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The Wizard &
The Miracle Worker

By Wendy Soderburg '82, Photos by Gregg Segal

Published Apr 1, 2006 12:00 PM




They call him Coach. They call her Miss Val.

He has been designated the greatest coach of all time, with a record 10 NCAA basketball championships in 12 years and an unparalleled win streak of 88 games. Her gymnastics teams have won five NCAA titles in the last nine years, and her 2006 squad, ranked No. 6 in the country, will be competing for a sixth title in April.

He is a huge gymnastics fan who attends every one of her team’s home meets, sitting in the second row of the floor level at Pauley Pavilion. She — well, let’s just say she was a tiny tot when he began his historic NCAA championship run in 1964, so attending basketball games was not on her schedule. But she is clearly one of his most enthusiastic disciples.

UCLA Magazine sat down recently with John Wooden, 95, and Valorie Kondos Field ’87, 46, in the den of Wooden’s comfortable Encino home to find out a little more about these two extraordinary UCLA coaches. Friends for many years now, the two share a genuine affection that became evident as the conversation turned to life, love, faith and, of course, coaching.

Q: Coach, do you really attend all the home gymnastics meets?

JW: I used to attend as many as I could before we had the women’s teams, when we had the men’s. I enjoyed those. I didn’t start [attending the women’s meets] until approximately four years ago, and they were amazing. It’s impossible to do the things they do, but they go ahead and do them anyway. The way they greet each other — whether they do well or whether something happens — there’s tremendous team spirit in what I call an individual sport.

Q: Val, when you became UCLA’s head gymnastics coach in 1990, you said that you really didn’t know much about coaching until you read Coach’s book, They Call Me Coach. What was it about the book that resonated with you?


Valorie Kondos Field (left) gives last-minute
advice to gymnasts Michelle Selesky (center)
and Jordan Schwikert

VKF: When I became head coach, I felt to be successful I had to emulate other successful head coaches in gymnastics. So that’s what I tried to do. And I failed miserably because the people I was emulating were about winning. And it didn’t resonate well with me.

I picked up Coach Wooden’s book, They Call Me Coach, and it didn’t sound like all this other coach talk I’d heard. It was filled with a lot of tough love, but honest love. Compassion and discipline. I grew up in the ballet world, and there was a lot of discipline in my life. I was raised by a very typical Greek family, where family was important, so there was a lot of discipline with respect. And I think that the discipline, combined with the love that came out of Coach’s words, hit home with me. And I said, “That’s how I feel.” It’s about teaching life’s lessons through the sport that we’re a part of.

So I totally changed how I was coaching our team, and that’s when we started becoming successful. And I think it was the next year I called Coach and asked him if we could bring our team out to meet him, and he said, “Absolutely, my dear.” And that’s when we became friends.

JW: You watch Val’s teams, and you see they care for each other and they care for her. And you have to do that. I told my players, “I don’t like you all the same. You won’t like me all the same. You won’t like each other all the same. But I love you all the same.” And if I’m a strong enough person, that will never enter into my determination about who’s going to play. I told them, “I’m going to treat you all the same and try to give you the treatment that you earn and deserve. You’ll see that I’m not perfect, and sometimes I’ll be wrong, but if I’m wrong too much, well, you don’t have to worry about me. I’ll be fired!”

VKF: What I think all of us at UCLA appreciate about Coach Wooden is that he’s very supportive. He would never think to tell any of us how to do our jobs or even to offer advice about how he would do it. But I remember Sept. 11 (2001) was the morning that our team was meeting for the first time that year. And obviously, like everyone else, I was devastated. I didn’t have any idea what to say to them. I called Coach and said, “We’re meeting in an hour. What am I supposed to say to these young people?” All he said was, “Follow your heart, and you’ll know what to say.” On the one hand, I was like, “No! Tell me what to say!” But, you know, that’s good parenting.

JW: You have to keep away from saying what people think you should say or what I think you should say. It isn’t what you think you should say, it’s what you really feel. There’s a difference.

Q: Do you remember what you said to the girls, Val?

VKF: Yes, I do. We sat down and Carly, one of our student-athletes, was just devastated. She said, “Miss Val, this is a real serious thing that happened. How can we go into a gym and flip?” And I said, “Because we can. Because we live in a country that allows it. And allows us as women to do this.”

Q: What principles of Coach Wooden’s have you used in your teaching?

VKF: When I’m contemplating what to do, or when I’m trying to make a decision to go back to my faith — and anyone who knows Coach Wooden knows he has a very strong faith that starts with love and compassion — it always comes back to that very simple, yet powerful, basic. To realize that in this day and age, the more you win, the more pressure you have. It’s easy to turn your mind to listening to what people have to say about winning and letting them down if you haven’t won in a while, and it’s comforting to be able to go back to someone who had the success that Coach Wooden had. And it’s not just success on the court, but success in his heart and in his ability to be able to say, “Yeah, I did a good job.” And that comes from a very strong faith.

Q: Your sports are so different. In basketball, the final score determines the winner. In gymnastics, it’s very subjective.

JW: Well, they all should get a number 10. I was displeased [at the last meet] because there were no 10s.

VKF: He thinks everyone deserves 10s. Horrible judge.

Q: So what changes would you make in your coaching to allow for the differences between the two sports? Are there changes you would make, Coach, if you were coaching Val’s gymnastics team?

VKF: That’s a good question!

