John Wooden dies at 99; UCLA basketball coach won 10 national titles
John Wooden, the UCLA basketball coach who became an icon of American sports while guiding the Bruins to an unprecedented 10 national championships in the 1960s and ‘70s and remained in the spotlight during retirement with his “Pyramid of Success” motivational program, has died. He was 99.
Wooden died June 4 of natural causes at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, the university announced. He had been hospitalized since May 26 for dehydration.
Though the stern, dignified Midwesterner’s fame extended beyond the sports world, it was Wooden’s achievements during 27 seasons at UCLA that put him in the company of such legendary coaches as the Green Bay Packers’ Vince Lombardi and Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne.
His string of championships began with back-to-back victories in 1964 and ’65. Starting in 1967, his team ran off seven consecutive NCAA titles -- going 38 tournament games without a loss -- a feat unmatched before or since in men’s college basketball.
The Bruins won with dominant players such as Walt Hazzard, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. They also won with teams -- such as Wooden’s last squad in 1974-75 -- that had no marquee stars.
That team defeated Kentucky, 92-85, in the national championship game to give Wooden his 10th and final title. (Mike Krzyzewski of Duke won his fourth national title this spring, matching the total won by the late Adolph Rupp of Kentucky.)
In 40 years of coaching high school and college, Wooden had only one losing season -- his first. He finished with 885 wins and 203 losses, and his UCLA teams still hold an NCAA record for winning 88 consecutive games from 1971 through 1974.
The Bruins attained greatness during a golden age in Los Angeles sports. The Dodgers had Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale on the mound at newly built Dodger Stadium. The Lakers, with Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, battled annually for the National Basketball Assn. championship. The USC football team, coached by John McKay, won several national titles.
But for all the success that local teams enjoyed, none could match UCLA for the sheer number of championships.
Wooden built his dynasty on simple precepts. He insisted that his squad be meticulously prepared and in top physical condition. No detail was overlooked. The first practice of each season, the coach would remind his players about pulling on socks smoothly and carefully lacing sneakers -- there would be no excuse for debilitating blisters.
His workouts were so grueling that former players said they often were relieved to play in games.
In the 2005 book “Wooden on Leadership,” guard Gail Goodrich recalled, “He believed that winning is a result of process, and he was a master of the process, of getting us to focus on what we were doing rather than the final score. One drill he had was to run a play over and over at full speed, but he wouldn’t let us shoot the ball. He made us concentrate on what happened before the shot was taken, what happened to make it possible. He made us focus on execution. He built teams that knew how to execute.”
Walton, in his book “Nothing but Net,” wrote: “John Wooden was so intense during those practices. He never stopped moving, never stopped chattering away. Up and down the court he would pace, always barking out his pet little phrases.”
Those phrases reflected another facet of Wooden’s coaching style: He demanded crisp fundamentals and teamwork predicated on passing and cutting to the basket. He wanted his players to be smart, both on the court and in their lives away from the game.
Among Wooden’s pithy maxims:
“Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”
“Flexibility is the key to stability.”
“Be quick, but don’t hurry.”
This approach produced immediate results. Upon arriving in Westwood in 1948, Wooden inherited an underachieving team picked to finish last in the conference. Instead, the Bruins wound up with a 22-7 record. The next season, they won the conference championship.
Yet UCLA did not win a national title until Wooden’s 16th season. To accomplish this, he had to do something that many coaches can’t manage: He had to change. At the urging of assistant Jerry Norman, a former player added to the coaching staff in 1957, Wooden focused on defense and instituted a zone press that he had used infrequently since he was a high school coach. Norman also was energetic about recruiting, something for which Wooden had little appetite.
By the mid-1960s, the Bruins were so confident in their system that Wooden rarely bothered to scout opponents. He figured it was their job to stop the Bruins.
