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

Basketball's Coaching Legend

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  John Wooden

Do you think there's such a thing as destiny? I mean, do you think you were destined for achieving the success that you achieved in your chosen profession?

John Wooden Interview Photo
John Wooden: No. I don't think I was destined at all. I'm a fatalist to some degree. I would say that, but I don't think It was destined. I don't know. I went to Purdue to become a civil engineer. That's why I went there. I did not know at the time that you had to go to summer school every summer to get your degree in civil engineering. I found out at the end of my freshman year that I'm going to have to go to civil camp every summer. I can't do that. I didn't get paid and I had to work in the summertime. Was that destiny? Nah. It was just something that high school counseling hadn't made me aware of. Had I been aware of that, I wouldn't have gone to Purdue. I'm sure of that. I would have probably gone to Indiana University, which is only 70 miles from my high school, so I could be close to Nellie. I wanted to be a civil engineer, but I couldn't do it. So don't complain. Don't howl. As dad said, "Don't complain about the things over which you have no control. Make the most of what you have." So I changed to liberal arts and eventually became an English teacher. I don't think it's destiny. I don't think I was destined to be a teacher, no. It just turned out that way, but I don't think it was destiny.

What about the role of chance, of luck, in a person's life? For example, you had an appendectomy in World War II which prevented an assignment that could have cost your life.

John Wooden: That's right.

There was a snowstorm and Minnesota couldn't call you and UCLA did.

John Wooden: That's right.

What about chance? What about luck?

John Wooden Interview Photo
John Wooden: There's a certain amount of chance in everything, yes. I think there's such a thing as being in the right place at the right time, but I don't think that's destiny. I think it is just chance. Another time, I had to cancel a flight on a plane from Atlanta to Raleigh, North Carolina that crashed and everybody was killed. I had a ticket on that plane and had to cancel it and go the next day. The next day I flew over the crash site in the same type of plane that had crashed the day before. Is that destiny? No, that's not destiny, but chance perhaps, perhaps luck. There is a certain amount of luck that comes in life itself, in sports and in all professions.

If you could say one thing to America's young people today, what would you say?

John Wooden: If they would buy it, what would be most helpful is what Dad said, "Don't compare. Don't try to be better than someone else. But whatever you're doing, try to be the best you can be. Take advantage of every day. Make each day your masterpiece." That would be one of the things that I could say. There are other things that are extremely important. They must have faith. They must believe. They must not complain. Individually, don't compare, just try to make the most of what you have under the conditions that exist for you and try to improve those conditions. No one can do more than that.

If you were to read one book to your grandchildren, what would that book be?

John Wooden Interview Photo
John Wooden: It would depend on the age of these grandchildren. I have seven grandchildren and nine great grandchildren now. My seven grandchildren are all grown. The Bible is the one, by all means, the most important and the greatest of all. There's no place in it that you can't learn something. If everybody would read it and study it a little bit every day. There's no other book that can compare with that. There are a lot of good books, but, there's none that would compare with the Good Book.

This is not an easy question, but what does the American Dream mean to you?

John Wooden: I get a lot of requests from parents who are having their first child and would like for me to send them a pyramid and make some inscription on it, maybe some verse from the scriptures. Almost invariably, I will say, "Best wishes, and I hope you'll grow up into a world where there will be enduring peace between all nations and true brotherly love among all people." First Corinthians, 13.

You were recognized as a player with great inner drive, great desire. Where do you think that came from?

John Wooden Interview Photo
John Wooden: Probably from my upbringing on the farm and learning that chores must be done first, but there should always be time for play. That was Dad, again. That and seeing us lose the farm, through no fault of my father's. Seeing these things happen and learning from him to try to do the best you can do and don't worry about how somebody else does. That carried over in all my teaching. I tried to teach that in English class. Don't worry about this person's going to get an A or something. Do the best you can do.

In my coaching, I probably scouted other teams less than any other college coach in the country. Why? I want to concentrate on my own and try to prepare them for each eventuality. Be more concerned about your own team than the other team. I say, "Go get the ball." I want to get the ball. Now, that doesn't mean I'm not going to try to get in the path of somebody else. Go get it. That will keep him from getting it.

What is the importance of character to one's success in life, the idea that you don't quit?

John Wooden: One of the points in my pyramid is intentness. Now, intentness could be determination. It could be persistence. It could be perseverance. It's carrying on.

John Wooden: I've been asked, "Do athletics build character?" And my answer has been consistent. "It can, and it can tear it down. It can do either one. It depends on the leadership." I believe that to be true. I say that, in athletics, (given) equal ability, the one with the better character will emerge on top. By having better character, you accept things better. You work harder. You don't worry so much about the other fellow. You do your best. I say, "Let's have character, not be a character." I think character gives you more peace. And if you have more peace with yourself, you're going to function better. In a way, not probably connected exactly with this but some other things, when Socrates was falsely imprisoned, facing imminent and unjust death, he was at ease. There was such tranquility about him that his jailers who were mean, mean, maybe the meanest people of the day. They couldn't understand. They said, "Why aren't you preparing for death?" Socrates answer was, simply, "I've been preparing for death all my life by the life I've led." If you have character, you're at peace, at ease with yourself. Therefore, you're going to have poise and you're going to function near your particular level of competency.

What is the one bit of advice you wish you had been given when you started your career?

