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We Will Always Call Him Coach

By Wendy Soderburg '82

Published Oct 1, 2010 8:59 AM

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Section 103B, Row 2, Seat 1 will never be filled. It's the seat in Pauley Pavilion that Wooden occupied to watch basketball games after he left coaching — now officially retired in his honor for all UCLA sporting events.

Last spring, UCLA was busily planning to pull out all the stops in a birthday bash for Coach John Wooden, who would have turned 100 on Oct. 14. How could we appropriately thank this extraordinary teacher who served as head men's basketball coach from 1948-1975 and had brought us 10 national championships in 12 years, a feat that will never be equaled? How could we show the boundless love and respect we all shared for the man we simply called Coach (and he must have liked that, since the title of Wooden's first best-selling book was They Call Me Coach)? How do you appropriately honor the author of the deceptively simple Pyramid of Success, a blueprint for a well-lived life that inspired thousands, perhaps millions, of people around the world for decades — and still does?

Sadly, we never got the chance. Coach passed away on June 4, 2010.

Instead, the Bruin family honored Wooden with a memorial that took place on June 26 in Pauley Pavilion. It was a moving celebration of Coach's rich life that was at times joyous, at times sorrowful. Speakers on the program — including sportscasters Al Michaels, Dick Enberg and Vin Scully, UCLA head men's basketball Coach Ben Howland and former Bruin basketball players Kareem Abdul-Jabbar '69, Keith Erickson '65 and Jamaal Wilkes '74 — drew both laughter and tears as they relayed their favorite Coach maxims or stories.

When the nearly two-hour-long ceremony ended with a video chronicling Wooden's life, viewers were left with one final image of Coach, smiling and waving from the balcony of his little condominium in Encino. The lights were still low as the entire audience in Pauley rose to its feet, applauding.

One last standing ovation for the man we will always call Coach.

— Wendy Soderburg '82

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

Coaches on Coach

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Wooden and celebrated former Nebraska football Coach Tom Osborne were good friends for decades. Photo by Joanne Suechika '75.

More even than his won-loss record or his national championships, Coach Wooden's determination to understand how best to coach basketball set him apart. He was a "coach's coach" — a teacher who understood as much about how to coach basketball as he did about basketball itself.

Today his philosophies permeate the profession and, upon his death, dozens of peers — and a few old rivals — have publicly cited his influence. While a compendium of "Coaches on Coach" would fill volumes, we offer here a sampling of thoughts from coaches with a connection to John Wooden.

Steve Alford (New Mexico) and Bruce Weber (Illinois) share Indiana roots with Wooden: Alford's father coached hoops at Coach's alma mater, Martinsville High School, while Weber coached at Purdue, where Wooden played and studied. Weber says he appreciates the loyalty Wooden showed his former players over the years. "We constantly use [Coach Wooden's] thoughts on preparation or patience, or [lessons] from the Pyramid of Success as our 'thought of the day,' " Weber says.

Alford cites Wooden's consistency and way with talent as an influence. "He took the best talent and coached it and kept everyone happy, and that's impressive," Alford says. "Coach Wooden, [former Indiana men's basketball Coach Bob] Knight, [former North Carolina men's basketball Coach Dean] Smith — the giants of our game — got it done over time. They proved their consistency with championship-type play over a long time, and that's really hard to do."

Duke Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski, himself a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, says his friendship with Wooden developed after the UCLA coach retired. He recalls how Coach Wooden attended his practices while visiting Durham. "He spoke to our team, and that was very special for all of us," Krzyzewski says. "I've tried to read everything he wrote or was written about him. He was as good as any coach ever at sharing his wisdom for basketball, for life and how the two were intertwined. He probably influenced the lives of more people outside the game of basketball than he did by being an amazing coach."

Coach's influence was felt not only on the hardwood, but also on the gridiron. Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne, a Hall of Fame football coach, became friends with Wooden in the '70s. "The thing that I learned from John Wooden that was most helpful was his emphasis on the process, rather than on the bottom line," Osborne recalls. "He always felt that how well you practiced, how well you mastered fundamentals, how well you committed yourself each day were the critical factors. Winning or losing would take care of itself."

