Wooden’s a Coach for Life

Times Staff Writer

Inside a Torrance collection agency, workers sit at cubicles and call people who are behind on their debts. On the wall is a 10-foot diagram of former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success.

At McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma, Wash., 25 men and women in uniform spend three days in a seminar called the John R. Wooden Course, discussing how his wisdom could help in their work protecting the air security of the Western United States.

And in Irvine, a ballroom full of businessmen and women pay $225 each to hear Wooden talk about managing people and balancing family and work in a time-stressed society.


Wooden turns 94 today, and this season will mark 30 years since he retired as UCLA coach with a record 10th NCAA championship in 1975. Yet Wooden’s adages and his Pyramid of Success -- a diagram of core values that once struck former Bruin player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as “corny” -- have surfaced in more books, seminars and workplaces than ever in the last few years as admirers seek to cement a legacy that might be as much about wisdom as winning.

After a period in American business embodied by the Michael Douglas “Greed is good” speech in the 1987 movie “Wall Street,” and the Enron bankruptcy and accounting scandals of recent years, Wooden’s philosophies are in vogue -- even among some too young to know who he is.

“It’s classic wisdom. It’s just come into its own,” said Stephen R. Covey, the bestselling author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” whose book “The 8th Habit” will be released in November with a blurb from Wooden inside. “All these scandals in business I think have highlighted the need for going back to the fundamentals. That’s what he represents.”

Wooden worked on the pyramid for 14 years and discussed it with his UCLA teams before each season. It includes 15 large blocks arranged in rows, starting with five along the bottom, each illustrating the qualities that Wooden believes help people reach their potential -- his definition of success.

With such building blocks as industriousness, team spirit and self-control, it reflects a values system based on cooperation and personal responsibility, an old-fashioned worldview that apparently still resonates in the 21st century.

Since 2002, almost 4,000 workers at such companies as Nissan, Southern California Edison and Pacific Dental Services have participated in the John R. Wooden Course, a seminar created by Orange County consultant Lynn Guerin, a veteran of the performance-improvement industry, in partnership with Wooden and his family.


The trickle of books about Wooden that began in 1966 with his own “Practical Modern Basketball” has accelerated, with at least half a dozen new books in the last five years and several more on the way.

Diagrams of plays have given way to other kinds of coaching, with such titles as “My Personal Best: Life Lessons From an All-American Journey,” a recent Los Angeles Times bestseller, “Be Quick -- but Don’t Hurry! Finding Success in the Teachings of a Lifetime,” and “Beyond Success: The 15 Secrets to Effective Leadership and Life Based on Legendary Coach John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success.” There is even a children’s book, “Inch and Miles: The Journey to Success.”

Wooden, who cooperated with most of the books, finds it surprising that there is such sustained interest.

“It’s amazing people still remember,” he said.

But John Micklethwait, co-author of “The Witch Doctors,” a 1996 book that takes a skeptical look at management gurus, said there is a “very long tradition” of business advice inspired by two particular types of outsiders: military and sports figures.

Some of Wooden’s ideas might seem like traditional moral wisdom, but Micklethwait, U.S. editor of the Economist, said many successful management theories rely on obvious concepts, “things like, ‘Great teams make you better,’ or ‘Knowing your customer is good,’ or ‘Make more money by bringing in more than you spend,’ ” Micklethwait said. “There is an element of good business practice that is quite close to common sense.”

Such Woodenisms as “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” “Character is what you really are; reputation is merely what you are perceived to be,” and “The man who is afraid to risk failure seldom has to face success,” might easily be found in bestselling business books.


Andrew Hill, a benchwarmer on three of Wooden’s NCAA championship teams in the early 1970s, at the time found Wooden’s ways “provincial and anachronistic” on a campus roiled by antiwar sentiment.

In 2001, after five years as president of CBS Productions, during which he was credited with developing such series as “Touched by an Angel” and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” Hill published “Be Quick -- but Don’t Hurry!” which attributes much of his success to Wooden.

“I was copying him and didn’t know it,” Hill said. “Having spent all that time in the television business, we’re terrified of people who get old. Coach has busted through the old-age barrier. He’s beyond old. He’s like a miracle.”

Ideas that once seemed out of date to Hill now have a strong appeal.

“In the post-World War II era, we were a manufacturing culture. The 21st century is centered on ideas and creativity,” Hill said. “You manage a manufacturing process very differently than collaboration and creativity -- and nothing is a more creative collaboration than well-played team basketball.”

Wooden, somewhat frail but still sharp-witted, makes surprisingly frequent speaking appearances, occasionally for little or no fee, depending on the cause.

Sometimes, he earns $25,000 for a single speech -- or nearly as much as his final annual salary of $32,500 at UCLA.


“Some of my players have said, ‘You know, I could make you a wealthy man,’ ” Wooden said. “I say, ‘Thank you.’ But I do so many things for nothing. I don’t bicker about how much anyone pays me.”

His family and close friends worry that people might profit unfairly on Wooden’s name.

“Coach has not always had the best luck getting into business with people as honorable as he is,” Hill said.

There were basketball camps for which he wasn’t fairly compensated, as well as books that traded on his ideas, though he earned a portion of the advance for most.

