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John Wooden
John Wooden
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John Wooden Interview (page: 3 / 5)

Basketball's Coaching Legend

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  John Wooden

What is it about coaching that's meant so much to you over the years?

John Wooden: The rapport that you have with so many youngsters. Hardly a day goes by that I don't get a call or a letter from someone who was under my supervision in the past, going back to my very first years at UCLA, and going back to when I was at Indiana State, some even going back when I taught in high school. That's the relationships that you have because of the way you're working with them, more than just from the mental aspect, you get closer to them. They become almost like your children. Next to your own flesh and blood, you get very close to them. Their joys are your joys, their sorrows are your sorrows and that goes on forever. It doesn't end when they leave your supervision. That's with you forever. I can name almost all of the basketball players who played for me, even going back in high school, but I can't begin to name all of the English students I had.

It's clear that you see coaching as a responsibility. What is the main responsibility of a coach?

John Wooden: You must set an example. Your players must know that you care for them more than just as athletes. Certainly, they understand that they are there because of their athletic ability, speaking of college. That's why they're there. That's paying their way. But when you have them under your supervision, it's up to you to make sure that they understand that you care for them as individuals. As I mentioned -- his name was Alonzo Stagg -- said, he never had one he didn't love. A lot of them he didn't like, couldn't respect. But he loved them just the same. He also said that you couldn't tell whether you had a successful season until 20 years or so after they've graduated. There's a lot to that, too. If your players come to the belief -- which they won't know when they first come to you, it will be your actions that determine this -- that'll be what will determine this. It won't be from the things you say. That will have some influence, yes, but are you walking it or just talking it? You can't fool these kids. It should be your responsibility to lead them in a way that's going to be beneficial to them all their lives, not just through their athletic days. I really think most coaches do that. I think most do, not all, no. But not all doctors are as ethical as they should be, not all attorneys are as ethical as they should be, not all businessmen are as ethical as they should be, but I believe the vast majority are.

In your first year at Indiana State as coach, you and your team were invited to the National Tournament and you didn't go. Tell us about that.

John Wooden: I had an African American boy on my team. He wasn't a starter. He was probably the twelfth man on a 12-man team. He didn't get to play very much, but he was a member of our team and dressed for every game, was with us for every game. They did not permit black players to play in the National NAIA Tournament at that particular time, so I refused the invitation because of that. Now the next year, since that first year I was at Indiana State, I had 11 freshmen and one sophomore on that team, so I had them all back the next year. No one beat anybody else out. I still had the same 12 players the next year and we were invited, again. We had a better year. We'd had a good year the year before, but that next year we had a really better year. We were invited again and I refused. But through this youngster's parents, and through the NAACP, they felt it would be a good thing, that it might open the doors in a sense. I was persuaded to do that, to take him. He couldn't stay in the hotel with us. He could eat in the hotel if we ate in a private room. He couldn't eat in the dining room. So we had our meals in a private room and he stayed with a black minister and his wife in Kansas City. He would sit with us in the game and we had no problems. He was accepted. There were no problems at all. But he was the only one; he was the first one. But I know in driving from Terre Haute to St. Louis, we stopped some places in Illinois maybe to eat, they won't let him in. So I would leave. "You take us all or you don't take any." Then we'd go someplace else and get some things and take out. It's good that times have changed. I'm proud of the fact that, I think in some ways maybe I helped bring about some changes. There's way too much prejudice in this world, not just in race, religion and other ways. Anything anyone can do to help it, even if it's just a little, that's good. Because there are a lot of us, and if everyone would help just a little, that could be a whole lot. It's like we are many, but are we much? We're not much until we all contribute to some degree.

John Wooden Interview Photo
Indiana, when you were growing up, was the home of the Ku Klux Klan.

John Wooden: That's correct.

How do you explain that decision that you made?

John Wooden: I think that's one of the things my dad tried to teach us: You're as good as anybody, but you're no better than anybody. Don't expect privileges at all, in any way. I think, maybe from that, we saw no color. As an athlete in college, there were hardly any black athletes that I played against. The same thing in high school. My first years of teaching in high school, I had no black athletes, but later on a lot of them. It was just my upbringing that you never looked down on anyone for any reason at all, and certainly not race or religion.