— Paul Feinberg '85

Business and Basketball

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Wooden reluctantly posed with the fruits of his basketball labors. Photos by UCLA Photo.

Coach, teacher, legend. John Wooden was all of that and more, especially after he retired in 1975 and embarked on what amounted to a 35-year second career as a business sage.

Three years ago, UCLA's Anderson School of Management acknowledged this facet of a remarkable life when it established an annual award in honor of the man who truly exemplified leadership. The recipients of the John Wooden Global Leadership Award have all been industry leaders: Howard Schultz, chairman, CEO and president of Starbucks; Kenneth Chenault, chairman and CEO of American Express; and, this past April, Frederick W. Smith, chairman, president and CEO of FedEx.

"[Wooden's] lessons on leadership and success are clearly as much of a legacy as everything he achieved — all the greatness — on the hardwood," says Rick Wartzman, executive director of Claremont Graduate University's Drucker Institute.

Wooden, the author or co-author of 17 books, was well-known for his profoundly simple and overwhelmingly transformative axioms:

"Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do."

"Never mistake activity for achievement."

"Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be."

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Wooden and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1990.

Away from the court, Wooden was best known for his Pyramid of Success, which contains 15 building blocks for winning in basketball and in life. On the foundation are qualities like industriousness, loyalty and enthusiasm; in the middle level are condition, skill and team spirit; and at the top is competitive greatness.

"If you look carefully at his Pyramid of Success, it is a set of values," says David Lewin M.B.A. '67, Ph.D. '71, the Neil H. Jacoby Chair in Management at the Anderson School, who was pivotal in adding the Pyramid of Success to the readings in the Executive M.B.A. curriculum. "His view is that individuals can adhere to and sustain those values under any and all circumstances. And he is further saying that it is particularly important for the leaders of an organization to have those values, articulate them and motivate others to do so."

Andy Hill '74, M.A. '76 knows this as well as anyone. A member of three of Wooden's championship teams, Hill went on to become president of CBS Productions and now travels the country sharing Wooden's wisdom on leadership with Fortune 500 companies.

"Coach was the greatest coach ever. And his lessons were so applicable in business — and anything, really. My son is a professor at the University of Virginia; he teaches oboe using Coach's lessons. The universality of his principles are really remarkable," says Hill, who co-authored Be QuickBut Don't Hurry! with Wooden.

"Clearly, the championships presented a platform for him, but it's quite unique that a prominent public figure retires from his professional career and starts a second career in which he is more successful than he was in the first," Hill says. "That was the case with Coach."

— Brad A. Greenberg '04

First Team

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First Teamers, left to right: Don Johnson, George Stanich, Jerry Norman, Art Alper and Eddie Sheldrake. Photo by Betsy Winchell.

It's a sunny day in Torrance, Calif., where a group of friends is meeting for lunch at Polly's Pies. Unbeknownst to the other diners in the restaurant, however, several of the men in this group have the distinction of having played basketball for one of the greatest coaches of all time: John Wooden. What's even more impressive is that these silver-haired gentlemen — all in their early 80s — were members of Coach's very first UCLA teams from 1948-1951.

Original team members Eddie Sheldrake '51 and Jerry Norman '52 organize these gatherings, self-deprecatingly called the "Legends in Own Mind Luncheon," every three to four months. And it's a home game: Sheldrake co-owns Polly's Pies with his brothers.

Other "first teamers" present today include George Stanich '50, Art Alper '51 and Don Johnson '52. Ron Livingston '54, who played basketball for Wooden a few years after the others did, is there. But Ralph Joeckel '50 lives in Las Vegas and can't make it this time.

Stanich, Alper and Sheldrake played together on Wooden's first team in 1948-'49, admitting that, at the time, they knew nothing about the 37-year-old coach from Indiana. Stanich — who predated Wooden at UCLA by a year — was a three-sport athlete who had won a bronze medal in the high jump at the 1948 London Olympic Games. He'd spent the entire summer in Europe and had arrived back on campus just before basketball season was to begin.