For all the varied titles in print, the most lucrative for Wooden was the first, which he wrote alone. “ ‘Practical Modern Basketball’ over the years has brought in maybe $8,000-$10,000 a year,” he said. “That’s been a long time.”

As for his schedule, Wooden’s daughter, Nan Wooden Muehlhausen, “is after me all the time to say no,” Wooden said, though he continues to accept invitations. “There’s a joy you get from doing something with no thought of anything in return.”

That is not to say that Wooden doesn’t understand the value of a dollar. He makes a handsome sum by making 30 appearances a year for American Funds, a mutual-fund company.


“I think he’s doing very well and making more money than ever before,” Hill said, adding that Wooden, who has lived in the same Encino condominium for 30 years, does not rely on the money to meet his own needs.

Instead, he is focused on his family, particularly the great-grandchildren he says are “very dear to me.” Many of the profits generated by John Wooden Enterprises -- “I did have it incorporated. I’m the president, secretary, all that,” he said -- go into a college fund.

“I’ve set up the Nell and John Wooden Educational Fund for our great-grandchildren. There will soon be 13,” said Wooden, who has never copyrighted the Pyramid of Success and distributes about 1,500 copies a year on UCLA blue-and-gold paper at his own expense.

Surprisingly, Wooden’s popularity no longer depends on his celebrity or such honors as being named ESPN’s “Coach of the Century” or receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony last year.

Many seminars are conducted without Wooden’s presence, and many people respond to his philosophies even though they know little about the accomplishments of a man who retired almost three decades ago.

“I was familiar with the name. I knew he was this basketball guy,” said Hal Turner, the corporate trainer for American Agencies, the collection agency that uses Wooden’s concepts.


“At first I thought, ‘This is a rather interesting approach to collections,’ ” Turner said. “Then as I learned more about it, I thought, ‘This is a cool guy.’ ”

American Agencies -- with offices in Torrance, Anaheim, San Diego and San Francisco -- has a family link to Wooden. Craig Impelman, its vice president, began his career as a basketball coach and is married to one of Wooden’s granddaughters. He began implementing Wooden’s ideas about 1995 after learning that Microsoft’s Bill Gates had shown interest.

Now, even the performance reviews at American Agencies are tied to Wooden’s pyramid, with the roughly 300 employees rated on how well they adhere to such goals as industriousness, enthusiasm, cooperation and self-control.

The nature of the business makes that last block particularly important.

“People are irate at times,” said Barbara Ortega, 30, a collections and customer-service worker. “But just because they’re irate or having trouble doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be courteous, and that’s one part of self-control.”

Jennifer Rueda, 27, a recruiter and client representative for the collection agency, was born years after Wooden won his last championship at UCLA.

“I had never heard of him at all,” she said. “Prior to learning all this, I was just somebody here for the paycheck, doing what I needed to get by. Now I use it inside and outside of work, and I think Coach John Wooden has a lot to do with the person I am today.”


If a collection agency seems an unlikely setting for Wooden’s words, a military base might seem even more so.

Yet key personnel from the Western Air Defense Sector -- a unit of the Washington Air National Guard that is part of the North American Aerospace Defense Command -- spent three days studying Wooden’s ideas without ever meeting him.

“In the military, people study Sun Tzu, Clausewitz and a French general, Jomini,” said Lt. Col. Eric Vogt. “Leadership is leadership. I think what Coach Wooden says is extremely credible and very directly applicable.”

Col. John L. Cromwell, commander of the Western Air Defense Sector, said the Wooden seminar was the first time since Sept. 11 that people in his command had taken time out for such non-urgent training. But Wooden’s emphasis on family hit home.

“The balance between personal and professional is important with us in this ongoing global war on terror,” he said. “We have to be sure we balance the military person and the family.”

Cromwell took home something Wooden couldn’t have imagined when he completed his pyramid in 1948 -- a Pyramid of Success mouse pad.


“My 10-year-old son was working on the computer and telling me how he would move around the blocks,” he said. “I’m going to take blank pyramids and let my children build their own pyramid for their lives.”

Guerin, president of Tustin-based Guerin Marketing Services, spent almost two years persuading Wooden to launch the Wooden Course, a venture that will continue to benefit Wooden’s family after his death.

“Lynn asked my permission. Most people don’t,” Wooden said. “He knows at heart I’m a teacher. He convinced me I could contribute something along those lines, and I went along.”

Fees for the elaborate course range from $195 a person for a half-day seminar to $795 each for three days, with Guerin typically teaching with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation, video and a course manual filled with Wooden’s maxims.

If Wooden takes part in the course, it costs an additional $10,000 to $25,000 in speaking fees, plus the cost of a private plane if necessary to ease a long trip.

“It’s a long-term business, for after we’ve lost Coach. The idea is that generations of people need to know who John Wooden is and what he taught,” Guerin said.


Many of Wooden’s lessons are linked to his father, born in 1882. Joshua “Hugh” Wooden had two sets of three rules.The first three should be easy, but some in corporate America could learn from them: “Never Lie, Never Cheat, Never Steal.”

The second set has the power to transform almost every workplace in the country, not to mention every living room: “Don’t Whine, Don’t Complain, Don’t Make Excuses.”

Perhaps in 50 years, someone will still take those to heart.

“If it helps somebody, I hope I’ll be looking down and thinking it’s good,” Wooden said.