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If you like John Wooden's story, you might also like:
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,
Julius Erving,
Mike Krzyzewski,
Peyton Manning,
Pete Rozelle,
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John Wooden
John Wooden
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John Wooden Interview (page: 2 / 5)

Basketball's Coaching Legend

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  John Wooden

I'd say that my college coach, Piggie Lambert, is one of the most principled persons I've ever known. He had a lot of effect on my life. The head of the English Department at Purdue University, Dr. Creek, took a liking to me and tried to get me to forget sports completely and just concentrate on becoming a college English professor. There was some sort of a scholarship that he could get me for graduate school, but, I wanted to get married and get a job. So, I'd say that my father and mother, I don't want to neglect my mother, and my wife and Piggie Lambert, my college coach at Purdue, probably had more influence on what I became as a teacher. That's all I was: a teacher. That's all I was as a basketball coach, just a teacher.

Are there any classroom teachers that you recall who influenced you in some important way?

John Wooden Interview Photo
John Wooden: Oh, yes. I remember my math teacher in high school, Dr. Roudebush. I remember him very, very well. And Katherine Burton, my Latin teacher, and, Herman Stalker, my science teacher. Various English teachers, Mrs. Phillips and Miss French and many of them I remember very well. Those were high school. They all, I think, affected me in different ways. I remember so many of them, far more than I do my college professors. My favorite teacher was in grade school. He was also the principal, Earl Warriner.

What about books? What books were important to you?

John Wooden: Poetry, the early English poets. I enjoyed the early American poets too, but the Victorian era poets I enjoyed very much, all of them. I enjoyed Dickens and I loved all of Shakespeare. I always loved his plays. In college one year, I had a whole semester of Macbeth and another whole semester of Hamlet. In high school I taught Hamlet and Macbeth and I only had two weeks. Just for pleasure reading, I have all of Zane Grey's western books. I like them. Today, I try to get all of Leo Buscaglia's books. One of my favorite books of all time is Lloyd Douglas's, The Robe. I enjoy reading and I like pretty much all kinds.

I was looking through your bookshelves before you came in and I was struck by the fact that I didn't find one book about basketball.

John Wooden: I've got a lot of books of basketball in the other room, and I've got a lot of biographies. I have biographies of coaches who were in the limelight, but also many of my favorite people. I've liked to study Mahatma Gandhi, and my favorite person in the world today is Mother Teresa. I've got a whole group of Lincoln books. He's my favorite American. And books on Churchill and a lot of different people who have had a certain impact on civilization as a whole.

Where would you rank education in athletics?

John Wooden: There's too much leaning toward the athlete student, in my opinion, rather than the student athlete. One of the things I'm most proud of, in my years at UCLA, is that practically all my players graduated. Most of them did it in four years, when students today are taking five. Most of my players have done well in whatever profession they've chosen. Some 30 of my players became attorneys, some dentists, lawyers, eight ministers, teachers, just in all professions. It doesn't make any difference what the profession has been. Practically all of them have been reasonably successful, and I don't necessarily mean materially, but they've been successful in whatever profession they've chosen. That makes me very proud.

You have written about a high school teacher, Lawrence Schidler, who helped you think about the meaning of success. Can you tell us about that and how you define success?

John Wooden: Lawrence Schidler was my math teacher, and he was very strict, but he made us concentrate. One time, he had us define success in class. I never forgot about that, the different definitions that various students have. After I had graduated Purdue and entered the teaching profession, I became a little bit disillusioned with what parents seemed to expect from their youngsters. If they didn't get an A or a B, in one way or another, maybe subtly, they would make the youngster or the teacher feel that they had failed. They seemed to be very happy if the neighbor's children got Cs, of course, they were average. But for their own! I didn't understand that. I was very young. As I got older and had children of my own, I understand it a little better. But I didn't like that way of judging any more than I like the way they judge athletic coaches and teams.

John Wooden: They use the winning percentage, and that's not an accurate way of judging success. I wanted to come up with something of my own, and I think there were three things embedded into it. One was the discussion in Mr. Schidler's class. Then, my dad's words: "Never trying to better than someone else, learn from others, and never cease trying to be the best you could be." And, always being interested in verse that makes a point, about that time I ran across a little simple one that said:

At God's footstool, to confess,
A poor soul knelt and bowed his head.
"I failed," he cried. The master said,
"Thou didst thy best. That is success."

I think those things, more than anything else, accounted for my own definition. The definition I coined for success is: Peace of mind attained only through self satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you're capable. Now, we're all equal there. We're not all equal as far as intelligence is concerned. We're not equal as far as size. We're not all equal as far as appearance. We do not all have the same opportunities. We're not born in the same environments, but we're all absolutely equal in having the opportunity to make the most of what we have and not comparing or worrying about what others have. I coined that in 1934. Later, I started working on my pyramid. I worked on that for the next 14 years, placing success according to my definition at the apex.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

No conversation with you would be complete without talking about John Wooden's Pyramid of Success. Is it possible to say what the most important building blocks are in that pyramid?