JW: I don’t think I would. In basketball, I’m trying to teach each individual to learn to execute the fundamentals of the sport to the best of their ability. That’s my main thing. My biggest job is to get each individual to put that to use for the welfare of the group. I didn’t see this until I started watching Val’s teams. You’ll see how they support each other. It’s really wonderful to watch them. And they’ll do it even if they have perhaps failed to some extent on something. It’s just the same as when they do well. They’re right there with ’em. And I don’t think that comes naturally. I think that has to come from the leader.

Q: Coach, you advised your players to do a lot of things that most coaches today don’t. For instance, putting on your socks and tying your shoes correctly, and keeping your hair short. Is that something you feel you have to do today with your gymnasts, Val?

VKF: Yes. I had an athlete a few years ago, Jeanette Antolin, show up with cornrows. And I felt it had a very harsh look, a look that I didn’t want to project. And she said, “Miss Val, do you like my hair?” And I said, “Not so much. If you like it, that’s OK. But you need to change your hair before Saturday’s meet.” And she said, “Why?” And I said, “Well, because I’m leading the team, and there’s a certain standard that I would like to maintain. And this harshness is not part of that.” She said, “It’s a free country. I can wear my hair any way I want.” And I said, “Let me tell you a little story ...” So I told her about Coach Wooden and Bill Walton. I said, “This is the same thing. You can absolutely wear your hair like that on Saturday. And you’ll be sitting in the stands.” So she changed her hair.


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor)
receives instruction from John Wooden
in 1967

Q: Let's talk about academics. Earlier, you said that the women’s gymnastics team had lost the top GPA title and was determined to get it back.

VKF: Well, what happened was we found out over the summer that women’s tennis had earned the highest team GPA last year. And our team was as feisty about getting it back as it was about winning another national championship.

JW: And that pleased you.

VKF: Very much so. I was chuckling inside, because they were saying, “All right, freshmen, this is how you do it! You have to talk to your professors. You have to meet with your TAs. And this is how you study.” And I found out when we came back in September that one of my athletes, Ashley Peckett, got a C in physics, and she knew it wasn’t the right grade. She had been trying to reach the professor all summer and hadn’t been able to do it. He finally got back to her when the quarter started in September and he apologized. He said, “I gave you the wrong grade. You actually got an A+.” And I didn’t want to tell them because that meant they really did have the highest team GPA again, and I didn’t want to stifle their enthusiasm and competitiveness! But in all fairness, I told them.

JW: Academics are extremely important. I tried to plan the academic program. If you let the students do it for themselves, many of them will take the easy courses, so to speak. And by the time they reach the upper division, they’ve got to take several more difficult courses the same term, and that’s not easy. I don’t know whether Valorie would agree with me on this, but I do believe that in her sport, there’s so much discipline in doing the things they do, her girls are probably a little more disciplined than their peers.

Q: Your former athletes talk about both of you as their coach, their teacher. Do you prefer either of those titles over the other?

JW: They’re both the same. A coach is a teacher. I’ve always considered myself a teacher. Whether I was in an English classroom, where I taught for 11 years, or whether I was on the tennis court, the baseball diamond or the basketball court, I am a teacher.

VKF: The same for me. When people call me Coach, it’s still so foreign to me. And when I’m called “Coach Kondos Field,” I giggle.

Q: Coach, Val has learned so much from you over the years. Is there anything you have learned from Val?

JW: I have already mentioned the love between her and her athletes. It comes out, it just comes out. It’s more than respect, and you can see it. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve watched gymnastics before, but I never looked at it as a team sport until I saw her team. And I think she’s responsible for it.

Q: What kind of things do you do differently from each other?

JW: Valorie mentioned that she would have more group meetings with her girls. I wasn’t much for meetings. I would have one long meeting before the season started, where I’d go over a lot of things, academic mainly, and courtesy and dress and all the other things not pertaining to the actual playing of the game, but which nevertheless I felt were very important to the playing of the game.

VKF: I’m big on meetings because girls like to talk. So when we get together and they get to talk, we clear the air. And there are tears …

JW: I’d do it more individually, not in a group.

VKF: Coach Wooden has got so much more wisdom and experience that when people come up and say, “Oh, you’re the next John Wooden,” it’s so silly to me. Because this is Coach Wooden, OK? I think I speak for all of us at UCLA that we’re very honored to have Coach Wooden in our family. We’re honored that we’re able to meet with him and have discussions like this and consider him our friend. We all learn from each other, and we’ve got him at the helm. And it’s fun because there are still anecdotes that come up every day. Did I tell you about what happened at the meet [on January 22]?

We bought a new floor that was very hard, and our team started grumbling. So I said to them, “You know, life is about adversity. And your character is dependent upon whether you make excuses for yourself or find a way to get things done.” Meanwhile, Coach wasn’t there. I knew he was coming, so I started to get worried. Then I saw him walk in by himself without his daughter. I called my husband over and asked, “Is Coach OK?” And he said, “Yes. His daughter’s flight was delayed, and he wanted to come to the meet, so he got in his car and drove to Pauley Pavilion.”

I called my team over and said, “Remember that little talk we had about adversity and excuses versus making adjustments? The greatest Bruin of all time has just met with adversity, and he had a choice. He could have easily left me a message at home and said, ‘Valorie, I’m sorry, Nan’s flight was delayed. I couldn’t be at the meet.’ But he made the adjustment. He got into his little Ford Taurus and drove himself.” My athletes’ eyes bugged out. And you could tell at that moment, they changed their attitude.