In general, how have you dealt with difficult decisions, whether they had to do with athletes on your teams or your personal life?

John Wooden: It's my own conscience that would guide me on things. I make many mistakes of judgment that I have done, but I hope I don't make mistakes of the heart. I always felt in teaching, one of the most difficult things I had to do was cutting the squad. You have a lot of players come out, they all want to play and you can only take so many, you can't take them all. That's hard. Sometimes maybe you have 15 players you keep to work with, but when you travel you can only take 12. You have to leave three at home. That's hard, particularly the first when you decide who the 12 of the 15 are going to be. Those were difficult things. At the end of the year, when you give awards, some don't qualify. That's hard. Those are the things I tried to do that I think was right. I've always said that when coaches were complaining about pressure, I don't buy that at all. I don't buy that at all. Do you think a salesman doesn't have pressure? Do you think a barber doesn't have pressure? He doesn't cut all the hair in town. The butcher doesn't sell all the meat in town. A salesman, if you don't do a good job, they'll put somebody else in your spot. How about a surgeon performing delicate surgery? Oh my goodness, there's far more pressure than the coach is going to have. And the only pressure that amounts to a hill of beans is the pressure one puts on one's self, and you better put pressure on yourself. If you're not putting pressure on yourself, you're cheating. You're cheating yourself, you're cheating those under whose supervision you are, you're cheating others. But if you are affected by outside pressures, that's a weakness. As a coach, if you let the media affect you, if you let the alumni affect you, if you let the parents affect you, they're going to keep you from doing what you think is proper and right and correct. You should know better than they. This is your profession. You're working at it every day. You see these players every day. You see them together. You should know more about it. If you let the fact that others don't think you do bother you, you can't go and cut meat like the butcher can. You can't cut hair like the barber can and so on down the line. So don't worry what others think about. Somehow I was brought up to not let those things bother me, outside pressures. I never worried about a job. I think I can get a job and I think I can get the job I want, but I'll get a job. I'll feed the family. That's the important thing, to take care of my family. I think you can do that. So I never worried about a job and I think that probably because I didn't let outside pressures unduly affect me. I'm not saying you don't feel them. You don't like to be criticized. No one likes to be criticized. I didn't like to be criticized, but at the same time, you've got to accept it and do what you think is right and not let outside criticism sway you. At the same time, don't be stubborn. You can be wrong, you know. We're all imperfect.

When you came to UCLA, you wanted to quit after two years. What persuaded you to stay?

John Wooden: I didn't want to quit. I wanted to leave. Let me put it that way. I had been led to believe by those under whose supervision I was -- shown plans for a new building, a place on campus -- when my three years was up, that we'd have a nice place to play on campus. Well at the end of two years, nothing had been done and I could see that it's not forthcoming. The conditions in which we had our practices and played our games in comparison of what I'd had, they didn't compare with what we had in high school back in Indiana. We were practicing on the third floor of an old gymnasium with gymnasts practicing on one side and Briggs Hunt and his wrestlers down below. I loved the coaches, both of them. We became very close, I think, because we shared adversity and that brings you closer. Sometimes trampolines on the other side of the floor, and sometimes beautiful young co-eds would be up there in leotards jumping on those and you're trying to get your team's attention. I wouldn't notice them, but my players would. After my first two or three years, as you know, we played games in Venice High School and Santa Monica City College, Long Beach City College, Long Beach Auditorium, Pan Pacific, all over. We played home games in as many nine different places.

John Wooden Interview Photo
Purdue came up with a very fine offer -- a lot more money and better conditions in every way, and I was tempted. But when I first came, UCLA only wanted to give me a two-year contract and I had insisted on a three-year contract. When Purdue contacted Mr. Ackerman and Mr. Johns, Director of Athletics and Graduate Manager of Athletics about contacting me, they gave permission and told them it was fine. They told me that they had given permission, but they reminded me that I had insisted on a three-year contract and they intended to honor their part and they thought I would, too. I guess they had learned enough about me in the first two years that they probably had me there. So I decided that I would stay. Following that, I always had a one-year contract. The one-year contract always had the option for me to renew for one more year. It was a one year contract, but it was really a two-year in a sense. It was a continuing option every year from that time on. I never had more than a one-year contract with an option for my last 24 years. After three years, we were more settled, more acclimated.