John Wooden Interview Photo
John Wooden: I think I was fortunate and blessed from my very earliest days, by Dad and by Nellie, my high school sweetheart, later my wife of over 53 years. I was associated with people who were of immense help to me. I'm far from perfect, but I was blessed to a degree that many others never had. Take so many of our youngsters today in the inner city, from broken homes; they miss so much. I was lucky. And, I'm glad that things...Well, I don't know. Dad also developed the idea within me and my brothers that we don't look back. Look forward. You're not going to change anything. Learn from the past, but you're not going to change it. Nothing will change it. The future is yet to be. And, can you effect the future? Yes. How? By what you do every single day. Either consciously or subconsciously Dad, more than anyone else, brought that about.
"I've shut the door on yesterday, thrown the key away.
Tomorrow holds no fears for me, for I have found today."
I always liked that.

Is it possible to describe the emotion you are feeling the night of a championship game when you walk out onto that floor and it's all on the line and you feel you've done everything you can do, and here it is?

John Wooden: It's the road to getting there is the very important part. The end in some ways, it's exhilarating in some ways, it's a let-down. It's the getting there. I think Robert Louis Stevenson said, "It's better to travel hopefully than to arrive." Once you arrive, the journey is over in a sense. It's the journey that's the important thing. Yes. The fact that it is an accomplishment for which you've been working gives you a feeling, maybe the best feeling from a coaching point of view, when you just see the thrill it is giving the youngsters under your supervision. My teams got to the National Championship ten times, the National Championship game, and we happened to win every one of those that we got there. Before the end of each game... none of them were determined in the last seconds. We had them won within the last minute or so. And there would be a time-out. There was in every one. Each time, I told my players, "Now I'm very proud of you. You've had a great achievement. But now, when this is over, don't make a fool out of yourself. Let our alumni do that. Feel good. Cut the nets down if you want to, but don't get carried away. This is something for us to enjoy for the moment, and let's not get carried away. But it's been a great accomplishment and I'm very proud of you."

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

John Wooden Interview Photo

Did you ever go into a game feeling you had to win it?

John Wooden: I can't really say that I can single out any games that gave me the greatest satisfaction. There are a lot that did, and not all of them were National Championship games. People feel that when we lost at Notre Dame after we'd won 88 consecutive games, that must have been a tremendous let-down, and it wasn't at all. We broke the record. The old record was 60 in a row. We broke the record of 61 at Notre Dame. Had we lost that game that would have broken the record, that would have been a let-down. People say, "How about losing that game in the Astro Dome? For the largest crowd to ever see a game and for the largest televised audience, they say, to ever see a sporting event at that time. That must have been devastating." And I say, "No. It was a non-conference game." We had to win the conference to get in the tournament in those years. We were playing with Alcindor definitely, definitely not himself at all. So that was disappointing, just like any other game would be disappointing to lose. Every game you lose is disappointing, but nothing like losing a conference game that would keep you out of getting into the tournament. Now how about the North Carolina State game in '74? Yes, that was a devastating loss. Part of it because we twice had the lead and we lost it. We had an 11-point lead in the middle of the second half and got tied. We had a seven-point lead in the first overtime and lost. Yes. That's devastating, because we let it get away from us. I don't want to take anything away from North Carolina State. They took advantage, and that's to their credit, but we let it get away.

John Wooden Interview Photo
Do you think there's anything you could have done differently in that game to have avoided that?

John Wooden: I should have called a time-out before I did. We used the same thing we'd been using for years and it seemed to work pretty well. It didn't work in that game. How about the loss at Notre Dame? That wasn't devastating at all, but Notre Dame scored the last twelve points against us. No one ever scored twelve consecutive points against us, and they did, the last twelve points of the game. That's bad when that happens, but not devastating because it's a non-conference game. We had already broken the record by 27 games. A lot of our alumni weren't happy. They wanted 100 in a row, not 80. They weren't happy with 88. They were extremely happy at 61 when we broke the old record. Then, if we had got 100, they'd want more.

What about the pressures that come to bear on someone in your position: recruiting, the alumni, filling the arena, winning?

John Wooden: Just do the best you can. Don't worry. I think the pressure -- you'd better put pressure on yourself and do a good job. And if you put pressure on yourself to do a good job, you'll do a good job. Nobody can do more than that. If you're affected by those alumni and those outside pressures or what not, if you're worried about your job for any other reason, you have reason to. But I can say honestly, and I'm very sincere about it, the pressure didn't bother me. The pressure didn't bother me. It gets to be like Richard Washington, who hit that shot to win the Louisville game. Someone said, "How in the world did you have what you set up to get Washington that shot?" And I said, "He's the wonder shooter." I said, "First of all, he's a pretty good shooter." I said, "Second, Richard's loose as a goose. And if he misses? To him, you can't make them all." But he didn't expect to miss, because he's a good shooter. He expected to make that shot. Now if I had let somebody else shoot that shot, they'd feel they have to make it. If you feel you have to do it, that, I think, hurts your chances of doing it. It's kind of like character and reputation. Your character is what you are, and you're the only one that truly knows that. Your reputation is what others perceive it to be, and they can be wrong. So which is the most important? What you really are. It doesn't make any difference what others might think. You'd like for them to think well of you, but it really doesn't make any difference. You'd just like for them to. But boy, it's very important what you think about yourself. That's very important. That's probably the most important thing there is.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Thank you for speaking with us today. It's been a privilege.

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This page last revised on Mar 03, 2010 12:33 EDT
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