The beloved man everyone called Coach was not an indigenous species in this capital of flummery and celebrity.
Like many Californians, John Wooden was an immigrant from the plains of the Midwest. But he had arrived from Indiana at the age of 37 with principles such as honor and family learned to the level of instinct. Among the sports glitterati of Los Angeles, he stood out like a stalk of corn in a field of arugula.
Of course, he didn’t want to come here in the first place. When UCLA asked him to coach its basketball team back in 1948, Wooden and his wife, Nell, were hoping for a different invitation — from the University of Minnesota, closer to his physical and philosophical home.
But a snowstorm in Minnesota knocked out the phone lines, and that offer came 15 minutes too late. Wooden had already said yes to UCLA, and one thing Wooden never did was renege on a promise. (One of his many maxims: “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation. Character is what you really are; reputation is what you are perceived to be.”)
Wooden would spend the next six decades of his life in Southern California, clinging to his homespun roots. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wasn’t the only UCLA player who, at first blush, found the former English teacher’s value system a bit “corny” — nor was Abdul-Jabbar the only player who, as an adult, pledged to live by those same values.
Wooden came by it honestly. His father, who lost his farm in the Depression, taught him a set of life principles, which the coach carried on a piece of paper: “Be true to yourself. Make each day a masterpiece. Help others. Drink deeply from good books. Make friendship a fine art. Build a shelter against a rainy day.”
When he moved to Los Angeles, he brought those fundamentals, chestnuts of simpler times, and used them to build a basketball powerhouse and successive teams of impressive young men.
By the time Wooden retired, in 1975 at the top of his game, he had amassed a record 10 NCAA basketball championships. His annual compensation package — though no one called it that in those days — was about $40,000. (“I never compare myself to anybody else,” he said years later, when basketball coaches of his caliber were earning 20 and 30 times that. “My father taught me that. He would always say, ‘Don’t look back, don’t whine, don’t complain.’ So I don’t.”)
When he left the game at age 64 as a bona-fide Los Angeles legend, his name a synonym for excellence, what did he choose for a second act? Did he revel in his fame at watering holes on the Westside? Cash in on his aura as the “Wizard of Westwood” (a moniker he hated)? Use his name to run for high office?
Of course not. This was not a celebrity who wanted to dance with the stars.
Rather, at the urging of former players and family, he continued to coach the rest of us — not in that game with the 10-foot-tall baskets, but in life.
His touchstones were disarmingly simple. Some might call them common sense or, as one person put it, “classic wisdom.” They were things like industriousness, poise, faith, teamwork, honesty and patience. His “Pyramid of Success,” a teaching system based on fundamentals such as cooperation and personal responsibility, became a motivational tool that is still studied by soldiers and chief executives.
Wooden was no saint, as he was the first to admit. He regarded his principles as goals for living — goals that neither he nor his players could always meet. He could be a stern, humorless taskmaster. He was ambitious and fiercely competitive, a coach who rode the referees and drew the ire of opposing coaches for yelling at their players. (He later said that was something he “may be ashamed of more than anything else.”)
It was on Wooden’s watch too, that an oily team booster showered some UCLA players with gifts, later earning the basketball program two years of probation. Coach wasn’t sanctioned, but his see-no-evil approach seemed at odds with the man once described as a “walking Father’s Day card.”
In his personal life, though, Wooden tried to live his code. He was self-effacing, a dignified and gentle-spoken man of faith. His sharpest curse, employed in the heat of battle on the hardwood, should be familiar to any Midwesterner: “Goodness gracious sakes alive.”
Wooden lived modestly, the last three decades in a condo in Encino. It was there that he wrote letters to his wife, who died in 1985, and kept them on her pillow. As he once put it: “Big things are accomplished only through the perfection of minor details.”
He was talking about basketball, of course, but also about life.