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Ron Livingston, left, and Sheldrake. Photo by Betsy Winchell.

As he recalls, Wooden had already run a few practices and was not pleased with what he saw. "I heard that and told him, 'But Coach, you haven't seen me yet!' I was just teasing him, of course," Stanich says, laughing.

Practices were difficult but games were a pleasure, according to Alper, now a senior vice president at Wells Fargo Insurance Services USA, Inc. "Coach Wooden changed everything," he says. "In those days, they had much slower, stockier types of physical players. We outran and out-conditioned everybody that we played. We could pretty well run everybody off the court, because that was Indiana-style basketball, which he brought out here."

It was a different ballgame in other ways back then, too. Sheldrake remembers one road trip when the Bruins were playing Stanford. "[Athletic trainer] Ducky Drake '27 always did bed check, and we had a few guys who had been in the service, and some of them had fought in the war," he recounts. "And so Coach would try to tell Ducky not to check certain rooms, because you don't want to have to kick [those] guys off the team. But Ducky went into one room one night, and the damned smoke is heavy, and there are four guys in there. He goes into the bathroom, and the tub's full of ice and beer cans. It was a little different in those days."

Jerry Norman joined the team in 1949; he had decided to follow Sheldrake, his best friend from high school, to UCLA. Norman became Wooden's assistant coach in 1958, assuming the role of recruiter and convincing Wooden to use a full-court zone press that helped the Bruins win their first two titles in 1964 and 1965. He stayed through the 1967-'68 season, when the Bruins won their fourth title in five seasons. Later, Norman enjoyed a prosperous career in asset management.

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In his late 30s, Indiana hoops legend John Wooden took over an underperforming UCLA team. Photo by UCLA Photo.

Don Johnson was a co-captain with Norman in 1951-'52 and, like his former teammate, coached college ball after graduation. He spent 27 years at Cypress College, where he became one of California's most successful community college men's basketball coaches.

"[Wooden] knew I was going into coaching, and he told me the story of this young basketball prodigy he had when he was coaching high school in Indiana, a kid with great potential," Johnson recalls. "He came from a very poor home situation, but was making great progress on the team."

Unfortunately, the player had been seen smoking in the community, forcing Coach to adhere to his "no-smoking" rule and kick him off the team. The young man spent the rest of his life mostly in and out of prison.

"And so [after that], Coach Wooden's guiding principle in terms of discipline was to take individual differences into account, and not paint himself into a corner. And that's what I tried to do at Cypress," Johnson says. "Sometimes you appear inconsistent that way, or that you're playing favorites. In a way, it's a little more difficult to coach under those conditions, but that's the way I attempted to do it. And it all worked out pretty well."

— Wendy Soderburg '82

Farewell to a Friend

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Coach and Miss Val share a laugh during a 2006 UCLA Magazine photo shoot in Wooden's memento-filled condo in Encino. Photo by Gregg Segal.

They called him Coach. They call her Miss Val. He won 10 NCAA basketball championships. Valorie Kondos Field's women's gymnastics teams have won six NCAA titles. They inspired each other. They taught each other. They were friends. And they continue to show us all what it means to be a Bruin.

The first time I met Coach Wooden was at our home. My husband, [Associate Athletic Director] Bobby Field, recalls the incident in more detail. From what he remembers, I "nagged" him for days to invite Coach Wooden to dinner. Bobby didn't want to, because he felt Coach must be hounded with constant invitations. I insisted, "He can always say, 'No, thank you.' " Coach indeed appreciated and accepted the offer.

When he came to our home, Bobby introduced me to Coach, who said, "Oh, I certainly know who your wife is." Of course, I was deeply flattered. Shortly after that night, I asked Coach if I could bring the gymnastics team over to his home. That started a relationship between Coach and UCLA gymnastics that grew with every year.

I'm often asked, "What is the one key thing you learned from your relationship with Coach Wooden?" To quote Coach: "Goodness gracious, sakes alive! Where do I begin?" If I had to encapsulate all that I have absorbed from my friendship with Coach, it would be to understand that we are constantly learning from others, the good and the bad. One of the gravest mistakes we can make is to try to be someone else, or to be better than someone else.