In the 1973 book “The Wizard of Westwood,” longtime college coach Jerry Tarkanian told Dwight Chapin and Jeff Prugh, the authors of the book who both covered UCLA basketball for The Times, that Wooden “does a tremendous job of organizing and getting his teams ready to play. He makes very few adjustments during games. Other teams worry about what he’s going to do -- his press, his fast break. You’re extremely conscious of them. They’re hardly conscious of you at all.”
Wooden was respected for more than just victories. The UCLA coach was equally revered for how his teams played the game -- a style that reflected his personality.
John Robert Wooden was born Oct. 14, 1910, in Hall, Ind., the third of six children. His father, Joshua Hugh Wooden, an uneducated farmer, guided the family through tough economic times by stressing hard work, honesty and the value of education. All four of the Wooden boys would be, at one time or another, teachers.
In a 1998 interview with The Times, Wooden recalled: “My father would always tell me: ‘Don’t look back, don’t whine, don’t complain.’ ”
When Joshua Wooden lost his farm in the Depression, he moved the family to Martinsville, 30 miles south of Indianapolis, where he found work as a bath attendant at one of the small town’s artesian wells.
At Martinsville High School, Johnny Wooden -- as he was known in those days -- ran track, played baseball and became an all-state guard in basketball, leading his team to the state title in 1927. Most of the Big Ten Conference schools recruited him, Purdue winning out because of its academics and its renowned coach, Ward “Piggy” Lambert.
The Boilermakers played an aggressive, up-tempo style that suited Wooden, who became known as the “Indiana Rubber Man” for his tendency to bound around the court and dive for loose balls, then bounce back into the action. He was a three-time All-American and led the Boilermakers to their only national championship in 1932.
His senior year was noteworthy for two other reasons. Wooden won the conference Medal for Academic Achievement as an English major. Years later, he would place the honor among his favorites on a list that included induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Also in 1932, Wooden married his high school sweetheart, Nell Riley. He called her “the only girl I ever went with.”
After graduation, Wooden played semi-professional basketball, barnstorming through the Midwest. He once made 134 consecutive free throws, earning a $100 bill from the team’s owner, the first time he had ever seen currency so large.
But his principal occupation was as coach and English teacher at Dayton, Ky., High School, where he followed an initial 6-11 season with a more respectable 15-3 finish. After two years, he moved to South Bend, Ind., Central High and nurtured a string of winning teams.
During World War II, Wooden enlisted in the Navy to serve as a physical trainer for combat pilots. Upon his discharge in 1946, he took a job as athletic director and coach of the basketball and baseball teams at Indiana State Teachers College (now Indiana State University) in Terre Haute.
Again, his teams had winning seasons, but the young coach might best be remembered for a game his squad did not play. In his first season, Indiana State earned a spot in the National Assn. of Intercollegiate Basketball tournament but was told that its lone black player, a reserve guard, was not welcome. Wooden declined the invitation.
The next season, the Sycamores, with a 27-7 record, were invited again. After discussions between Wooden and tournament officials, Clarence Walker became the first African American to compete in the postseason tournament.
Those two seasons at Indiana State -- and a 44-15 record -- were enough to attract interest from larger schools. It was good luck and bad weather that ultimately brought Wooden to the West Coast.
Both the University of Minnesota and UCLA sought to hire him, and he was partial to remaining in the Midwest. But Minnesota wanted him to retain the previous coach as an assistant; Wooden was set on bringing his own man. As negotiations continued, Wooden set a deadline for Minnesota to decide. When the deadline passed without the expected phone call from Minnesota, he accepted the UCLA offer. Hours later, Minnesota called to say that a heavy snowstorm had knocked out phone service. Administrators pleaded with him to back out of his agreement with UCLA.
Wooden insisted on keeping his word, even after he arrived on the Westwood campus and discovered why the program he was taking on had had only three winning seasons in the previous 17 years.
In his 1976 memoir “They Call Me Coach,” Wooden said of his players: “When I went up on the floor for the first time in the spring of 1948 and put them through that first practice, I was very disappointed. I felt that my Indiana State team could have named the score against them. I was shattered. Had I known how to abort the agreement in an honorable manner, I would have done so and gone to Minnesota, or if that was impossible, stayed at Indiana State.”
