife was too sick to make an overseas trip.

Wooden’s beloved Nellie, his high school sweetheart and wife of 53 years, died of pancreatic cancer on March 21, 1985.

“By the time I got in shape [financially] where we could go,” Wooden says softly, “she wasn’t able to make it from a physical standpoint.

“We had maps, and I got some [travel] books to study--and so did Nellie--but we never did make it. I’ve still got the books lying in there on the bed where she slept, but she was never able to make it.”

It’s one of the great disappointments in what Wooden says has been an enjoyable retirement.

He delights in his family--two children, seven grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren--which he credits with helping pull him through two years of mourning after his wife’s death.

This week, he traveled with his daughter Nan Muehlhausen, 66, and granddaughter Cathleen Trapani, 30, to Indianapolis for the Final Four. Before the weekend’s games, he’ll show them the farm where he grew up, outside Martinsville, Ind., and they will visit the graves of his parents and sisters.

A three-time All-American at Purdue in the early ‘30s, Wooden is a favorite son in Indiana. Last fall, he was voted one of the three greatest players in state history along with Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird.

That meant less to him, however, than a photo album of his great-grandchildren that a great-granddaughter gave him for his 89th birthday last Oct. 14.

“That was the nicest thing I ever got in my life,” he says. “And she wanted to get it to me before I was 90 because I might not reach 90.”

He has slowed considerably in recent years, mostly because his knees need replacing.

“I have problems making even small steps,” he says. “And sitting down, I almost fall down. I have trouble getting up. If I sit in a low chair, I’ll need help getting up.

“But when I get settled down in a higher chair, I’m comfortable. I have a little pain, but I’m fairly comfortable. . . .

“But I’m almost 90, and I’m grateful for the time.”

Though coaching didn’t make him wealthy, Wooden says he doesn’t begrudge today’s college coaches their multimillion-dollar contracts.

“I’m very happy for them,” he says. “I said this long ago: In my opinion most coaches are overpaid. . . .

“But I’m glad to see them get it. Certainly, if they’d offered it to me, I’d have taken it.”

Wooden, though, says he never regretted leaving when he did and never considered returning.

“For some reason, I believed it was the right time,” he says.

But did he miss it?

“I missed the practices,” he says. “I never missed the games. . . . I enjoyed planning practices and I enjoyed conducting practices. And I think that was one of my strengths. . . .

“I equated coaching with Cervantes, who said, ‘The journey is better than the end.’ ”