When I was in the hospital visiting Coach during his last days, we had a moment alone. He was in terrible pain because his legs were on top of each other. He asked me to move his leg. Mind you, his voice was very weak and not easy to understand. I moved his leg an inch or so, and he grimaced and cried out from the pain. He asked me to move it more, which I did ... and again he grimaced and cried out. I said, "Coach, I'm hurting you." At which point he very clearly said, "I asked you to move my leg; I never said it wouldn't hurt." His mind and sense of humor were strong until the end!

On Coach's last day, his family was in the hospital room and a handful of us were in the waiting room. At 6:45 p.m., they came and told us that Coach had passed. The students had planned a rally for 8 p.m. We were very concerned that it would disturb the other patients in the hospital, but at 8 p.m. the family all went down, and Bobby and I were there, standing off to the side. I can honestly say that one of my proudest moments of being a UCLA Bruin was witnessing our students standing across the street, so respectful, so reverent. They did the roll call that they do at basketball games — "Co-oach Woo-den, clap, clap, clap-clap-clap" — and then they did an eight-clap. They held up candles in a moment of silence. And then they all simply and quietly dispersed.

It was so poignant, we were all sobbing — for Coach, whom we unequivocally honor, respect and love; and for our students, who will carry on Coach's legacy and all that it means to be a UCLA Bruin.

— Valorie Kondos Field '87
UCLA Head Women's Gymnastics Coach

Wooden's Wee Fans

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Once upon a time, there was a kindly teacher named Mr. Wooden. A wise old owl, he sent two of his students, Inch the Inchworm and Miles the Mouse, on a quest for the true meaning of success. Along the way, Inch and Miles meet the hardworking Axelrod the Ant, the cooperative Betty the Bee and the determined Fred the Frog, among others, and learn "how to try 100 percent to be their personal best."

So goes the tale of Inch and Miles: The Journey to Success, John Wooden's first foray into children's books. If the themes in this illustrated story ring a bell, that was the intention.

"Here's [Coach's] Pyramid of Success for the first time in a form that 4th-graders could absorb, like and perhaps use in life as they get older," explains co-author Steve Jamison.

"Coach absolutely loves this book," Jamison says, admittedly still referring to his frequent collaborator in the present tense. "First of all, he wasn't in it; it wasn't about him." Second, the very fact that it was for kids delighted him. "Children come to you … ready to learn, and he loved that."

The book's journey started a decade ago, when Wooden's granddaughter Cathleen Trapani, an elementary school teacher (and mother of Bruins hoopster Tyler Trapani), suggested making his Pyramid of Success relatable to kids. Meanwhile, Jamison was getting a similar nudge from friend Peanut Louie Harper, a former professional tennis player and mother of two.

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Coach and his beloved wife, Nellie, with Frank Sinatra, left, and Tom Bradley, right, in 1973. Photo by UCLA Photo.

"For selfish reasons, I wanted this book — as a parent," says co-author Harper, who created the Inch and Miles Sportsmanship Tennis Festival based on the kid-friendly version of the pyramid. "Coach Wooden's philosophy ... feels like things my parents raised us on, the same values."

Since the picture book's publication in 2003, there have been three Inch and Miles chapter books, each focused on one block of the pyramid. But only the original boasts a "hidden" gem.

"As a little surprise for [Coach]," says Jamison, "I had the illustrator [Susan Cornelison] do kind of a special nod to Nellie [Coach's wife]." On the tree with Charlie the Chimp is a carved heart that reads, "Nellie + J.W."

"Coach didn't see it first time through when he saw the final book," Jamison says. "But when he did see it, he just loved it. ... And he just loved pointing it out."

— Sandy Siegel '72

The Last Shot

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Photo by Hugh Hamilton.

Read about the many sides of Coach Wooden.

We Will Always Call Him Coach

Winning is Something, Too

Coaches on Coach

Business and Basketball

First Team

Farewell to a Friend

Wooden's Wee Fans

The Last Shot