Attention to detail
Wooden soldiered on, instituting an up-tempo game -- and fervent attention to detail -- that he had learned under Lambert at Purdue. The style was foreign to the West Coast, where most teams favored a more deliberate pace, and it helped the Bruins to the 22-7 record that ranked among Wooden’s most satisfying achievements.
But the talent level of his players was only one of the challenges the coach faced in Westwood. Wooden later said that he had been led to believe the university was about to erect a basketball arena on campus. In fact, Pauley Pavilion would not open for 17 more years.
Instead, the Bruins played in the men’s gymnasium, dubbed the “B.O. Barn,” a cramped and stifling facility that seated about 2,500 with pull-out bleachers. To make matters worse, basketball shared the gym with other sports, and Wooden would later recall trying to conduct drills while gymnasts bounced on trampolines. After practice, the coach and his student managers swept and mopped the floor, an almost inconceivable chore in this modern era of big-name, million-dollar coaches.
So it was no surprise when, before his third season, Wooden entertained an offer to coach his alma mater. Purdue was willing to pay significantly more “than the $6,000 I got to come to UCLA,” Wooden later said, and he agreed to the terms on one condition: UCLA would have to release him from the final year of his contract.
Wooden did not expect much resistance from UCLA administrators, but he was wrong.
“They pointed out that I was the one who had insisted on a three-year contract and felt that I should honor it,” he wrote in his memoir. “They made me feel like a heel for even considering leaving.”
UCLA offered to increase his salary, but he declined, saying he would honor the terms of the original contract. Money would never be the primary issue in his remaining in Westwood -- his highest salary would be $32,500 and, because of a technicality, the university did not even pay into a pension fund for him until his 13th year.
In time, Wooden also learned to live with the substandard facilities. In 1956, city fire officials declared the B.O. Barn unsafe for crowds of more than 1,000, which forced the Bruins to play elsewhere. Home games shifted from the Venice High School gym to Long Beach City College, from the Pan Pacific Auditorium in the Fairfax district to the downtown Sports Arena, which the Bruins shared with USC.
“I think the lack of a real home gym and positive thinking were the main reasons we didn’t win a championship in those early years,” former center Willie Naulls told Chapin and Prugh in “The Wizard of Westwood.”
Wooden took a more optimistic view, hoping that his teams were tougher for the hardship, better able to deal with the hostile arenas of such opponents as Oregon and Washington State. This was the competitive side of the man, somehow at odds with his otherwise dignified persona.
His players knew that he could be fierce in the way he hit them with an angry “Goodness gracious sakes alive” that carried more sting than a string of expletives. During his early years at UCLA, he also became known for mercilessly riding officials from the bench.
“He never swore, but there was not a coach in the United States who could use the English language any better than he could,” an official told Chapin and Prugh. “He was always technically and grammatically correct when he was chewing you out.”
Opposing players received similarly harsh treatment, Wooden shouting at them through his ubiquitous rolled-up program, telling them they were in for a rough night. It was a habit that he gradually toned down and would ultimately regret. In a Times article shortly after his retirement, he said: “The only thing I may be ashamed of more than anything else is having talked to opposing players. Not calling them names, but saying something like ‘Keep your hands off him’ or ‘Don’t be a butcher.’ ”
Still, no amount of zeal or relentless preparation could transform the Bruins into a national champion, at least not in that first decade. The team parlayed half a dozen conference and divisional titles into three trips to the NCAA tournament, losing in the first round each time.
The situation worsened in the late 1950s, UCLA seeming to lose ground each season. A 14-12 record in 1960 was Wooden’s second-worst ever.
It was at that point that he decided to give his program a thorough review. As he would later say: “Failure is not fatal. Failure to change might be.”
For much of his coaching career, Wooden had relied on his starting five, believing that he could get them in good enough shape to play most, if not all, of each game. Now, realizing that his teams were wearing down near the end of the season, he began rotating more reserves into the action.
