This right-hand man could use a pat on back
Nearly 40 years have passed since Jerry Norman walked away from the greatest dynasty to rule college basketball.
Nearly 40 years in which Norman, chief lieutenant to John Wooden through nine seasons, including the first four of the great coach’s 10 NCAA championships, has amassed a small fortune in asset management, built himself a hilltop home in Brentwood and spent more than a few idle moments, it seems, wondering why his contributions to UCLA’s unparalleled success in basketball have not been more prominently noted, especially by the man who was his boss.
Yes, Jerry Norman seems to have a beef with John Wooden.
Though the former assistant, 77, insists that “I love John Wooden” and is not bitter, as others privately suggest, his words carry an edge.
“I look at maybe some of the things that happened -- what we did there -- maybe a little differently than Coach Wooden does,” says Norman, who played for Wooden as a starting forward in the early 1950s and was his assistant from the fall of 1959 through the 1967-68 season, when the Bruins won their fourth title in five seasons.
“Some head coaches, they recognize people that have helped them -- and some don’t. It’s their prerogative, and they can decide which way they want to go.”
Asked which camp he believes Wooden falls into, Norman pauses for a moment before saying, “I don’t know. You’d have to look at the facts, I guess.”
The facts as Norman sees them are these: UCLA didn’t win big until after Norman arrived to shore up Wooden’s one major flaw -- the coach hated recruiting -- and helped lure a bevy of star players; Norman convinced Wooden to utilize the full-court zone press that was instrumental in the undersized Bruins’ first two title runs; and Norman suggested the defensive strategy that neutralized Elvin Hayes in UCLA’s tables-turning rout of Houston in the 1968 NCAA semifinals.
“We started pretty much from scratch and built a great program,” says Norman, noting that before 1962, when UCLA reached the Final Four for the first time, the Bruins had qualified for the NCAA tournament only three times in 13 seasons under Wooden and lost their opening game each time -- a showing Norman calls “pretty much commensurate with the skill level of our players at that time.”
With Norman beating the bushes -- not to mention Pauley Pavilion opening in 1965 and deep-pocketed booster Sam Gilbert arriving on the scene a few years later -- UCLA in the 1960s attracted Gail Goodrich, Walt Hazzard, Keith Erickson, Lucius Allen, Lynn Shackelford, Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, Steve Patterson, Henry Bibby, etc.
“I think Jerry recognizes that Wooden was a great coach and he doesn’t want to say anything to minimize Wooden’s standing,” says Anthony Medley, a former Daily Bruin sports editor and the author of a 1972 book, “UCLA Basketball: The Real Story.”
“But those of us who know what happened, who know both of them, know that without Jerry Norman there wouldn’t have been a John Wooden.”
Medley calls Norman “essential to what happened at UCLA.”
Norman doesn’t disagree.
“You have to have talented players to succeed,” he says. “You can’t do it without the players. You have to have talent that is equal to or better than the team you’re playing against in order to succeed on a game-in, game-out basis ... and prior to my being there, there wasn’t anybody doing a lot of recruiting.
“I think that’s one reason the program kind of floundered.”
In his autobiography, “They Call Me Coach,” Wooden describes Norman as a “profane” and “obstinate” player, noting that he briefly dismissed Norman from the team for insubordination during his second season at UCLA. But the coach also acknowledges Norman’s “great innate basketball sense.”
Wooden later recommended Norman to his brother, Maurice, who was the principal at West Covina High and looking for a basketball coach.
After a Navy hitch, Norman coached one season at West Covina before moving to UCLA.
If he felt underappreciated in Westwood, that’s news to Wooden.
“He was an integral part of our championship teams,” Wooden says. “I’ve always said that. But if he felt I didn’t do it enough, that’s surprising.”
Wooden, 96, says he was “reluctant” at first to utilize a full-court press extensively, “but Jerry insisted.” He says Norman’s suggestion that the Bruins use a box-and-one defense against Hayes in the NCAA tournament -- after the Houston star led the Cougars to an upset victory over the Bruins in the Astrodome earlier that season -- led to the diamond-and-one that stifled Hayes in the rematch.
He also says he has frequently acknowledged these significant contributions from Norman, just as he long acknowledged his distaste for recruiting.
He says he was surprised when Norman left coaching.
“I think he’d have made a fine head coach,” Wooden says.
But Norman says that as a native Southern Californian he didn’t want to leave the state, nor did he find coaching to be “conducive to family life.” He and his wife June, married 56 years, have three grown children and three grandchildren.
He walked away without regret.
As time passes, though, memories of his contributions fade.
That, apparently, he regrets.