His Exit Was Thoughtful, Just Like Everything Else
Before practice every day, Morgan Wootten gave his DeMatha basketball team a “Thought of the Day.” Then, afterward, they would discuss what it meant.
On Monday, he might say, “It wasn’t raining when Noah built the Ark.” The next day, “The only person who welcomes change is a wet baby.” By Wednesday’s practice, his legendary Stags would hear, “A lighthouse does not blow a horn. It shines a light.”
To round out the week, Wootten might drag in Ben Franklin and Harry Truman, fellows he taught about in his history classes. “Sin is not harmful because it is forbidden. It is forbidden because it is harmful,” said Franklin. Truman gets credit for “How far would Moses have gone if he had taken a poll in Egypt?”
Within Washington sports, Wootten, who retired Wednesday, should get as much credit, in the broadest sense of that word, as anybody who’s been on the local scene in the last half-century.
In his 51 years as a coach, 46 of them at DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., where his teams went 1,274-192 and won five mythical national titles, Wootten was not always perfect. In his early years, he was as ambitious and competitive as they come. But, once he got to the top, no sports figure in this town aged better, grew wiser, spread his influence more generously or used it for better purposes.
True to form, when Wootten retired, he left at exactly the right time for the proper reasons. Even though the announcement, just two weeks before the start of the season, came as a total shock.
Wootten, 71, didn’t retire because of health. The new liver he got in 1996, after nearly dying from a Big Bleed that left him, at one point, with no pulse, is excellent. He still breaks 90 on the golf course on a good day. His huge summer basketball camp, charity activities and connections with DeMatha will continue. There are even plans for a new DeMatha fieldhouse at some point.
“I gotta do something this next half-century,” he says.
However, there is spin on his out-of-the-blue retirement, according to sources. And it’s typical Wootten. Somebody threw a trick defense at him a while back; this time, he apparently figured out how to beat it. Several years ago, Wootten hoped his son Joe, now the O’Connell coach, would succeed him. Everybody went goofy. Search committees. Trinitarian fingers in the pie. Joe didn’t get the job. Morgan was “very disappointed” in some people.
So this time, it appears he’s finessed them. Five-year assistant Mike Jones, 29, will now get a full year to prove himself as interim coach. Jones can’t be “searched” over for somebody more famous. No time. Also, Jones will be DeMatha’s first African American coach of a major sport. That pleases Morgan.
Why wait until after summer camps, after preseason work? “If I had gone [earlier], there might have been some mischief,” said Wootten, meaning coaches from Arlington to Alaska might have tried to steal stars from the most famous schoolboy program of the last several decades. Why put your school, your replacement and your young players through that wringer? Let everybody chill out.
“If I’d announced it a year ago, they’d have given me rocking chairs before every game. It would have taken attention from the team,” he said by phone Wednesday. “It would have embarrassed me to death. I’ve had enough accolades. I’ve had my day in the sun.”
Even though Wootten said two years ago that he’d probably only coach two more seasons, his final decision was difficult. So he talked to two Hall of Fame coaches who would really understand his situation -- Red Auerbach and John Wooden.
“In different ways, they said the same thing,” said Wootten. “It’s just a gut feeling. And you’ll know.
“Well, we had 29 and 32 wins the last two seasons and ended last year with an 18-game winning streak. We won everything you could win. It couldn’t have gotten any better. And the program is in great shape for Mike.”
Wootten has always taught his players about priorities: God, family, school, basketball -- in that order. Use basketball, don’t be used by it. Last year, he had to play his son’s team four times, winning three, including his last game. “They’re not fun games, to be very honest,” he said. “Somebody in the family has to lose.” At 71, how often do you want to thwart your 29-year-old son?
“At some point, I have to back down. As it says in Ecclesiastes, ‘Under heaven there is a time for everything,’ ” Wootten said . “And this is the right time for me to retire.”
At the end, you’re supposed to think about the beginning. So, Wednesday, Wootten did. When young, he thought he might be a lawyer, maybe go into politics. One day, he arranged for a buddy, Tommy Clark, to try for a job coaching baseball at an orphanage.
“Sister Batilde of the Order of the Holy Cross was telling Clark about the job and Tommy started getting cold feet,” said Wootten. “He said, ‘Morgan is a candidate, too.’ I wasn’t and I didn’t even know much about baseball. The Sister looked at me and said, ‘The pay is $75 a month. We practice every day. I’ll see you on Monday.’
“I didn’t know how to say, ‘No.’ ”
Since then, Wootten figures he taught world history to four classes of 30 boys each for 33 years. For the last 40 years, he’s averaged about 1,500 kids a summer at his camps and clinics. That doesn’t include all those DeMatha players. So many accomplished so much that the school has lost count of how many played in the NBA (“more than a dozen”), got college scholarships (“more than 150”) or became coaches (“more than 20”). Except for the day they put him in the Basketball Hall of Fame, you may not have seen Wootten on ESPN too often. Though he had countless college offers, he took the road less traveled. In the last 50 years, this area has had athletes and coaches more famous than Wootten, though not many. But it has never produced one who was more worthy of the description “most valuable.”
Wednesday, one of Wootten’s old stars, Adrian Branch, was in the DeMatha library when Wootten said his last coaching goodbye, safe now from any rocking chairs or too much embarrassing praise.
Branch remembered one of those Thoughts of the Day. “If you want to know about the fruit,” said Branch, “check the root.”
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