Through 1961 and ’62, Wooden also began listening more to his prized assistant. Jerry Norman felt the small, quick UCLA teams could benefit from running the zone press, which meant pressuring opponents the entire length of the floor instead of falling back and defending the basket.
At the same time, Norman brought new passion to recruiting. Whereas Wooden had been content to pick from among local high school and junior college prospects, his assistant went after the best players nationwide.
One more thing occurred to nudge UCLA to the next level. In 1963, J.D. Morgan became athletic director and quickly assumed many of Wooden’s duties. With Morgan handling scholarship issues, scheduling and travel, the coach could focus on what he did best.
The pieces were starting to fall into place for a championship run.
The UCLA team of 1963-64 had no one taller than 6 feet 5 in the starting lineup, but compensated for lack of size with veteran leadership and great quickness. Experts who did not consider the team a serious contender soon changed their minds.
The so-called Bruin Blitz -- Norman’s zone press -- smothered opponents and allowed guards Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich to score in bunches. UCLA took over the No. 1 spot in the polls at midseason and stormed into the NCAA tournament undefeated. In the first half of the championship game against Duke, the Bruins went on a 16-0 run to pull away for a 98-83 victory.
The winning continued into the next season, although Hazzard was off to the NBA. The team lost only twice during the regular season with forward Keith Erickson picking up the slack and Goodrich continuing his stellar play. The senior guard had 42 points against a stronger, but slower, Michigan team in leading UCLA to a 91-80 victory in the NCAA title game.
Bruin star power
Those first two championships had been won with strategy and fundamentals, a high-post offense running like clockwork. After a mediocre season in 1965-66, Wooden and his Bruins would resume their historic streak with something else: star power.
The winter of 1966 brought Lewis Alcindor -- who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- to the starting lineup. Alcindor actually had enrolled the previous year, recruited from Power Memorial High School in New York City. But he had to wait a season because at that time NCAA rules did not allow freshmen to play on the varsity team.
Once the 7-foot-plus center became eligible, Wooden again showed a willingness to adapt, shifting to a low-post offense that accentuated the big man’s skills.
Alcindor dominated the game over the next three seasons, with the team playing in brand-new Pauley Pavilion. Not even a controversial rule change -- college basketball outlawed the dunk in a move thought to be aimed directly at Alcindor -- could faze him. In all, he led the Bruins to an 88-2 record and three straight titles.
Even with historic success, those years were not idyllic. Wooden, the ultimate conformist, was coaching at a time of great social upheaval.
Though UCLA players would always be conservative in appearance -- continually warned about the length of their sideburns -- they sometimes bristled at the coach’s mandates. Alcindor spoke openly of his unhappiness at Westwood and at one point nearly transferred. On the court, there was constant pressure to be perfect.
Wooden seemed almost relieved when Alcindor graduated, if only because expectations eased.
“It will be fun coaching to win again, rather than coaching to try to keep from losing,” he was quoted as saying in “The Wizard of Westwood.”
The Bruins returned to the high-post, high-energy offense their coach had always favored. Led by young guard Henry Bibby and forwards Curtis Rowe and Sidney Wicks, they pushed their championship streak to five in a row with titles in 1969-70 and 1970-71. The stage was set for another dominant player.
From the moment that center Bill Walton stepped on the court at the start of the 1971-72 season, the Bruins seemed untouchable. With the smooth-shooting Keith Wilkes at forward, the “Walton Gang” stormed through consecutive 30-0 seasons, winning their sixth and seventh straight titles.
It was during this era that the Bruins won 88 consecutive games, a streak that ended with a loss to Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., on Jan. 19, 1974.
On the court, Walton was a player after his coach’s heart. Wooden would later say that although Abdul-Jabbar was his most dominant star, Walton might have been the all-around best, a big man who could score, rebound and pass the ball with equal aplomb.