John Wooden: Remember, I came from the farm, the country, and Los Angeles was frightening to me, definitely frightening. I'd say from the beginning, Nellie, my dear wife wasn't the happiest she could be. Neither were my children at the very beginning, but after three years my children were pretty well settled. They didn't want to leave their new friends, and we were more acclimated to Los Angeles and always loved UCLA. It was nothing against UCLA. It was just the fact that the facilities with which we had to work with and the conditions under which we played and practiced that way. You may or may not have heard this, but for my first 17 years in that old gym, I with my managers swept and mopped that floor every day before practice. Every day I had the buildings-and-grounds people build me two six foot-wide brooms and six foot-wide mops. And, we'd first sweep it to get the dust off from the activity in there during the day, and then dampen these mops, and I took the easy job, I must say. And I didn't want managers doing things I wouldn't do myself, but I'd take the easy job and take a bucket and go along in front of them just like I was feeding the chickens to get it a little damp. I did that for 17 years. A lot of people don't know that. When these coaches today start complaining about things, I say, ugh! With all the things they have today! When we got Pauley Pavilion, I just felt, gee, this is tremendous, really tremendous, and it was. But, yes, I would have left had I only taken the two-year contract as they wanted me to when I came. But when I did take a three year... I've always been against the people who fail to honor contracts. I'd even go farther than that and say word of mouth was good enough. To me, that's a contract if you make it. Now today, I don't think even the written contract, many don't think too much of even that.

John Wooden Interview Photo
Before 1964, you came close to winning the national championship, but in '64 it finally happened. What do you remember most about that year or that championship game?

John Wooden: The handwriting on the wall came in '63. In '62, we went to the Final Four. It surprised me we could get to the Final Four under the conditions in which we were working, because they were still the same. That sort of changed my attitude. In '63, I decided to stick with something that had been very successful for me at Indiana State and high school. That was a pressing defense. I had tried it through the '50s at UCLA and I gave up on it. I gave up on it too soon, and I shouldn't have. But in '63, I looked at the personnel that I had and said I'm going to stick with it this year and I'll find out. And we improved regularly. I had all the starters back for '64.

John Wooden Interview Photo
Pete Blackman, who had played for me in '62 was now in the Navy, and we used to write things back and forth in poetic form. I wrote him one thing in '63 and I closed it with a verse that ends, "We could be champs in '64." Well, in '64, we went undefeated. I had the same personnel. I had the greatest person to play the number five position in the zone press that I've seen play. That's Keith Erickson, a great competitor who had all the physical qualifications and, as some say, the guts of a burglar. He was just what you need for that. I had a great number one person, a left hander. It's ideal to have a left hander in that number one position. I had the personnel to make this go, and we did go undefeated in '64. It's unusual that we would go undefeated, but we had already come close in the end of '63. We got beaten in the regional tournament by a team that was just red hot and they just did everything. That happens once in a while, and it could have happened in some of the years we won it all. Fortunately it didn't, but it could have. I stuck with it in '63 and then, in '64, everything just came together. I lost three starters in '64 but I still had the two key ones in for the defense. I'd lost Hazzard, my best ball-handling guard, but I had the key pressing players, the number one, Goodrich, and the number five, Erickson. I had them back in '65.

John Wooden: In '65 we went back to Illinois and played the first game of the season and they thrashed us good. We'd just come off of 30 straight and they thrashed us good. It was probably an awakening to some of the players. We lost only one other game the rest of that season, and repeated as the champions. The other game we lost was also to a Big Ten team, Iowa. But I had Erickson hurt in that game, and we were not the same team without Erickson at all. But I was very, very proud of that '65 team, just as proud as the '64. But I was very proud of my '48, '49 team. They weren't supposed to do anything. They were supposed to finish last. We won the conference, won 22 games. No National Championship team gave me any more pleasure than that very first team I had at UCLA.

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