John Wooden: They're all important, but the first two blocks that I chose were the cornerstones. If any structure is to have strength or solidity, it better have a strong foundation. Of course, the cornerstones anchor the foundation. One cornerstone is industriousness and the other one is enthusiasm. I think you have to work hard at whatever you're doing. If you're looking for the shortcut, the trick, the easy way, you can get by, perhaps, for a while, but you won't be strengthening the talents that lie within you. I often use verse to make a point. Grantland Rice wrote a poem called "How To Be A Champion." In part, he said:

You wonder how they do it and you look to see the knack,
You watch the foot in action, or the shoulder or the back,
But when you spot the answer where the higher glamours lurk,
You'll find in moving higher up the laurel covered spire,
That the most of it is practice and the rest of it is work.

And there's another verse or two that say essentially the same thing. There's a lot of truth in that. And then, the other: enthusiasm. If you don't like what you're doing, how in the world can you do the best of which you're capable? You can't reach your own particular level of competency unless you enjoy it, unless you're enthusiastic about it. You may be talented and you may be better than somebody else, but if it's not near your own particular level of competency, you're not really succeeding. Of course, we're all imperfect and there's no such thing as perfection, but it's something to work toward. Those blocks just stand. I never change them.

John Wooden Interview Photo

Through the next 14 years, when I worked on the various blocks, I had a lot of ideas. I discarded some. I put something in their place. I moved the position within the structure some, but I never changed the cornerstones. They still remained constant, and I still believe that they are the cornerstones for success. The foundation, I had three blocks and they include others and had to add strength. Then we work up to the very top, of being competitive greatness. That's the last block. How do you become that? By being industrious and enthusiastic and being conditioned and having the skills and being imbued with consideration for others and so on. So they lead up. These things lead up. Below the top block, I have poise and confidence. How do you gain poise? By being prepared. How do you get prepared? By being industrious, by being enthusiastic ,and so these others. It all leads up, to my way of thinking. Perhaps it wouldn't to somebody else, but it does to me. In trying to use that in helping me become a better teacher, then I can now help those under my supervision be better. In the mid-'30s, about the time I coined my definition and was working on this, I ran across a couple of things that have stayed with me always. One was a verse that said:

No written word, no spoken plea,
Can teach our youth what they should be,
Nor all the books on all the shelves.
It's what the teachers are themselves.

We need that. We need models that are good, positive models. I ran across that. Another thing that I ran across that I've never forgotten was -- a lady was asked, a lady teacher had been teaching for many years and was asked why she taught. She later wrote some things down and she said:
(A poem by Glennice Harmon)
They ask me why I teach
And I reply, "Where could I find more splendid company?"
There sits a statesman,
Strong, unbiased, wise,
Another later Webster
And there a doctor
Whose quick, steady hand
Can mend a bone or stem the lifeblood's flow.
A builder sits beside him --
Upward rise the arches of that church he builds wherein
That minister will speak the word of God,
And lead a stumbling soul to touch the Christ.

And all about
A lesser gathering
Of farmers, merchants, teachers,
Laborers, men
Who work and vote and build
And plan and pray into a great tomorrow.
And, I say,
"I may not see the church,
Or hear the word,
Or eat the food their hands will grow."
And yet -- I may.
And later I may say,
"I knew the lad, and he was strong,
Or weak, or kind, or proud
Or bold or gay.
I knew him once,
But then he was a boy."
They ask my why I teach and I reply,
"Where could I find more splendid company?"

As a teacher, you see that. You see these youngsters grow up. I saw all those in many of my classes. I saw a youngster become an admiral in the Navy. I saw them become doctors and dentists and all different professions. Whether you did really or not, you like to feel, maybe I helped them a little. Maybe I did in a little way. And if some of them failed for some reason, "What could I have done?" You think about that.

John Wooden Interview Photo
Most of us watched UCLA's basketball teams and thought about you as a coach, as a high-powered molder of teams, but you saw yourself as a teacher.

John Wooden: I was just teaching basketball rather than English. It's different in sports. In my English classes, it's mental and, to some degree, emotional. In basketball or sports, it's mental, emotional and physical. In some ways you get closer to them. When I was in the service in World War II, I had a lot of letters from athletes that had played on my basketball or baseball or tennis teams in high school, all optimistic. Some of them never came back, but they were very optimistic, no complaining. I didn't have very many letters from my English students, and I had had a lot more English students than I had athletes. I didn't have that many athletes, but you get closer to them. I love to teach English, but you get closer to those under your supervision in sports, I believe, than you do in just the classroom.

What about all the hours of preparation and practice? That's something a lot of young people today might not be thinking about.

John Wooden: In anything, failure to prepare is preparing to fail. Like one of the points in the seven point creed that my dad gave me was "Make each day your masterpiece." Now you're not going to make great improvement in one day. But if you miss out one day, you've lost a little bit. You've got to build up a little each day. It's little things that eventually become big things and make big things happen. It's building up on the little things, and youngsters must understand that. I believe a little different than many coaches, as a matter of fact. I wanted my players -- and tried to get this across to them -- when you come on the basketball floor each afternoon, for the next approximately two hours, you are a basketball player. That's all. I am looking at you and thinking of you as a basketball player. That is all. As soon as practice is over, you are not a basketball player. You are a student at UCLA. Now you better keep that in mind. You're a student. That's the reason you're here. Basketball may be, in most of your cases, given you a scholarship and it's paying your way, but if you start putting basketball ahead of your academics, you're not going to have either very long. Or you must have, everyone must have, a certain amount of social activity. But if you put social activities ahead of your academics or your basketball, you're not going to have any of them at all before very long. At least you won't have here. So I think that that must be stressed, because it should be the student athlete, not the athlete student.

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