Yet, away from the game, the redhead could be too free-spirited and outspoken for Wooden’s tastes. In his senior year, teammates hinted at tension in the locker room, and UCLA’s championship run ended with a double-overtime loss to high-flying David Thompson and North Carolina State in a 1974 NCAA semifinal game.
One more year
The man known as the “Wizard of Westwood” -- a nickname he despised -- reportedly considered retirement that winter but decided to stay one more year.
His finale would not be like the hallowed seasons of the past. There would be no All-American guard in the backcourt and no dominant player along the frontline, with forward David Meyers the only returning starter from the Walton era. The team had to rely heavily on sophomores Marques Johnson and Richard Washington.
The Bruins suffered two upsets during the 1974-75 season -- including a humiliating 22-point loss at Washington -- and barely escaped close games on numerous other occasions. Yet, as Meyers said, the team did not have to deal with the “personality conflicts” that had marked the previous season. This squad reflected its coach’s intense and focused personality.
In the NCAA tournament, UCLA stayed alive with two overtime victories. After a last-second win over Louisville in the semifinal, a triumphant Wooden walked into the locker room and gave his team one more reason to play hard in the final: “I’m bowing out.”
On his final night as a coach, March 31, 1975, the Bruins played in a manner befitting the first of Wooden’s championship teams. They outran a stronger Kentucky squad and even out-hustled the Wildcats on the boards, winning 92-85.
“I’ve always said my first year in coaching was my most satisfying,” Wooden reflected during the tournament. “My last year has been equally satisfying. This is as fine a group of youngsters as I’ve ever had.”
Assessing the Wooden era, Joseph Valerio of the New York Post wrote: “There has never been a dynasty in sports to compete with UCLA’s. The Yankee dynasty was built around center field, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. The Celtics around Bill Russell. UCLA’s has been built around John Wooden. The faces have changed at least every three years, but 64-year-old John Wooden remains.”
Wooden slipped quietly into retirement, enjoying more time with wife Nell and their family. In 1977, the Los Angeles Athletic Club established the Wooden Award, recognizing the best college player of the year -- a basketball version of football’s Heisman Trophy.
Wooden ended his support for the award in 2005, however, after the club objected to the former coach lending his name and support to the Coach Wooden Citizenship Cup, an award sponsored by Athletes for a Better World that honors a college or professional athlete for community service.
Busy final years
His final years were kept busy by resurging interest in his life philosophy and “Pyramid of Success” -- the diagram that includes 15 blocks arranged in rows, each containing a quality that Wooden believed would help people reach their potential.
“From the everyday basics to life’s lessons on realizing our dreams, Coach was always leading and teaching: the underlying themes, his principles, his foundation, his core as a human being, his pyramid,” Walton wrote in a forward to the book “They Call Me Coach.”
Advocates of the teaching system Wooden developed, which was based on such traditional values as cooperation and responsibility, began using it as a motivational tool in the corporate world.
Nissan, Southern California Edison and the U.S. Air Force were among the companies and organizations that had employees attend a seminar called the John R. Wooden Course.
With each year that passed since his retirement, it seemed less likely that any coach would match his record of success. The NCAA tournament expanded significantly, meaning that teams had to win more games to reach the championship. Wooden’s legacy seemed complete.
But the early 1980s brought a dark cloud: troubling allegations about past associations with a prominent booster.
Sam Gilbert was a former UCLA student and wealthy contractor who opened his Los Angeles home to players beginning in the late 1960s and liked to think of himself as their surrogate father. In 1967, when Alcindor and guard Lucius Allen were dissatisfied with life in Westwood and thinking seriously of transferring, Gilbert counseled them and was instrumental in persuading Allen to stay.
In a 1981-82 Los Angeles Times investigative series, several UCLA players said that Gilbert had helped athletes in ways that violated NCAA rules. The improper benefits allegedly ranged from buying players’ game tickets at inflated prices to helping them buy cars and arrange for loans at steep discounts. On occasion, Gilbert also reportedly helped arrange abortions for their girlfriends.
