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If you like John Wooden's story, you might also like:
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,
Julius Erving,
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John Wooden
John Wooden
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John Wooden Interview (page: 4 / 5)

Basketball's Coaching Legend

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  John Wooden

Those weren't big teams, those '64, '65 teams.

John Wooden Interview Photo
John Wooden: No. Height-wise, they were probably the shortest teams to ever win and, I suspect now, probably the shortest teams that ever will win. But size isn't always the answer. I think it was proven by those two teams. They came together real well. The players accepted their roles. I think coaches today are having a little more trouble getting players to accept their roles. That makes it a little more difficult, but those did. As a unit, they were strong. Maybe there were some other teams that might have been individually better, but as a unit, these were two very strong teams.

When you won that first title, did you ever imagine you'd win nine more?

John Wooden: No. I don't think anyone could have imagined that. After '62 I thought maybe we have a chance. But I think the most amazing of all our championships were the first two. With no home court, in a sense, and the practice conditions! We had only two baskets and a lot of conflicts and no private dressing rooms, no private shower rooms, just one big thing for all sports. If you can do it with that, when you've got Pauley Pavilion, my goodness, it ought to be easy now. Of course, players like Alcindor made it a little easier, too.

You've often said that you didn't want your teams to have peaks or valleys, that you didn't believe in getting them emotionally charged even for big games.

John Wooden Interview Photo
John Wooden: No, I never believed that. Let's say I were coaching football. If there were certain defensive people that I'd want really charged up, I might try to charge them. But, I don't think I would ever do that with my touch positions, and basketball is a touch game, for the most part -- from an offensive point of view, certainly. I think for every peak there is a valley. if you try to get them emotionally high, I don't think it's lasting. It's like warming up prior to a game. I want my players to understand we're out there for a purpose. It's to get loosened up, get warmed up, get accustomed to the background behind the baskets you're shooting and get loosened up to play. I think for years I was wrong. I'd try to loosen up players all exactly the same. Now, an Alcindor doesn't need to be loosened up the same way that a Mike Warren does. Yet I was doing that. For a long time, our pre-game meal would be exactly the same for everyone in practically the same amounts. Gracious sakes how wrong I was. I learned finally if this extra wants some pancakes, for him that's all right. But for another one to have pancakes, oh no, that would be wrong. One kid could have a bowl of chili and a glass of milk, and I'd think that was horrible. Yet I had a player that did that and he never tired. It depends a little bit on your background and what you're accustomed to. For a long time I didn't understand that. Apparently, I was a slow learner.

Your players accepted their roles. They had no choice. You insisted on discipline. What is the role of discipline in your success?

John Wooden: I say a coach has the greatest ally in the world if he isn't afraid to use it, and that's the bench. Put him on the bench. They all love to play. I hear comments like "Well, he didn't want to play." I think they all want to play. I don't care how good he is if he isn't producing, it's just potential, and potential doesn't produce. It isn't much good. No better than someone else that doesn't have that potential. So I think that putting him on the bench, you have that ally.

John Wooden: I tried to explain to my players that every person has a role and every role is important. You may not hardly get in the game, but your role is helping develop these players that are going to play more, and that's extremely important. And I like to use that with them. Sort of keep this in mind: "I will get ready and then perhaps my chance will come." Now if you're not ready and your chance comes, when is it going to come again? It might not come again at all. So always think in terms, I will get ready and then perhaps my chance will come. Fill your role. Is a powerful engine in an automobile any more important than a wheel? What can you do if you lose a wheel? What good's that engine if you lose a wheel? What good is that wheel if you lose a nut that holds it on? You don't have it. So you may be just a nut, you may be just a wheel, and you may be a powerful engine. If you're not all together on the same page, we're not going to accomplish what we're capable of accomplishing. I don't say it's easy to get them to accept their roles, but you've got to -- in practices, for example -- you've got to pay attention to the players that aren't getting to play very much. The players that are getting to play a lot get praised in the papers. They've got the alumni patting them on the back and all that. These others, they're not getting that. You have to give it in practice. That's why in some ways, I think I became a little closer with some of my players that didn't get to play very much than I did with some of my stars. They must know that you care for them. Just because they're not getting to play that much, you still care for them just as much as the one that's playing more.

You've talked a lot about self control. You were known to have things to say to opposing players and coaches and officials. Did you have to bring yourself under control as a coach?

John Wooden Interview Photo
John Wooden: Oh, of course you have to keep your emotions under control. In my talking to officials, no official or opposing player ever heard me use profanity. They would never hear me call them bad names in that sense. I badgered officials, but maybe it was "Call them the same at both ends," or "What's the traveling?" or giving some protection and things of that sort. To opposing players I might say, "Do you ever let so-and-so shoot?" But never would I call them a name or anything of that sort. These other things, the other side was very guilty of. I think, in 40 years of coaching, I had two technicals called on me.

You coached during the counterculture era of the '60s and '70s. And you've had some pretty strong-willed players, even before then: Jerry Norman and Bill Walton. How did you handle those times and those kinds of players?

John Wooden: You made an interesting statement there, in one word. You said, "How to handle those players." I can tell you a little story that's always sort of meaningful to me.

