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UCLA

We Will Always Call Him Coach

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By Wendy Soderburg '82

Published Oct 1, 2010 8:59 AM


Winning is Something, Too

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Long before he was a kindly grandfather figure, Coach was a fiery competitor who did not flinch from berating a blown call or distracting opponents. Photo by UCLA Photo.

Most people knew John Wooden as a kindly grandfather generous with his time and his beliefs, which he offered up in the form of homespun homilies: "Winning takes talent; to repeat takes character," or "You can't live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you."

On the other hand, he couldn't have won 10 national championships in 12 years just by being a nice guy. And the people who saw the competitive side of Coach up close — his players and assistant coaches — knew that better than anyone else.

Gary Cunningham '62, M.S. '65, Ed.D. '70, a three-year starting forward for Wooden from 1960–1962 and a UCLA assistant coach from 1966–1975, had 13 years in which to observe Wooden in action before taking over the Bruin head coaching job himself from 1977–'79.

"Coach was an extremely competitive person," Cunningham says. "He was a gentleman off the court, but when he was in his arena, he demanded — and I mean demanded — perfection out of his players in practice. He believed that what you did in practice would pay dividends on the weekend."

Yet Wooden famously never mentioned winning to his players. "Every single locker room speech was, 'If you do your best, that's all I can ask of you. And only you will know if you did your best,' " Cunningham says. "But he was intense during the games. When we would lose, he might not sleep all night because of this competitiveness. He wanted to win. And even though he did everything by the rules and there was never any profanity, he was a fiery guy."

Denny Crum '59 played two seasons for Wooden and also served as a UCLA assistant coach before heading off to become the head coach at the University of Louisville in 1971. He recalls that Coach "would talk to the referees when they came by the bench, but he wouldn't yell at them. He also would say something to opposing players to get their minds on something other than the game."

There was nobody more competitive than Wooden, says John Vallely '70, who was the starting guard on Coach's 1969 and 1970 championship teams. Yet even when the victories came easily — when the Bruins were blowing their opponents out by 30 or 40 points — Coach wouldn't press their advantage.

"I don't think the score was nearly as important as the performance of his teams," Vallely says. "Running up the score was never an interest of his. There was no discussion about rubbing somebody's face into a specific situation.

"But never was there any sympathy about anything, either."

— Wendy Soderburg '82

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