Former Notre Dame Coach Digger Phelps called Gilbert the “Sugar Daddy” of the UCLA program. After the Times series ran, the NCAA placed the team on probation.
None of the violations were tied to Wooden, but the retired coach acknowledged harboring suspicions about Gilbert during the 1960s and ‘70s, and former players spoke of Wooden’s see-no-evil relationship with the booster.
Andy Hill, a former guard who later became a television producer and motivational speaker, told The Times that he believed that Wooden relied on longtime trainer Elvin “Ducky” Drake to be something of a watchdog for the team, and that Drake had apparently missed what was going on with Gilbert.
“Among the things Coach Wooden was good at,” Hill said, “was knowing what he didn’t want to know.”
Another former player, Greg Lee, told The Times in 1982: “On the one hand, he was glad about [Gilbert’s] presence. But whatever was happening was going to be out of sight, out of mind.”
In the same article, Wooden put it this way: “There’s as much crookedness as you want to find. There was something Abraham Lincoln said -- he’d rather trust and be disappointed than distrust and be miserable all the time.
“Maybe I trusted too much.”
Then in 1985, Wooden suffered the devastating loss of his wife Nell, who died after a long illness at age 73.
They had been married 53 years and had enjoyed a remarkably close relationship given the demands of big-time coaching. Nell Wooden attended UCLA games, even on the road, and in a pregame ritual Wooden would seek her out in the stands and exchange what became known as “the lucky look.” He would wave his rolled-up program at her and wink and she would give him the OK sign.
After her death, Wooden became what he described as “bordering on” a recluse for several years, staying in the Encino condominium they had shared, refusing to change anything about it. He stopped going to the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four, saying: “She was always with me. So the memories are too painful.” Each month, he wrote her a letter, adding it to a growing stack on her pillow.
Yet until this past season he remained a presence at Pauley Pavilion, sitting in the second row, watching over a program that would never be the same after he stepped down. Seven coaches have come and gone in the 35 years since his retirement. Only once, under Jim Harrick in 1995, have the Bruins won a national championship.
Around that time, Wooden told Prugh that “the players are better today, but the team play is not.”
Asked repeatedly to select his all-time squad, he invariably declined, but did pick a most valuable player. It was Abdul-Jabbar, whom he still called Lewis Alcindor.
“I believe he caused his opponents more difficulties both on offense and defense than any player in the history of the game,” he wrote in his memoir. “And I would choose Bill Walton as the second most valuable player I ever had. Bill probably could do more things than Kareem, although he was not the dominant force that Lewis was.”
Age did little to slow Wooden. Although he never fully recovered from Nell’s death, he resumed his annual trip to the NCAA Final Four when the Bruins made their title run in 1995. His calendar was once again filled with personal appearances.
UCLA wanted to honor him in 2003. Wooden agreed, on one condition. The floor of Pauley Pavilion was renamed the “Nell and John Wooden Court.”
He remained a keen observer of the college basketball scene, especially UCLA. In March 2007, as UCLA advanced in the NCAA basketball tournament only to lose to Florida in the championship game, Wooden told a Times writer that Coach Ben Howland’s team played better defense than his teams did.
One of Wooden’s last major appearances was in June 2008, when he and Dodger announcer Vin Scully sat for a 90-minute question-and-answer session with Times sports columnist T.J. Simers. A sold-out crowd at the Nokia Theatre in downtown Los Angeles sat spellbound by the conversation between two local legends, which was televised live.
That night Wooden shared his insight into his longevity: “Not being afraid of death and having peace within yourself. All of life is peaks and valley. Don’t let the peaks get too high and the valleys too low.”
Wooden is survived by his son, Jim; daughter Nan; seven grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren. One of his great-grandchildren, Tyler Trapani, is a non-scholarship player on the UCLA basketball team.
A public memorial is planned for 11 a.m. June 26 at Pauley Pavilion.
Former Times staff writer Robyn Norwood contributed to this report.