John Wooden: When Wilt Chamberlain came to the Lakers, I was invited to the press conference announcing this. In the press conference, one member of the press asked Wilt, "Do you think that Bill van Breda Kolff can handle you?" Bill van Breda Kolff was the coach of the Lakers at the time. And Wilt said, "No one handles me. I am a person, not a thing. You handle things. You work with people. I think I can work with anyone." Just prior to this, my coaching book, Practical Modern Basketball, had been published, and I had a section in this book entitled, "Handling Your Players." I left this meeting, came home and took my book and marked out, crossed out, "handling your players," put "working with your players." And any place that I had alluded to handling your players, I changed. I called the publisher and wanted that correction made for any future editions.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

You have to work with them. I think in any business, those under your supervision must be made to feel they're working with you, not for you. Otherwise, they'll just punch the clock in and out and that's it. I think with players, you have to have certain standards. You have to back them up. If you have a rule, back it up. Don't put a rule in that you're not going to back up. When you have it in there, back it up, but if someone fails in some way, don't keep after them the next day. Dismiss them maybe from practice that day. But the next day, don't say, "Don't do that again." Take care of it when it happens, just as when your youngsters misbehave, take care of it then. You don't have to keep bringing it up. Now, if it occurs over and over and the methods you used didn't correct it, then you'll have to change your method. I'll give you a good example. This happened the year after Alcindor graduated.

I had two players from the preceding year that are going to be very, very fine players this year. They came to practice or to that picture day, and they had been growing mutton chops from the end of the preceding year until now, and this is a few months now. I knew they were doing this and I also knew they were kids and I knew that they were going to test me. I know that's coming. So when they came to draw their uniforms, I'll put them in them the day before practice started. I had them put on the game uniforms to get pictures and everything. They came to draw their uniforms and they hadn't taken care of themselves. I'm there with my managers because I want to anticipate any problems. And I say, "No uniforms." One of them said, "Why not?" I said, "You know why. I'm not going to explain it again to you. You have about 15 minutes to determine whether you're going to play this year or not. You have 15 minutes to get up and see Ducky Drake, our trainer, in our training room, and let him get busy with his razor and clippers and get you in shape." He said, "You don't have that big guy (Alcindor) this year." And I said, "No. Fourteen minutes and I'm not going to have either one of you two if you don't get up there. Now make up your minds, now." Well, they stared at me. They turned and ran up. They got fixed up. They were testing me. I know they were testing me. After the day is over, they hung around. They kept hanging around 'til everybody's gone. I'm usually the last out, along with the managers, last to leave, to see everything is put away and everything. One of them said, "Can we talk to you, coach?" I said, "Sure." And he said, "We're sorry." I said, "That's okay." I said, "When I was your age, I tested people too. But now, let's have a great year." "You bet we will," he said. "We can win without that big guy." And then they ran away happy. They're not mad. They'd have lost all respect, they'd have been disappointed, I'm sure, if I had given in to them, rather than disappointed because they didn't. What would that have done with the rest of my team too, if I had given in to them?

John Wooden Interview Photo
I always have a meeting with my players about the first of October, two weeks before practice starts, when I go over all these things about their conduct and their courtesy to people and managers. The managers are not their servants. They're there to help and I don't want them picking up your towels and tape and gum wrappers and orange peels and things. You pick them up yourself. Some of them will forget in time. I know that. I'll pick up when I see that's somebody's forgotten. But if somebody forgets daily, you're going to be in trouble. So I go over all these things and about their hair and mustaches, which I didn't permit, and long sideburns and so on. They all knew this in advance, and a kid knew feelings about those things when I recruited him. I'm asked today, "How about these youngsters that are coming in now with earrings and maybe tattoos?" I said, "Well, I wouldn't have had them because they'd know before they came that I won't have it." They say, "We can't do that." Yes, you can. There's always somebody else. No one's indispensable, not even you.

Do you always pay a great deal of attention to detail, to the small things?

John Wooden: I think very definitely it's the little things that make the big things happen. It's putting your shoes on properly. It's getting the wrinkles out of your socks so you won't get blisters. Those are important things. It's making sure that no soap is left on the shower room floor where someone -- maybe not you, but somebody else -- might slip and fall and hurt themselves. Just little things like that. They may seem inconsequential, but I think they're important. I think teaching your youngsters to be courteous to airline stewardesses, courteous to waitresses, courteous to all people in hotels, I think makes you a better team. I think that helps your basketball. I think that makes you a better basketball player. I think it brings you together more. I think it makes you more considerate of others. Team spirit is just being considerate of others, in my opinion.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

John Wooden Interview Photo
I believe those little things helped us, and I also believe in the discipline. But remember, you're imperfect, and when you see that you're wrong, don't be too proud to change. Admit it, and all those working with you are going to do better.

How many coaches today are teaching their players how to put their socks on?

John Wooden: I can't answer that. I don't know if any are. But I learned that as a high school coach. You're more susceptible to blisters. I also noticed that most college players, high school players too, wear shoes that are too large. Basketball is game of quick movement: stop, start, turn, change of direction, change of pace. If there's that much sliding to the end of the toe, you're going to get some blisters. So I decided what size shoe you're going to wear. I want your toe right at the end of the shoe so that when you stop, there's not going to be any sliding back and forth. I think that's important. When we have our youngsters, you know, we buy shoes for them. You used to say, "We'll get them a thumbnail longer." Kids never get to wear shoes that fit. By the time their foot grows into that shoe, it's worn out, so you get them new shoes a thumbnail too long. I think that's the custom of always wearing them a size too large. Almost every player I had, I'd put at least one size smaller than they were accustomed to wearing.

John Wooden: Never criticize your teammate. Never. That's unpardonable. That's my job. I'm paid for it. Pitifully poorly, I would tell them, but I'm paid for it. Don't you do it. And no word of profanity or you're off the floor for the day. No excuse for that. No excuse for that. Now that, in turn to me, will help them maintain self control. The maintaining of self control is going to make them a better basketball player. It's more than just the use of profanity, although I don't want it at all. So I think those are little things that I think help bring big things about.

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