A newly erected statue of the late John Wooden stands watch outside the newly renovated Pauley Pavilion, which his two college basketball teams will christen Friday night in a season opener.
Wooden coached at Indiana State when it was known as Indiana State Teachers College, from 1946-48, the only college coaching job he had other than at UCLA.
Wooden was 35 when he took the job in Terre Haute, but even then his players knew a strict fundamentalist who held a concrete set of philosophies and showed early signs of greatness.
“I was certainly aware that he was something special in the beginning,” said Jim Powers, 87, who played forward for Wooden at South Bend Central High and followed him to Indiana State.
Wooden’s players recall his being very detailed, teaching them, for example, that the best way to avoid blisters on their feet was to pull their socks up tight, perhaps wearing two pair, with a salve in between to ease friction.
“He was very strict,” said Lenny Rzeszewski, 89, a guard. “You had to toe the line or otherwise.”
But Wooden, who led Teachers College to a 44-15 record during his tenure, also faced challenges outside of basketball. There were forms of discrimination toward one of his players, Clarence Walker.
When the team filed into a West Virginia diner one night on the way to New York, the owner refused to serve the team because Walker was black. So, Wooden escorted the team out.
Nan Wooden, the coach’s daughter, said that if the team was invited to a tournament where black players weren’t allowed, it simply passed on the opportunity. “Daddy took a stand,” she said.
Wooden was busy, acting as athletic director while coaching the basketball and baseball teams, and also teaching coaching courses and pursuing a master’s degree in education. But he was often seen with a three-inch-by-five-inch card poking out of his back pocket that detailed how practices would be carried out down to the minute.
“Tremendously organized,” Powers said.
A three-time All-American as a player at Purdue, Wooden scrimmaged with his team. “And he’d whip us all, every time,” said Duane Klueh, 86, a guard under Wooden who played in the NBA and later became Indiana State’s head coach. “He was good. Tough. Tough. Very tough.”
Wooden’s .746 winning percentage at Indiana State, whose most famous player is Larry Bird, stands as a school record. He’s a member of the school’s Hall of Fame and the floor at the Hulman Center, ISU’s home arena, is named “Nellie & John Wooden Court.”
UCLA and Indiana State have played only once before, in December 1964, when Wooden brought one of his 10 national championship teams to Terre Haute. UCLA won, 112-76, defeating a team coached by Klueh, who says he knew Wooden was destined for excellence from the start so many years ago at Indiana State Teachers College.
“And,” Klueh said, “it certainly turned out that way.”